The Old Guard Return

Courtesy Graham Burrell

Amid the joy and exaltation of seeing our boys put five past bottom club Burton Albion on Boxing Day, spare a thought, if you will, for two titans of the Imps League 2 title-winning side, writes Richard Godson.

I refer, of course, to former favourites Michael Bostwick and (my personal hero) Neal Eardley. Both virtual ever-presents in that historic season only 2 years ago, their release following the curtailed season 12 months later caused eyebrows to be raised to say the very least. Indeed I would venture to suggest some observers thought the Sincil Bank powers that be had taken collective leave of their senses. I have to say, whilst I was disappointed on a personal level to see Eardley, in particular, depart I cannot say I was concerned, feeling it was probably the right time to change the guard.

As this season progressed, it became increasingly clear that the club knew exactly what it was doing as those drafted in to replace the departing heroes were filling their boots admirably. When Neal and Michael landed contracts at Burton Albion, I felt relieved that two stalwart and popular figures had found a berth if only for a single season. I also looked forward to the first contest between the two sides, a mostly rampant strike force, not always having things its own way, pitted against a defence featuring two of the finest backs to bear the red imp badge in recent memory. As autumn progressed I must confess to apprehension that this duel might not actually take place as both Eardley and Bostwick succumbed to lengthy layoffs through injury meaning neither might feature. Imagine my delight at finding both in the Brewers’ starting line-up. A tasty dish to satisfy the most ravenous of sporting appetites!

Courtesy Graham Burrell

Within a little over five minutes, the contest was as good as over – the second round to borrow a boxing metaphor with the ageing champion having entered the ring once too often, twice hitting the canvas, laid out by a succession of blows from the cocky young pretender.

If we are honest, the warning signs were there a season ago and indeed against Burton in what turned out to be our final game before the season was brought to a premature end. By the final whistle that day we had already shipped three more goals with nine games still to play than in the entire previous season. Yes, by then we were playing at a higher level but that is precisely my point. What had served more than sufficient to bring home the League Two title was fast becoming unfit for purpose in League One. There is little doubt in my mind that both board and management realised this at an early juncture and the first foundations of the new structure were laid in the January transfer window even if few on the outside were prepared for the scale of post-season demolition and wholesale reconstruction that was to come.

So to Boxing Day and a City side unchanged from the previous two games, a squad brimming with confidence following a four-goal demolition of Northampton Town seven days earlier. Gary has, of course, provided a full match report but I thought I would look at our goals in more detail, focusing on the roles of our erstwhile heroes.

James Jones’s sumptuous lofted cross-field ball was aimed perfectly for Anthony Scully to run onto at pace catching the entire Burton back line off balance. As the ball leaves Jones’s boot, Scully is a yard and a half behind Colin Daniel but facing in the right direction so that by the time Daniel has halted, turned and begun running back to his own goal line, he has a full 3-yard advantage over the Burton defender and is racing to intercept the pass. At this point, the camera brings four other players into view. All have turned and Bostwick is a yard ahead of Tom Hopper with Remy Howarth and John Brayford roughly level to their left. Still off camera are Neal Eardley and Brennan Johnson. A couple of frames later, as the ball bounces into the path of Scully, he is a good 7 0r 8 yards clear of Daniel. Bostwick, his attention necessarily fixed on Scully who by now has the ball in acres of space, fails to notice Hopper, sly fox that he is, drifting into space of his own between him and the backtracking Brayford who also has the charging Howarth to worry about.

Credit Graham Burrell

Scully brings the ball under control as he crosses the 18-yard line and turns goalward allowing Brayford and Bostwick to close down space, almost. As Scully enters the box, Neal Eardley is seen bottom left of picture with Brennan Johnson breathing down his neck and keeper O’Hara is backpedalling for all he is worth. The linesman, by the way, is trailing in everyone’s wake! Scully’s change, of course, gives Bostwick and Brayford a shorter distance to track back but it’s too late. By the time the Imps’ number 11 unleashes his cross, Hopper is in space on his own should the ball come his way and Howarth has broken free of the despairing grasp of Daniel and has the simplest of tap ins. Johnson meanwhile, has glided past Eardley like a Ferrari past a Series One Landrover leaving him available to slot home should it have proved necessary. The entire move took no more than 15 seconds and we are only three and a bit minutes into the game.

