Last night was a great night for Lincoln City, but to hear suggestions of celebrations flying around this morning does baffle me.
As yet, we have nothing to celebrate, not really. It is halftime of a game and only a fool will celebrate a win at half time. We can feel good (bloody good), we can feel hope and genuine expectation to a degree, but there is no cause for cracking open the cans of IPA and throwing a few back. the job is half done, but it half done very well indeed.
It’s funny, as I sat in the pub (like a normal person) listening to my Dad’s pessimism, I felt quietly confident. Having been in the Third Tier podcast and had all the pundits bar one back us, I did feel we were the underestimated side. Yes, Sunderland have players that can hurt you, but so do we. It’s easy to look lovingly at the likes of McGeady, only to forget Johnson, Grant and Rogers in terms of attacking prowess. Sure, Wyke can score goals, but Tom Hopper makes them and apparently, scores a few too. Football is all-too-often a game of subtle jealousy, praising other team’s players based on a few clips or seeing their name in the top scorer’s charts, whilst underappreciating your own lads because you see every kick, misplaced pass and stumble as well as the highlights.
Dad fell into the trap of seeing McGeady and Wyke and believing they had too much for us. I wouldn’t commit on a score, but with Walsh and Jackson back and the first-choice midfield of McGrandles, Grant and Bridcutt, I felt we could get something. My optimism, not something I’m renowned for, quickly changed when I saw the teamsheet. No Joe Walsh and no Conor McGrandles soon had me reverting to type – “It could be a long evening Dad”. Oh ye of little faith.
Much of that was displaced by being back in the ground. I did feel emotional, I’m not the teary sort (although the end of Unforgotten did get close to prompting a few), but the feeling of hearing the fans roar as the lads came out to train before the game. It was like opening a pressure valve and the steam rushing out, 18 months of pent-up frustration pouring out. If you were there and you thought that was loud, imagine what next season will be like, whether it is Sheffield United or Sheffield Wednesday on the fixture list.
180 minutes will define which of the Sheffield clubs we face in the league. For the record, the last time either were at the Bank in the league was 1984, with the Owls last meeting city eight days before I was born in 1978. Right now, the bookies are probably thinking that we’re favourites to face the Blades, or at least get a chance to square off against either Blackpool (likely) or Oxford (need a miracle) for the right. I’ll be confident if we’re still two goals to the good with a couple of minutes remaining on Saturday, until then, I’ll reserve judgement!
I thought we were excellent from start to finish last night. I said before the game we needed to play well and win, two elements we hadn’t always managed to pull together at the same time, and yet we managed it against a Sunderland side I think get more stick from their fans on social media than they should. Remember, they’re at their lowest point ever, so when they watch this team they have expectation and memories of far better times. We are at the highest point we’ve been at for forty years, and so when our fans see the boys in action they see one of the best-ever sides. The truth is, take away the expectation and perception, and you have two very similar teams.
The neutral watching at home certainly had their fill of excitement, with more than 30 attempts at goal between the two sides. We had the best of those in an exciting opening period, showcasing the best of our football at the same time. I thought Regan Poole was outstanding from first kick to last, with Tayo on the other flank quickly getting into the rhythm as well. They were key, overlapping where they could, and with Scully getting in more open spaces than household dust, we looked a real danger. His curling effort was definitely a corner, tipped over excellently by Burge, but the referee didn’t spot it. When Johnson struck the post not long after, I wondered if we’d had our chance.
I’ve seen in some places our first half performance was described as the weaker of the two, but I disagree. We put a proper marker out early on, Michael’s bold team selection paying dividends. When we lost Adam Jackson early I felt their attacking players might capitalise, but Lewis Montsma came on and was excellent as well. Eyoma is a proper gem, he’s going to the Championship next season and my only hope is that he can do it with us. He’s been a revelation since filling in at centre back, leaving me a little sorry we didn’t get Regan Poole earlier, freeing TJ up to play his natural position. In truth, their most dangerous effort of the first half was Gooch’s long-range drive, but that is what we seemed to be reducing them too – speculation, rather than any serious threat.
My only other comment on the first half has to be towards Liam Bridcutt. he is such a good player and with the benefit of being able to see the whole pitch, you get a real grasp of what he does. When the ball is miles away from him, he is coaching players around him, directing traffic so to speak, nad it is clear he has a big influence. At one stage Joe Bursik, a keeper thrown in at the deep end, made a catch and dropped onto the ball, and the first to shout to him was Bridcutt. He is a true leader of men and I have no doubt at all that in ten year’s time, he will be a manager.
I ought to have a word for Bursik too. It wasn’t easy for him, coming in late and having such minimal time to train and get into the rhythm of the squad, but he was excellent. He made some crucial saves in the second half, which I’ll come onto, but his general demeanour was just so assured and competent. Not once did I think ‘stand-in keeper’ when he went for a ball and I’ll tell you this for free – if Alex Palmer goes back to West Brom, as expected, and we need a new number one, I’d take that boy all day long for a year. My only worry is if we go up, Stoke won’t lend him to us!