No VAR, No Problem: Accrington Stanley 0-0 Imps

Credit Graham Burrell

Michael made a big call at half time, bringing off Harry Anderson, arguably one of the better players over the last few months, with Brennan Johnson coming on after his debut for Wales last week. I did wonder if Brennan’s fitness might have been in question, had he got a knock whilst on international duty? Maybe, maybe not, but he certainly added something to our approach in the second half, which was remarkable for two moments, both of which put the referee centre stage. In the end, neither changed the scoreline, but certainly both had the potential to.

Before all that Accrington were once again looking most likely to score, with the disjointed approach from City evident at the start of the half. Immediately from the restart, City played out from the back, which eventually led to Palmer passing straight into an Accrington player, which in turn led to a corner. It wasn’t a chance, but it was unnecessary pressure of our own doing. The resulting ball saw the attacker look for a penalty, running across Bridcutt and going to ground but the referee had none of it. In terms of consistency, if it is a dive, it is a booking, but unlike the Forest Green game, the ref was trying to keep his cards in his pocket.

On 50 minutes the home side had another good chance, with Jon Pritchard again the provider. They instigated a quick counter-attack up the field, with the midfielder eventually looping an effort over the top of the goal to Palmer’s left-hand side.

Credit Graham Burrell

The first fifteen minutes of the half were scrappy, which both sides contributed to. The Imps were their own worst enemies, with loose balls and errant passes often conceding possession instead of anything the home side had to offer.

Just before the hour mark, the game’s first major incident occurred. Brennan Johnson made his usual probing run into the area, with Christian Burgess chasing across to cover. The defender seemed to go to ground early, but instead of winning the ball, he appeared to play the on-loan Forest man. Johnson went down in what looked like a stonewall penalty, but maybe a reputation has followed him because instead of a spot-kick, the referee drew a yellow card. Given their players dive from the corner in the early exchanges of the second half, it was a frustrating choice. Looking back, both at the replay and the stills, there was a shout for a penalty, perhaps 95%, and maybe if it had been in the Prem it would have gone to VAR and been given. We’re not, and thankfully so, despite us coming out on what seems like the wrong side of the decision.

Credit Graham Burrell

The Imps began to assume control and Johnson was again the dangerman not long after his penalty. Lewis Montsma, who had an erratic game on his return to the side, surged forward and pinged a wonderful pass through, which Johnson delivered into the area with real quality to earn a corner. City had several corners during the game but rarely threatened, this one perhaps the most dangerous, although it ended up back with Grant who made a cross-cum-shot that went straight into the keeper’s arms.

The game began to open, and rather than end-to-end it was counter-attack to counter-attack. With none of the play resulting in chances, it seemed for a while as though neither side would get a goal. One scary moment for City saw a corner lifted into Palmer, who took it cleanly but dropped the ball as he landed. The loose ball was quickly cleared, but the hosts were back not long after. Max Melbourne gave the ball away cheaply on the left-hand side, with Dion Charles opening his body and firing a shot which Palmer saved well.

Accrington brought on Sean McConville, a player who loves scoring against City, but his contribution was a little less direct. A ball forward within five minutes of his entry, after ten months out, saw him go in to challenge Montsma just inside the D. McConville’s studs looked to be up and he caught a stooping Montsma at an awkward angle, with the referee drawing a straight red. It looked nasty on the first viewing, and slow-motion replays didn’t do the midfielder any favours, although there was little malice. With the home side down to ten men, the complexion of the game change almost immediately.

Credit Graham Burrell

This decision may well have been reversed had the referee had the benefit of VAR. It looked nasty, and even after a second viewing I felt red, but it was borderline. I couldn’t help but think of Billy Knott back in 2017/18 when he caught a player high against Notts County. If the card was for a high boot, it is harsh. If the ref thinks the challenge was dangerous, maybe it is a red. The real threat came not from McConville’s challenge, but from Montsma’s position, much like Ellis Champman on Gary Deegan back when we played Cambridge in 2018/19.

After that, you felt there was a winner in it for City. Johnson and Hopper both got in down the right-hand side, but couldn’t get telling balls across. Anthony Scully, on for McGrandles, had two chances, one after Montsma’s ball-juggling from a corner, the other a break down the left which cannoned off the post. The hosts were on the ropes, but still posed something of a threat on the counter, but the Imps were certainly in the ascendency.

On 79 minutes, a historic moment occurred, as City brought on Tayo Edun and Robbie Gotts. Gotts was the second to come on the field, making him the first-ever fourth sub for the Imps, as he replaced TJ Eyoma. Gotts then had a strong ten minutes, with lots of involvement as we pressed for the winner. On the other flank, Tayo Edun came on for Melbourne and he worked the ball well down the left, finding Liam Bridcutt 20-odd yards out, but the captain fired a rash shot over the bar. Gotts and Johnson also looked a threat, working a chance to cross down the right, with the Leeds’ man’s delivery fired wide by Adam Jackson. The referee awarded a corner oddly, but again City couldn’t do anything with it. Grant was next up, he broke into the channel on the left-hand side but fired wide, whilst the final chance of the game fell to James Jones. Grant was the provider again, his whipped free-kick was met by the glancing head of the former Crewe man, but it struck the post and came back out.

Credit Graham Burrell

Sadly, with four minutes of injury time, Accrington did enough to claim the draw which, if we’re being fair, their play deserved.

On reflection, the Imps’ best spell came against ten men, which isn’t surprising. I felt the game was there for the taking and had we put something meaningful at their keeper, we might have had some joy. Despite it being a decent point, I can’t help but think there was more there for a ruthless side to exploit. We’ve been hit hard with injuries and I think we’re seeing some settling in the division now, with those early shouts of possible top six being examples of us getting carried away, a little, as fans. In my mind, teams in play-off contention win yesterday’s game, team looking to finish seventh to 11th get a credible draw against a good, organised side, and team due to finish in the bottom half lose the game. That’s my take, and I think we got a great indication of where we are. Yes, we are a little short up top, mainly due to injuries, especially that of Callum Morton. Losing him is a huge blow because he’s a very different nine to Tom Hopper and sometimes, that is what we need. I think we needed it yesterday, despite Hooper’s hard work, and if there is any scope in the transfer window than I think MA will focus on that.

However, this is a young team, a team which is developing and learning all the time, and there is little doubt that a draw at Accrington will be more than a lot of teams get. Of course, had the key decisions both gone our way, we could well have had all three and be joint second now, but that’s football and you have to be pragmatic.

On to Swindon next week, who got an important 1-0 win against Bristol Rovers, with Brett Pitman the scorer. He will be a real handful for our defenders in another tough encounter.

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