I’m going to confess, last night felt like pure agony for me, as it did for probably half of the Imps fans out there.
The other half, those with a wider perspective or no feelings for the Trophy at all are the lucky ones. They’re able to shake this off and focus on the great league campaign, but for me, there is a deep pain still in me this morning. It’s odd really, I didn’t feel excited about the game and had to do a video to gee myself up. It worked, sadly.
Look, I’m going to level with you, there is not going to be a match report in the usual context, because I don’t want to relive the game. It really is that simple. I’ll cover the basics, pick up on the positives and let’s leave it at that, eh?
Firstly, if you are a Sunderland fan coming on to have a read, lets deal with you guys. You’re good. That’s a fact, every time I have seen Sunderland this season, they have shown why they should be top six and, if it isn’t this season, why you’ll be top two next season. I do think McGeady is the obvious star, but the patterns of play are decent, your defenders (although makeshift last night) are better than most I’ve seen and whilst this season other teams have impressed me more, I can see why the corner has been turned under Lee Johnson.
Best of luck in the final, I would much rather you win it that Tranmere Rovers. That’s because we have a history with them and hopefully a future coming up against you.
In terms of team selection, I thought Michael put out a strong team, but it was a little forced. Harry Anderson would doubtless have played had he been fit and I do think it would have been of benefit to us if he had. The lads at the back had a decent game, but in terms of form, Walsh and Jackson are our current strongest centre back pairing. I think Montsma will be back on his pedestal within a couple of weeks, but at the moment he does look slightly rusty at times.
It was also nice to see Max Sanders get a runout. Overall, I was hugely impressed with him. I thought he had a slow five or ten minutes but then showed his capability in the holding role. I have just got used to calling the holding midfield a four though, so for him to be wearing the six is going to spin my mind. Which is it, four or six in CDM? Seriously though, he’s got a big future with us, he’s composed on the ball and showed some technique that I see in Bridcutt, the way he drops a shoulder, the body shape when he opens up for a pass. I’m very excited to see what the future holds for him and I have a strong feeling we might see him this weekend against Wigan.
The game itself wasn’t great for 45 minutes. I usually make notes through the game and I managed to make eight for the first half – two of which were around bookings. Being really harsh, Tayo Edun was unlucky to be booked and then fouled twice by Leadbitter and Gooch who got away with the challenges. That’s being picky though, generally, Ben Toner had a good game, allowing things to flow. He did get a big decision wrong, which I’ll come to.
Chances were few and far between and I don’t think either had a shot on target in the first half. I felt it was a training game at times, such a slow-paced affair with no real redeeming features whatsoever. That’s positive for us, by the way, because we were away at a very big club and looked arguably the better side on the ball, if not in the 18-yard boxes. Our decision making was very poor in the box though – Montsma didn’t get a good connection with a free header, which three months ago would have brought at least a save. Johnson’s break on 22 minutes maybe should have fed in Hopper, but instead, he found Scully who lashed a chance very high and wide, and Eyoma got into a good position and didn’t hit the target either. All three chances should have been better, but for a short spell, we did look by far the better side, although the hosts ended the half strongly.
In the second half, it was much the same for a short period. 15 minutes elapsed and we finally got a shot on target through Tom Hopper, before Cohen Bramall came on. I thought he had some really nice touches, one in which he teed up Johnson, who saw the ball take a little bobble resulting in a terrible effort from 12-yards.
When we did score, Bramall was the creator again. His ball to McGrandles was superb, a lovely little dink back into the area and arguably the best delivery we saw form us all evening. McGrandles drew a save from Burge and Scully was on hand to stroke the ball home. Genuinely, I felt we were going to Wembley at that point. We’d defended well, kept McGeady quiet and marshalled Wyke excellently (although dubiously at times, they certainly had penalty shouts and had Wyke not tried to stay on his feet, they might have got them).
