Last night, as the final whistle rang out around my living room, I turned the TV off and sat in silence.
I genuinely feel like I could have cried. That is how much this season has got to me. Every defeat has felt like a punch or a kick and it is made worse by the experts on Twitter. It’s made worse by the blind optimism of some, claiming ‘we can still do this’, and then on the other hand by the usual suspects with their ‘not good enough’ rhetoric. It feels like they’re talking about my family, passing their judgement when I feel like the only one who can see the truth.
Of course, that’s not the case. They have opinions they have every right to express, as I do. Lincoln City is not my family, I just spend most of my waking life doing something related to them. The way I take defeat is probably usual, but it feels very unique for me. Honestly, after last night’s game, I felt very alone.
I could pick it over, ball by ball, assessing and commenting, but it almost feels wrong to do so. The fact is, Lincoln City are broken, Michael Appleton’s exciting squad has been stretched to a point where a huge tear has appeared in the middle and last night, circumstances beyond our control meant we were a carcass going into battle. If we had three players called up for international duty, the game wouldn’t have gone ahead. If a couple more had covid, the game wouldn’t have gone ahead. Earlier this season, Grimsby postponed a game because of one covid case, and last year Bolton didn’t fulfil a fixture because of player safety. I know those circumstances are different, and I wasn’t complaining when Wimbledon had the same problems earlier in the season, but I do wonder if this had been a bog-standard Saturday match, not on Sky, if we might have gone to the FA given the covid stuff?
I don’t know. What I do know is that anyone passing judgement on us right now needs to understand and accept the context of our recent demise. Yes, we have been poor, but what do you expect? We’re a small squad, 40% down on last year’s budget with our best central defender out, the captain missing 50% of our games and only completing 90 minutes once since his comeback, our leading scorer out, or number nine out, our marquee summer loan signing out, and our exciting Premier League capture from January out. Throw two covid cases in there too, our only other recognised forward and the other experienced central defender and what do we have? A team broken and battered, fighting on despite clearly being past the point of no return.
I looked at all the comment last night about how it wasn’t good enough, how our passing was poor etc and it infuriated me. They were right, those people had called it right, but calling the game at all felt wrong. I used to have this old Mazda 323F, 1.5L, and it sat in a work car park packed with decent, more expensive cars. Mine cost £295 and it was a wreck, but sometimes we’d do little laps around the car park, seeing how fast our cars would go. The Mazda held its own alright, it wasn’t the fastest, but for the money, it did well. One day, on the way to work, I got a puncture and had to put one of those Fisher-Price Noddy wheels on, you know the ones I mean? Guess what? It still had four wheels but it didn’t go as fast or as smoothly as it had done before. Now, imagine you have four of those toy wheels on. The car is the same, it still drives, but you lose four key components and you cannot be expected to maintain performance.
It doesn’t help when what I thought was a decent referee has a bit of a shocker either, does it?
Ok, let’s go to the match, because I know I have to talk about it. We started brightly, but I expected that because Liam Bridcutt was in the team. When he is in, 90% of the time we play well, and although Scully’s finish wasn’t clean or concise, it was enough to give us a lead to defend. In recent months, when defending a lead, we have had Tom Hopper up top to run tirelessly, hold the ball up and take away the pressure, but we didn’t have that last night and it showed. Scully gets goals, no doubt, but is he a lone nine? Not a chance and that meant our attacking prowess was weakened. Harry took time to get into the game, it was his first league start since December 9th. It meant we looked a little shaky after the goal, and Oxford are a decent side with players who can hurt you, and they did.
Mark Sykes and Brandon Barker both impressed and in fairness, a goal was coming from them as they began to pour forward. They should have had a free-kick in a good area when Shodipo was fouled cutting in from the right, but it wasn’t given. Then, they should have had a penalty when Harry caught Rob Atkinson in the box, not given. At that point, I thought our luck was in. Two decisions went our way, Alex Palmer making good saves and a couple of defenders putting bodies on the line. At the other end, whenever we broke we looked dangerous without creating anything too clear cut, and I firmly believed we could make a game of it, even if we conceded.
When we did concede, it was a gut punch. Yeah, I get it, these things even themselves out and all that, but it shouldn’t be like that. I’m sure Scott Oldham hasn’t done it deliberately, but Matty Tylor has handled the ball in the area before teeing up their goal. It’s a foul, that’s the end of the discussion. If they had got the penalty, they might have missed it, but if we had also got the free-kick we would have still been winning the game. It’s a huge error and all I want to believe is that it wasn’t done to even things up. I suppose these things happen, but when your squad is broken into pieces and you get a lead that is crucial to a promotion push, you just want a bit of luck.