The move that leads to the second is also initiated by Jones who slips the ball to Eyoma before racing forward, drawing Stephen Quinn with him. TJ, in turn, passes the ball to Scully who even by now must be setting Burton alarm bells ringing. Running inside and past an evidently sleeping Charles Vernam, Scully threads a forward pass beyond the lurking Hopper who has managed to drift several yards clear of his marker, a certain M Bostwick and bursts forward to the by-line from which he unleashes what most reports describe as a cross but on closer examination, I am convinced was a shot, deliberately aimed between O’Hara’s legs. A deflection off the keeper’s right pin or even clean through and it would have been league goal number 5 of the season for our hard-working number nine. As it was it came off his left leg and into the path of the slippery form of Brennan Johnson who for the second time in as many minutes had eluded his marker, a certain N Eardley, who made no mistake in chalking up his fourth. That move took all of nine seconds from start to finish. Blink and you’ll miss it.

Credit Graham Burrell

Into the second half and City’s goal number three initiated by a pass from the halfway line by Jorge Grant, outrageously dummied by Scully who draws off his marker, Daniel again, allowing the ball to run into the path of the advancing Eyoma on City’s attacking right. This leaves Daniel stranded beyond his own midfield and only Bostwick, Brayford and Eardley to deal with the looming threat of Scully, Johnson, Hopper and still out of the picture, Howarth. Eyoma’s cross eludes everyone, including the wrong-footed Eardley who has left Howarth in acres of space. Incidentally, if Hopper had connected, I don’t doubt the ball would quickly hit the back of the net but I do wonder whether he might have been adjudged offside. Eardley recovers but is unable to deal with Howarth who makes time and space to fire the ball at O’Hara who can only parry as far as the unmarked Scully who, having been granted the freedom of the Stacey West six-yard area, calmly takes the ball with his left, switches it to his right and scores. The ball bulges the onion bag eleven seconds after leaving Grant’s boot on the halfway line. By this time, Neal Eardley is picking himself up off the deck and Michael Bostwick can only look on in bewildered disbelief. I know they would not want my sympathy but they had it nonetheless – in spades.

There was more to come though. Burton have a throw-in front of the away dugout and Keiran Wallace, just on for the by now utterly befuddled Colin Daniel throws back to Bostwick who finds he has to deal not only with the ball but also the advancing Hopper who is onto him like a flash. By this time they are deep in the penalty area and rather than stick his boot through the ball, the bearded behemoth chooses to pass to Ciaran Gilligan on the 18 yard line. Brennan Johnson must have been watching the musical Oliver over Christmas because he picks Gilligan’s pocket like one of Fagin’s finest, races clear and slots the ball home past the advancing O’Hara. Another nine-second wonder.

The fifth, I think, was the cruellest of all. Anderson receives the ball on the halfway line and with Gotts sprinting past his outside, he chooses instead to send the ball diagonally inwards into the path of the advancing Johnson. The angles here are reminiscent of the slickest of rugby union moves, drawing tired defenders this way and that, not knowing which are the dummy runners and which are not. At this point, the Albion backline is relatively well placed to deal with Johnson’s advance which seemingly is aimed at the corner flag. However, they reckon without his canny backheel into the path of Anderson who lets fly. Bostwick typically advances into the path of the inbound missile. How many times has he saved our bacon in this fashion? This time, cruelly, the ball ricochets of his trailing heel and balloons over the outstretched hand of the despairing O’Hara and into the net. Ten seconds from start to finish and our erstwhile heroes can only look around and survey the wreckage of an ignominious defeat.

Credit Graham Burrell

The metaphors abound. I’ve already mentioned the ageing fighter. Another would be the once-dominant stag, forced out by young bucks in the herd. Don’t get me wrong, true professionals that they are Eardley and Bostwick gave their all but it simply wasn’t enough. Coming back from lengthy lay-offs, perhaps they lacked match sharpness and it’s fair to say they were not helped by those around them. However, it cannot be denied they could not cope with the pace and intuitive thinking of a rampaging strike force benefitting not only from the advantage of youth but also some outstanding coaching. All in all, my joy and satisfaction at a comprehensive win that sent the Imps back (yes, back) up to the top of the league table was tinged with sadness that it had to be at the expense of a side fielding among their number two of the most highly regarded former Lincoln players of the modern era.

I desperately hope Burton are not relegated and that if this season does turn out to be their last, Neal and Michael can look back on careers that end with the dignity to which I believe their faithful and valuable service to us and others entitles them.