Whenever I sit down to write something like this, I usually have a plan.
I have a clever start, or I relate to a previous game or feeling. I find an angle or a hook on which I can hang a few killer paragraphs, or form a message in my mind I want to convey with a few similes, metaphors and clever observations. That’s my usual plan, but a couple of hours after this afternoon’s game, I don’t have that. I don’t know what to write or what I can tell you, because as Imps fans you have lived that too.
I could make observations about a terrible first half in which we looked timid, exposed and weary. They got the crucial early goal they wanted, from a City error, and never looked like they were going to struggle. Wyke should have scored, 100%, then he did, and it seemed a matter of time. If it were a boxing match, we had gone into full of hope and taken a good battering. Sunderland, in full flow, are a hell of a side and they pressed that advantage on us with real pressure. Every ball fell to them, if it didn’t they just won it and relentless waves swept upfield, leaving me a complete and utter wreck.
I said games in the play-offs turn on single moments, on a lucky bounce or a blow of the whistle, but this one wasn’t going to. It turned on 45 relentless minutes of red and white pressure, and eleven Lincoln City players looking dumbstruck in the onslaught. Is that too strong? It is what it felt like to me. I was watching on a mobile phone, leant up against my laptop screen with Twitter in the background, and the general gist seems to be everyone agreed with me. The difference is how fans react to that at half time.
Inwardly, I was broken. Sunderland were at full throttle, completely in control of the game with us mere bit-part players in their romance tale. ‘No team has come back from two goals down to win a play-off semi-final since….’ said the commentators. ‘10,000 fans sound more like 30,000’ they dribbled excitedly down the microphones as they willed the big club on. I don’t moan about partisan commentary anymore, but Sky did take the biscuit today – at one point I’m pretty sure Keith Andrews even referred to Alex Palmer as ‘the Lincoln keeper’ as if we were the faceless henchmen being brushed aside by the superhero down on their luck in League One. I felt Sky wanted the narrative to favour the home side, but maybe that is just ‘little club’ syndrome on my part. I had that fed a bit when I went on Talk Sport earlier in the day – Max Rushden, a top presenter by the way, said that ‘Lincoln haven’t had a lot of media coverage’. It made me think – actually, we don’t do bad. We’ve been on Sky what, four times this season? Michael is a story everyone loves and under Danny, we were never out of the paper. Maybe, it is time we shrugged off this ‘little Lincoln’ title.
The only way you do that is on the field, and with 45 minutes of this semi-final remaining, we had played into the role ourselves. Sky seemingly wanted the patsy, the fall guy to roll over and let McGeady (who they mentioned more than I mention xG on a podcast) and Sunderland write the headline. I stress this isn’t an attack on Sunderland, nor their fans, but on the way certain games are presented.
I think with hindsight, Michael might even feel now that the team selection, a bold and attacking option, didn’t work properly. Scully, excellent in the first leg, didn’t get the ball anywhere near as much as he would like, and the secret weapon which stunned Sunderland Wednesday just didn’t have the element of surprise anymore. Mind you, if we’re being fair, there wasn’t a strong outfield performance from anyone. Regan Poole kept McGeady quiet on Wednesday, be he will doubtless feel disappointed with his first half performance. Nothing stuck to our players and as they traipsed out for the second half, I was fearful.
Up until kick off, I felt no nerves. I didn’t think Sunderland would get their early goal and I felt the game would be tight, but after the second, it felt like my world was caving in. There was no context, no reasoning, just me getting incredibly upset. Did I lose confidence? I don’t know, I felt outwardly I said the right things about belief, about the squad, but the balance had left me. All I could see was a 3-0 or 4-0 defeat and it hurt, a lot. I just knew that the Imps were capable of playing better and that gave me a sliver of hope.