I’ll begin today with a confession: I thought we’d lose this game.
I felt maybe last weekend was the start of one of those bad runs the manager tells us will happen. We were average against Bristol Rovers and I wondered if still have Max and Callum out, as well as Adam Jackson missing, might cause us to stumble at Fleetwood, who were on a high after hammering Hull.
On Matchday Live I enthused about the home side’s squad, their potent threat going forward and their style of play, whilst secretly being concerned at our ability to bounce back. Last season, after losing at Wycombe and missing out on the chance to go top, we crumbled. I know there were other circumstances there too, but in my mind, I still feel we have no right to be in the top six and eventually, we’ll get found out. I know, shoot me for being more pessimistic than a certain Mr Pearson, but that’s how I feel.
Maybe, Michael Appleton’s Aspiration Squad are turning the tide of Gary Hutchinson’s Pessimist Persona.
Make no mistake about it, yesterday’s game was our best performance of the season, bar none. Better than Mansfield, better than Bradford, better than any of our home fixtures. It came against yet another side I thought would be top six this season (Blackpool, Charlton and Oxford all tough fixtures) and yet we controlled the pace of the game, outwitting some very experienced players at the same time. I suspect that as he sits down to his Frosties this morning wearing his Teddy Ruxpin pyjamas, Joseph Barton will be more than happy to have come away with a point.
The Imps line up gave us plenty of interest pre-match. My first feeling, and the right one, was that we’d line up 4-3-3, with Grant in the middle and Johnson on the left. The more I looked at the players, the more I was convinced we’d be in a 4-4-1-1, with Grant and Anderson wide and Johnson behind Hopper. What that demonstrates is the versatility within the squad; even with a first XI named and in front of us, we don’t know how the lads will line up. That is a big advantage for the Imps, because if we don’t know, fans who watch every game and study the side, how on earth do the opposition know how we’re going to approach the game? Then, halfway through the game, Harry Anderson takes up a place on the left-wing and Johnson on the right, further bamboozling Fleetwood. I keep using words like ‘fluid’ and ‘organic’ when talking about our approach, and that covers everything from our style of play to how we line up tactically. It keeps everyone on their toes, not least a ‘pundit’ who has to formulate an opinion on the team within seconds of seeing it. if in doubt, make three claims and then when one is right, forget the others. After all, isn’t that what these ex-agents do on Twitter?
The first five minutes or so had me a bit worried. Fleetwood looked like a side packed with dangermen. I know Harvey Saunders is the man of the moment, but I would have been more fearful had they started with Josh Morris and Barrie McKay over Madden and Saunders. After a couple of slightly worrying moments where Evans got in between Montsma and Walsh, we settled down and got into our flow.
Oh boy, what a flow it is. I think the game was made even more exciting by Mark Hone purring his way through it, throwing superlative after superlative at the side. Genuinely, you would have thought the stand-in pundit was watching Barcelona, such was his admiration for our play, and in fairness, maybe we don’t see it. I think it is like when you see a picture of you and your partner form ten years ago; you go ‘wow, how much have we changed?’, but day to day, you don’t notice that change. When Mark commented on how different this side played compared to Danny’s teams, that struck home. Here is an expert who hasn’t seen us for ages, watching with fresh eyes and he sees the development more acutely than fans who watch every game.
One of the defining moments of the game came on eight minutes and seemed topical after Jordan Pickford’s horror-challenge on Van Dijk earlier in the day (yes, Premier League references. Come on, it’s been bigger in the new than bloody Brexit and Covid today). Alex Palmer rushed out of his goal and seemingly took out Harvey Saunders. It was a big call for Anthony Backhouse, but he isn’t a referee who usually makes the big calls. Palmer seemed to have got away with a challenge, not unlike Schumacher’s collision with Battiston in the 1982 World Cup. Looking back, the incident wasn’t as bad as it looked in real-time and although some referees would have given it, Palmer’s challenge wasn’t intentional, nor as severe as the other two mentioned here.
On 15 minutes the game turned in our favour and I think it is fair to say it stayed that way for the whole half. Harry’s cross-cum-shot should really have been turned in by Tom Hopper, who was agonizingly close to tapping home, but it wasn’t to be. We raided dow the right with an impressive looking Harry, we marauded down the left with the (at times) sensational pace of Brennan Johnson, but we could quite find the clear-cut chance or the killer ball. Harry stung the keeper’s glove with an effort that was more dangerous than it looked, whilst James Jones had an acrobatic volley fly over the bar. Fleetwood played their part, they weren’t woeful like Mansfield were, but they often had to let us play our game; this is what I’ve wanted to see. It is the first time in the league I felt we have gone to a game and played our game, more or less from start to finish, and we were all the better for it. Maybe the tweak helped too; Grant playing in the centre of midfield helped with our creativity as he was able to play balls left and right as he wanted. He had a superb game by the way, but when are we not talking about how good he is these days?
I think the indication of City’s dominance came just before halftime when Sam Stubbs came off for Charlie Mulgrew. It was a big call to hook a player on 38 minutes, but it reflected how dangerous we were looking going into the final period of the half. Only one team looked likely to score at that point, and that was us (in case you were wondering). Even a Lewis Montsma run just before half time had me off my seat, the central defender going on a Maradona-esque dribble before just losing out.
If I were Mr Pessimism at 3 pm, just like Mr Hyde’s Dr Jekyll, my optimistic side had surfaced by the blow of Backhouse’s whistle.