Of course, in the lead up to the goal the officials got one decision wrong, the throw-in. I’d be hacked off if it were us, it was a clear throw their way, although Scully might have got a free-kick out of the incident. Sad to see Sky Sports completely focused on Sunderland though – Sunderland related guests in the studio and co-commentary and more shots of their new owner than Michael Appleton on the touchline. At least iFollow home commentary is knowingly biased.
That should have been the signal for a strong rear-guard action leading to a 1-0 win, but instead, we switched off and let Sunderland dominate. Gooch had a strong drive held, Wyke nodded a header into the floor which Palmer scooped over for a corner and still we let them have space on the right. Another ball came in, again McGeady and again Wyke, but Palmer was equal to it. Finally, McGeady crossed for Wyke to score, simple as. Perhaps he got the wrong side of Montsma, but the fault for the goal begins when we allow McGeady to get a cross over.
After that, there was only one winner and my utter joy at our goal began to sink into the sofa with me. I could feel the disappointment growing inside me, much different to the last time we missed out on Wembley in a cup, against York City. Back then, we had a villain, a disputed penalty to get mad about, but there was no blame here. Sunderland were better in those last 30 minutes, simple as. We had a minimal bench and brought on Remy Howarth and James Jones, both playing as high as they ever have, whilst Sunderland had Chris Maguire, former Championship striker Aiden O’Brien and Conor McLaughlin who has also played in the second tier. I’m not saying Jones or Howarth are bad players, of course, they’re not, but we went a bit makeshift in those last 15 minutes. Hopper and Edun, sure to be involved on Saturday, had been our best players and both came off.
After the goal McGeady had a long-range drive saved, then another smart effort from 20-yards which Palmer stopped too. It all looked ominous until we got our big chance. With Sunderland pouring forward, we hit them on the break and Eyoma strode into the area. He was in a better position than his first-half effort but instead looked to find Johnson. By then, Sunderland got back and the Forest loanee saw his shot deflected and over. Game over, 1-1 penalties.
You know what happened next. With each shot, I got more anxious, worried every time we took a spot-kick that it would be saved, disappointed when Palmer got near their first three. Ultimately, it came down to one, Remy Howarth. I’m not commenting on an individual who misses, it is the luck of the draw. Howarth clearly stepped up when I wondered if maybe Jones would, but as he walked to the ball, I felt he might miss. His run-up was short, and his kick crashed against the bar. Sadly, with McGeady and Leadbitter to follow, that really was game over.
I turned off after that and found myself sitting in silence as my excitement fully soaked into my clothes (literally in some areas, liquid excitement….). In a competition I cared little about at kick-off, we’d been beaten in the cruellest manner and had hopes of Wembley raised and dashed within a half-hour period. I couldn’t go a tell Fe, my partner, because it would mean her giving me that ‘I’m sorry’ look, then trying to act normal but in a way that I might find patronising. It wouldn’t be, of course, but in the heightened state of emotion generated by a semi-final penalty shoot-out loss, I wasn’t really thinking straight.
I’m writing this in the morning, with the benefit of sleep on my side, but the memories are still raw. Yes, I know we’re top of the league, I know Doncaster lost again last night and that there are loads of positives to take moving forward, but right now it isn’t easy to see those. I’m not disappointed with the lads, they put in a decent shift and if we draw 1-1 there later in the season, it’ll be a good result. That doesn’t change where we are now though.
One last thing, on Remy. Anyone could have missed that penalty, Scully, Johnson, Grant, anyone. Remy had the balls to take one, and he missed, not the others. Sadly, with the squad we have and the fact he has mainly appeared in the cup, I do fear it could be one of the last kicks he has of a ball in a Lincoln shirt. I hope not, it would be a sad way to remember a likeable and motivated member of the team. However, just spare a thought for him this morning, rather than condemning him. If we hadn’t let that cross go in for Wyke, if we’d marshalled him a little bit better, then Remy wouldn’t be the so-called villain.
Last night’s loss was a team effort, just like the wins are. For now, I’ll let this disappointment settle and dissipate and maybe, by the time tomorrow comes, I can focus once again on the positives. Still, it does pay to feel low once in a while, because it makes the highs all the more enjoyable.