There are many types of football match, and as a fan you’ll know what I mean when I say that.
There are games you are worried about, but your team do well in (Pompey away). There are those that look tough, and end up being bloody tough (Pompey at home). There are ones you can’t call (Posh at home), ones that have 0-0 written all over them from the day the fixtures come out (Fleetwood away). Some surprise you (MK Dons home), amaze you (Burton at home), disappoint you (Doncaster home) and leave you distraught (Rochdale at home). Tonight, up and down the country, we saw them all. Rochdale fans, doubtless elated at the prospect of the great escape, left shattered in injury time. Pompey fans, broken at half time, joyous with minutes left, damaged at the end. Grimsby fans, crying, broken-hearted and ultimately inconsolable. There, for the grace of God, go I. Or rather, go us.
Then, there are matches where you break longstanding club records for the number of away wins in a season. They’re quite rare, don’t ya know.
I knew what the Imps’ game would be like this evening, from when I woke up until I write this now. I called it on Match Day Live, exactly as it went off. A cagey affair, one of few clear cut chances, that we’d edge 1-0 and bag that record. I’m not claiming to be Nostradamus, although I do have a great record on MDL this season, but you could see what was going to happen from kick-off. We needed a win, but not a win at all costs, and that’s crucial. If we’d drawn tonight, no biggie, we’re still in the best position for the play-offs, meaning we’d go for a result, but wouldn’t take risks in doing so. Shrewsbury needed nothing, other than pride, but I suspected they’d want a result for their gaffer. Of all our rivals, they’ve been most affected by Covid and if that hadn’t happened, I think they’d have been tucked in with Accrington and Ipswich in that ‘just outside the play-offs’ area.
Also, with our returning players, I expected a rhythm and flow in the early stages, then some nice game management and maybe a more fractured second period as we made changes and swapped things about a bit. I didn’t say that out loud on MDL, but it was the vision of the game I had in my head.
Not that you could tell that in the first 20 minutes. we came out of the blocks quicker than normal and looked to be well placed to hand out a three or four-goal thrashing. There was space in behind for us to exploit, and with our first choice midfield and maybe one player shy of our first choice attack, we had a fluidity and sharpness about our play which reminded me very much of November. I’ve said it a million times if I’ve said it once: this squad, fully fit for 46 games, wins the league. Honestly, it’s that simple. In fact, even this squad with no more than two players out injured at any time, as long as Grant and Bridcutt play, wins the league. Bold, maybe so, but I defy anyone to disagree with me when you think about what might have been, even with injuries, Covid and all that guff.
That’s what we looked like in the first part of the game. Johnson glided around the pitch like an adult playing kids football, a Dad in the Under 16s messing around at training, faster and sharper than the players he was up against. Jorge Grant was back to being Jorge Grant, twisting, turning and pinging balls effortlessly around the field. Bridcutt was there taking the ball from Palmer, pivoting the side, making the game look easy with a drop of the shoulder, and stealing yards by thinking one step ahead. Edun, McGrandles and Rogers just did what they have been doing, whilst Montsma and Eyoma’s partnership grows stronger by the day.
Our goal came as no surprise at all: a dead set-piece was recycled cleverly with swift football before the two key components of our season combined, Bridcutt crossed for Grant’s header, to throw one shoe, containing one foot, into the play-off race. There was something poetic and satisfying about those two combining, although the goal was as much about the play before their involvement as anything. Bridcutt, the captain and talisman, landing the ball on his vice-captain and leading scorer’s head to settle early nerves. Wonderful stuff, so much so that Fe (forced to watch the game on the big screen as I opted to relax on the sofa for the game) cheered as I did. She didn’t even know the permutations for the play-offs.
Shrewsbury played their role well early on, the patsy merely there to make up the narrative as the Imps’ unlikely season gets an extended run into May. Ollie Norwood got an early booking, rightly so, for a challenge on Grant and generally, I thought the scorer was unfairly targeted on a few occasions. It felt much like we’d go on and score three or four, maybe even with them not having a full set of players by the end. Settle in Fe, this is going to get tasty.
It didn’t though, not really. When Johnson came off, hopefully as a precaution, we lost part of the vajazzle (yes, I know what that means) that glistened whenever we previously tried to penetrate. Shrewsbury reverted to three central defenders, either three or five at the back depending on where you place your full backs in the scheme of things, and closed the doors in front of us. That is our kryptonite, 3-5-2, the formation we can struggle against if implemented right. We’ve seen teams do it badly, I think possibly even Shrewsbury in the EFL Trophy, but generally against a back three, we struggle to prise them open. Morton had to work harder for his corn, but got far less reward than his endeavour deserved.
At the other end, the home side came alive, and Josh Vela could have easily sent his side in leading 2-1, hitting the post with one effort and firing wide when it seemed easy to hit the target just before half time. The balance of play swung against us and although many would say we deserved to lead at the break, that would only tell half the story. In truth, Shrewsbury’s management rescued the half in terms of play, and although we did edge it, I did feel a little pleased when the half time whistle blew. We hadn’t been under the cosh, but with Johnson going off and Salop switching it around, it began to resemble the game I expected, not the one the first 20 minutes hinted at.