Football the Loser on Return to Stands: Gillingham 1-1 Imps

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On the Gills in the Blood podcast earlier this week, I predicted a 1-1 draw. The host, Matt, did the same, so neither of us are surprised at today’s outcome on the field.

What did surprise me was the incident five minutes in which we’ll be talking about for days afterwards, which will overshadow much of the post-match chatter. I’ll come to that momentarily.

What also surprised me is how normal it felt tuning in on the radio. I didn’t go to Kent; I didn’t want my first taste of proper football to be in Steve Evans’ backyard, if I’m honest. I suppose there’s the small matter of trying to get caught up on work too, but I really didn’t want the overriding image of the ‘big return’ to be blue and Kentish. Instead, I tuned in on the radio and missed 90 minutes of physical action for the first time in 18 months. The pandemic did have the odd silver lining, such as watching every kick of the games when they allowed. I wouldn’t get a dodgy feed nor a VPN, but I know people who did, so I’ve had little clips of a few key incidents.

The team was fairly predictable; Fiorini’s injury meant Anthony Scully got a start, and we saw Cohen Bramall start wide on the left. Lasse Sorensen also got a start, the only one of the summer recruits other than Josh Griffiths to start the game. I find that interesting; we essentially started with a side we could have put out on the last day of last season, bar one. When I say it’s all uphill from here, I mean we’re at the bare bones already, and therefore this is very much a starting point.

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It couldn’t get much tougher either, could it? Gillingham have a style that puts a lot of pressure on the back four, and we were forced to play Max Melbourne, a lad who was told he had no future at the club at the start of pre-season. It meant an awful lot of pressure on him, Josh Griffiths and Adam Jackson, dealing with the unique threat of Vadaine Oliver.

I suppose in that situation, you want to get off to a good start, to have something to defend. I recall going there a couple of years ago and them getting the opening goal, after which we were awful. Our 2021/22 season got off to a great start, with a goal five minutes into the campaign. It’s a smart finish from Tayo Edun, a player who will be the subject of more interest after this afternoon’s display, but credit to Sorensen, who turned in a solid performance all afternoon. Much of our season depends on us replacing the guile of Grant, the pace and directness of Johnson and the unpredictable nature of Rogers. In Sorensen, it looks to me like we might have an unlikely Grant-style player.

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Of course, the goal has been overshadowed by what happened afterwards. From the footage I’ve seen, City players appeared to enter the stands through a gap in the hoardings, where at least one Gillingham fan moved in and made contact with Bramall. More fans joined in, and as the two groups were separated, something appears to be said to Bramall. He was booked for his part in the incident, rightly so I guess, but what has happened since is yet to be made clear. Sadly, as I sit writing this, it’s been confirmed as racist comments being made to Bramall, and the police are investigating. That’s very disappointing, and I’m sure most Gillingham fans will agree.

I guess from there, we could have killed the game off, but remember we’re not at full strength. That said, neither are Gillingham, and it’ll be two very different sides when the two meet later in the season. It’s why it’s hard to make much of the result today or the performance. Will Cohen Bramall start on the left when Maguire is fit? Probably not, although he didn’t do his cause any harm. Adelakun is likely to play on the right too; Bishop will be knocking on the door, Walsh will be in the side when fit…. this was very much a makeshift Lincoln side playing a brand of football we’re familiar with.

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Gillingham didn’t surprise either; they were strong, robust, went in quick to Oliver and took those marginal gains. If anything, they used the atmosphere the moment created to lift their players and press on. Phillips in the middle was a real menace, not in a good way either – he could easily have been sent off in the first half. We knew that would happen though; Steve Evans makes Priestfield hostile. He has fighters in the side too and sometimes that fight is not on the ball. There was one moment picked up in commentary that nobody watching feeds saw, which saw Phillips poleaxe McGrandles and then kick him as he went down – unconfirmed by everyone except Thommo. When Steve Evans got his customary yellow against us, the only surprise was that it was his side’s first. The other surprise, given how manic he gets, is that he didn’t get a red. Mind you, he did have plenty to cheer him up as well.

It seems the game ebbed and flowed from thereon, and Gillingham were always going to have a spell. Some have said their goal didn’t cross the line, but I saw enough to make me think it did. Josh Griffiths, who made a couple of great saves, made a bit of a mess of a shot, and it was relatively simple for Danny Lloyd (who else) to slide home. or not, depending on what you think you saw or didn’t. What the assistant referee saw was a goal, which turned out to be the game’s final goal.

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At half time, I think everyone was happy to draw breath on 45 minutes of pure blood and thunder. It may have felt like that because fans were back in because we heard actual atmosphere in the ground, Every boo felt louder, and there were plenty of those whenever Bramall got on the ball – imagine booing a player who has had something said to him that the Kent Constabulary has now got to investigate, the temerity of the man…

The temperature at least died down a little in the second half, with football the focus, rather than the off-pitch antics of managers or fans. To be fair to Gillingham, they didn’t look bad, and they’re at half strength too. Both sides had decent chances, Scully and Poole for us, Oliver and Carayol for them. I recall once Steve Evans digging out John Schofield for only signing players Boston had scouted or developed, and yet the major Gills threat this afternoon came from former Imps. I wonder if Steve has a collection of Lincoln programmes he flicks through sometimes for inspiration when signing a new face.

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I think a lot of credit has to go to Max Melbourne and Adam Jackson. We know Jackson is a decent keeper, but Melbourne is a left-back by trade, and he did very well. Liam Bridcutt did well too, more for how he behaved in the moments after the incident, but he turned in a good performance too. Our full backs attacked well and across the front we carried a threat that will only get more intimidating as the season rolls on.

All in, it was a good start to the season for the Imps, we would have taken a point all day long, and against a side who are very tough to play against. The sad thing is, I don’t want to talk about the football anymore, the ins and outs of the tactics etc, because the incident in the fourth minute overshadows everything. It is alleged (I’ll stress that from a legal point of view) that Cohen Bramall was racially abused, in the stadium in a game in the 21st Century. It’s a shame that football is still here, it’s happened when I’ve been in the ground at times, and it is always one person or a small minority, but it has overshadowed a decent start to the season.

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Look, I might write more tomorrow, but it’s getting harder to digest the incident. Given what happened after the Euros, and that I spoke to Liam Bridcutt about this very issue on Tuesday for next Saturday’s programme, it’s just left me feeling quite negative around the return to the stadium. Seriously, we’re away from matches for 18 months and four minutes into the return a so-called fan sees fit to racially abuse a player, as well as push them about? Madness.

Still, decent point, and maybe I’ll do a bit more analysis tomorrow, but I’ve got quite angry about the situation as I’ve written this. For now, I’ll leave it there.