I was hit by a stat at the weekend which really hammered home how this season has been.
Regan Poole has started 14 games for the Imps, played in 18 and between his first appearance and his most recent, there were just 78 days. He’s played for the Imps once every 4.3 days during his time here, and if you factor in a day off from training after each game, I make that just 60 days at the EPC, less ten whilst it was closed, making it 50. That’s what, just over two days per game training?
That’s some schedule, is it not? Bear in mind that 18 is as many games as Michael Bostwick played all last season, and 14 is as many starts as Elliot Whitehouse made in the 2016/17 National League season, all in the space of 78 days. It highlights exactly how crazy 2021 has been so far.
It has been hard to catch breath, has it not? No sooner are we putting three points in the bag, or shaking off a defeat, than the focus switches to the next game. It’s strange though, because in 2016/17 we played three games more between January 1st and April 24th than we have this season. Mind you, we were in the FA Trophy and the FA Cup at the time, but the schedule was no less intense. I guess the salient fact is that back then, we did have a decent squad and far fewer injuries than we have now.
That is the reason I think we should all take a minute is to just step back and look at the bigger picture. I saw a bit of criticism on Saturday of our home form, of the penalty and a few other bits and of course, people are entitled to criticise, but how easy is it to get caught up in the moment? How easy is it to look at each game in no wider context than the one before, or the one after? I recall after we beat Woking 3-2, our 18th win in 21 matches in the National League winning season, someone texted Radio Lincolnshire to claim we were under pressure. That is taking a single game in context, one in which we almost surrendered a lead, twice, and looked a little shaky. By the way, seven days later we won 1-0 at Burnley.
The fact is people react to moments, single incidents and games which seem so relevant at the time, but the context of history dulls their effect. When you play every week, twice, there is little time to view the bigger picture. I didn’t celebrate the 2-1 win at home against Torquay with any real vigour because instantly my eyes moved forward to Gateshead on Easter Monday. Our win at Wembley was great, but on the drive home the first conversation was about the play-off push in 2018. That’s how football works.
Just for a minute, forget Shrewsbury tonight, forget the Championship, the play-offs and all of that. Think about this. In all my years supporting Lincoln City, we have never challenged for the Second Tier. In that time, we have never entered the final games of the season with a mathematical chance of third-tier play-offs, and not just a chance, arguably the best chance of all the teams pushing for a place. We have never gone toe-to-toe with the Champions elect of the third tier and arguably deserved a point. This is unprecedented, and not just because we played away at Southport four years ago, or because we have fought injuries or whatever, this is simply unparalleled within my lifetime.
Sure, we gave away a soft penalty. Okay, we missed a good chance to go up automatically after a strong start, but a season is 46 games long, not 16 or 26. You finish where you deserve to finish, all things considered. Well, when considering budget, we’d be around 14th. Considering age and experience, we’d be near the bottom of the pile, squad size would see us there too. If there was a metric that took injuries into account (Xi maybe? Certainly one for Wyscout to consider) we would surely be in the bottom three or four. It is easy to say why we should be where we are, but the question is why shouldn’t we be where we are? There are far more answers to that than the first one. So, how come we are where we are?
It isn’t because we don’t win enough at home, nor because players have made the odd bad decision. It isn’t because we missed two penalties against Doncaster or one against Peterborough, nor is it because you have perceived a referee to have robbed us. Nope, they are all storylines within a wider narrative, one of achievement, pride and resilience. We have prospered despite those incidents, incidents which every club has, all season long. Some win too few away, some don’t get in the area to win penalties in order to miss them. Some play a blame game; others can’t get a big squad to play together no matter what they spend. We can.
We are where we are because of good management, of the players, staff and the club as a whole. The season ticket announcement this week was met with widespread acclaim, people applauding the decision to keep prices low, and to introduce a new Gold + scheme. I’ll be honest, I didn’t like it being branded as a membership, not for any real reason, but it seems to have gone down a treat, and fair play to the club for that. This club is run well, that’s not me just blowing smoke up arses or crawling because I want access, it’s a genuine comment about a board who not only mean well but do well. Most of our chairmen and board members have meant well during their tenures, some have done well without praise or recognition, but Clive and the rest of our board have done well consistently and almost without reproach. Sure, they’ve been dealt a decent hand with on-field performances and football fortune, but you could argue they loaded the deck first by their choices and simply played the hands they set themselves up to be dealt.
