It was the day we all went back into the ground, the day that we’d waited for since March last year.
Yet, within about 15 minutes, it was like we’d never really been away, with an edgy tension that felt almost as welcome as the return itself. I guess we’ll come to that in a moment.
It would be remiss to start anywhere other than outside the ground today. To answer many kind people who asked, yes, Dad did buy the Full English! That’s how we vowed to start the day, and we did, along with my friend Chris. We then made our way into town, had a drink in the pub and headed down to the ground. We were there dead early and got sat in the fan zone watching it slowly fill up with excited faces, many of whom we hadn’t seen for 18 months. I can’t say it was emotional, not in a ‘war is over’ kind of way, it was just nice, a return to normal. The new fan zone (sorry, village) doesn’t allow for us to stand by the bins as we usually do, so it did feel a little new as well as familiar, Top marks to the club though, the fan village was really good, with plenty more places to sit and chat. There was some confusion at the bar over the price of beer (Dad can tell you all about that) and the glasses, but overall it went well for a first game. I hope Liam Scully was happy, he was bounding about the place like Zebedee on speed, smiling and shaking hands everywhere he went. Joking aside, you could see what a full fan village means to him, not just pound signs.
Look, I could write all day about how good it was to be back, to chat to the RICT guys, see friendly faces, take the mick out of Ben etc, but you know that. You were there, in your thousands, all with your own personal stories. Those that couldn’t go will understand what it meant too and whilst I could write all night, I won’t. Why? Because this is a blog about football, and we were there for one purpose. Football.
I will confess, walking up those stairs towards the pitch felt cathartic as if the pandemic didn’t really happen. I thought I might get emotional, but I didn’t, not at first. It just felt right, like I imagine servicemen and women posted away feel when they return home. Everything was there as it should be, and it just felt normal. Then, the players came out, the crowd caught that spark of something and briefly, just for a moment, I did feel it. I didn’t cry, there were no tears, but if at that moment you’d said something to me and forced me to answer, there might have been. The moment was fleeting, and whatever choked me for a second went as I joined in the singing. The hairs on my arms remained stood up for a few seconds though, then it was business as normal.
I say that, it wasn’t really, was it? The Imps looked makeshift in terms of personnel (no Montsma, Walsh, Maguire, Nlundulu, Fiorini, Bishop or Adelakun), and whilst it wasn’t a bad side we put out, you might argue it is weaker than the one that finished last season against Blackpool. That’s because of injuries, the uncertain nature of incoming players and some faces just needing extra minutes. I don’t think I’m being detrimental when I say we looked makeshift in places, and perhaps a few of us underestimated Fleetwood.
They certainly had the best of the early exchanges, with Josh Griffiths forced into making a couple of saves. I felt we looked uncertain in possession, slow to build up and choked out up top. The main threat came down the right, where the hugely underrated Regan Poole linked well with Anthony Scully, but otherwise, it just didn’t work. I could see where we wanted to go, but the space wasn’t there, and credit Fleetwood for that. There’s no doubt they’d done their homework, they pressed us high up the pitch, ensuring that much of our football was played across our own 18-yard area.
I’m not going to sugar-coat the first half, we were poor. It had a lot to do with our opponents, a side I felt looked better than I’d given them credit for, but we weren’t helping ourselves either. I noticed we often looked to play a diagonal ball from the flanks into the area just in front of the 18-yard box, but we often saw it drop into space, as a runner and passer tuned in to completely different wavelengths. I’m not sure it was either’s fault, instead a combination of players maybe, just maybe not suited to their position right now.
Our best chance of the first half fell to Tom Hopper and I think he’ll be cheesed off he didn’t do better. From my angle, it looked like he hurried his effort and caused the keeper no problems, but to be fair to Alex Cairns, he’d done his homework too. Not only did they press us high, but he spent a lot of time 18-yards or more from his goal, so when we did get in behind he could snuff out the danger before it developed. I noted he did the same to Cohen Bramall at least once, staying well out of his goal to help keep us quiet. I’ve questioned Simon Grayson as a manager, but he had his side drilled well.
Sadly, when it came to known threats, we didn’t deal with the big one, Danny Andrew. When they got a free-kick a good 25-yards from goal it looked easy enough to deal with, but he beat Josh Griffiths a little too easily from range to give the visitors a deserved lead. They’d been knocking on the door all half, but when they finally got in it was because we’d left the bloody door unlocked! I wouldn’t say it was an error from Josh, but it was relatively central to the goal and I think he’s seen it late, courtesy not of a blocked view but incredible pace. Hats off to Andrew, it was a great strike.
As soon as Fleetwood scored they were in game-breaking mode, which I felt did them a disservice. It was all about wasting time after that, taking ages over throw-ins, knocking the ball away at goal kicks, that sort of stuff. I feel they were better than that, and that the way we were defending, they could have had a bit more of a go. Sure, we did make some nice passes, and one or two looked to be on form, but it wasn’t gelling in the first half. If we were going to score, I felt it was going to be through Tayo Edun – not necessarily him putting it in the net, but he looked most likely to create an opening. I don’t know what we’ve been feeding him over the summer, but he went away an 8/10 and has come back an 11.
One player who has always been an 11 in my eyes is Liam Bridcutt, and once again he was the heartbeat of the side. With him, Poole and Edun shining in the first half we looked decent, but just couldn’t find the killer ball. Even Bramall and Scully looked dangerous when we got the ball into them, but the central players were throttled out. Hops was very quiet, McGrandles not as dominant as usual and Sorensen showed glimpses of his ability, but just didn’t get the rub of the green. By half time, I’d forgotten we were back for the first time in months, and instead focused on how things weren’t going our way. “We’ll have to be better this half,” I said to Matt, making an obvious statement when you’re going in 1-0 down at the break.