On the field, we’ve been nothing short of excellent. If you take a snapshot of a whole season, we’ve kept plenty of clean sheets, scored lots of goals, played attractive football and got into battles when we needed to. The difference between this season and, say, Gillingham away last season is huge, and yet we have fewer players you’d consider as battlers. Think about Akinde, Bostwick, O’Connor, Shackell and Cian Bolger and you think of fighters, strong and aggressive players ready to mix it with anyone. Seriously, did you think that about this year’s squad in August? I feared for us, in terms of being outfought, and yet we have shown lots of bottle. Lewis Montsma has been far stronger than I thought a former model from the Dutch second tier might be, and Tayo Edun has a little bit of the Dean Keates in him, snappy tackles and a tendency to be on the scene when the going gets tough. Even the likes of Callum Morton, eight stone wet through, wrestled with Bozzie last week like Steve Irwin used to wrestle crocodiles like it was fun.
We have dealt with adversity with honesty and integrity. There is no blame culture here, there hasn’t been since the days of DC (forget Watergate….) and Michael is as pragmatic and straightforward. He will call it as it is, he’s not afraid to praise us when we lose (Gillingham at home he thought we played well and is not afraid to say it), but he’ll also call out poor actions. He hasn’t hung any players out to dry either, I think some felt last season that was the case a little, but this year he has grown a group of young players who look like future stars. Remember, of the current squad, TJ Eyoma, Remy Howarth, Lewis Montsma, Morgan Rogers, Brennan Johnson, Tayo Edun, Callum Morton, Sean Roughan and Anthony Scully are all involved in their first full seasons of more than ten senior appearances. They are players who could suffer hugely from the pressure of a dip in form and being called out by the manager, and yet Michael seems to have handled them diligently, not afraid to make the big decisions about them playing, but never to the detriment of their attitude or application.
This is turning into a fawning piece and rightly so, because when you step back and look at things, that is what it is, it is where we are. When Michael came into this city, there was scepticism from many. I remember a tweet asking if his tenure as manager should be brought to a close around the time we lost at Gillingham last season, and whilst I know the guy who put it up didn’t intend it to be literal, many did feel that way. Those doubters should have listened to Oxford fans, who made it very clear once he had his players and time on the training field, we’d be competitive. Well, he’s got his own players, but this season’s nature has meant he hasn’t had as much time training them as he might like. You only need to look at Conor McGrandles and Tayo Edun to see two players who have stayed fit, trained most weeks and benefitted from doing so – they’re two of our star men and when it comes to POTY, they have to be mentioned in the same breath as Jorge Grant, without a doubt. That’s what a good coach does for you – he takes good players and makes them better, blends them into a team. Michael has done than incredibly well, alongside David Kerslake, Steve Croudson and the rest of the coaching staff. Can you imagine what the Dumbledore of football manager, the Big Apple, might achieve when he gets five days a week, every week, to work with the players?
Tonight, we might not win at Shrewsbury. We might give a penalty away, or play out from the back and put a pass astray. Hell, we might not even make the play-offs (spoiler – I think we will) and I know those social media demons would come out and have plenty to say about it. Even if that all happens (which it won’t) looking at the bigger picture tells the real story. I don’t mean lazy comparisons to four years ago, or looking at where we are in terms of budget and all that, I mean looking at how many seasons, during our entire 136-year history, have we finished in the top six of the third tier, or higher? When you work it out as a percentage*, it tells you all you need to know about right now, and a lot more than a penalty, misplaced pass or home defeat ever will.
Yes, this was an article which praised my football club, because there are enough fans out there who do not have the capacity or reason to (Swindon, Bristol Rovers, Grimsby Town) and I’m damn sure I’m not going to let the chance pass me by.
* Yup, I’ve done it. Now, when there were only two divisions, I’ve counted the Second Division as the level we’re at now (i.e., to qualify for the numbers, we must finish 6th or higher). On 25 occasions since 1884 we have finished inside the top six, or been in the second tier of a Football League structure containing three or more divisions. That’s around 18%. Post-war, 16 seasons from 76 have seen us finish top six in the third tier or higher (21%), and since our last relegation from the Second Division, in 1961, just two seasons in 59 have been spent battling for promotion from the Third Tier, 3%. You could say, this is a once-in-a-generation occurrence. Does that Hull defeat feel quite as bad now?