Playing With My Principles: Imps 1-2 Sunderland

Credit Graham Burrell

I want to level with you; I didn’t watch last night’s game, and I didn’t listen to it either.

There are reasons, and I want to touch upon those before I go much further into this article. I’m not what you’d call a ‘boycotter’, I wouldn’t miss us if we played in the final, but my desire for this competition has waned, and this season it has been almost completely extinguished.

My stance has always been this: I’m a Lincoln fan, I support the club through fair weather and foul and if we’re in with a chance of going to Wembley, I’m on board. Our first season back in the Football League was exciting for everyone, and every time we kicked a ball, I wanted to be there if I could. That’s meant the Checkatrade, and I was happy to take the derision of Grimsby fans for not being a staunch boycotted. I got a great day out at Wembley for it and saw my club list a trophy.

For those who recall, the following season we played Wolves U21s, Mansfield and Scunthorpe in the group stages, and I attended one game; Mansfield. If I remember correctly, we brought Jamie McCombe on as we were chasing the game. I was a bit miffed, but I hadn’t spent money on the game, I was a guest in running Imps’ box, but when we played Wolves, I skipped the game. I went to the ground and did a shirt exhibition, but I didn’t do the game. It felt like the club didn’t care about the competition, so why should I?

Credit Graham Burrell

In 2019/20, I attended one of the games; Man Utd U21s. The only reason I watched kids against my team was Michael Appleton; it was his first game at the Bank and I was keen to meet him and see how the new era started. I skipped the 3-0 win against Rotherham, we were already out and I had no interest. Sure, I’ve watched games on iFollow since, but I’ve no desire to go and watch at the ground. I stand by the positives this competition brings; Sam Long won’t think it’s a waste of time, nor the club board who are £20,000 better off.

I wonder though, would they rather have had the £20,000 or a fitter squad? Whilst my principles have been torn between supporting the club and the right things to do (not have Under 21 teams playing in the cup), I’ve always accepted the latter because of the benefits, in other words, being bought off. I’ve sought to find a middle ground where I can confidently get behind the trophy and argue my points with people such as Nick Proctor, a staunch boycotter for whom I have respect. I can’t do that now.

Credit Graham Burrell

The reason is Manchester United Under 21s, or perhaps more generally, Man United. We didn’t want to play them on the second or third Tuesday of the season; we had injuries, players with knocks and couldn’t put up a team. I am told they requested one date, we asked for the other and they got their way. Why? What need did they have to preserve a squad? They play Under 21s football, they didn’t need to play us on that date at all, but it posed a fundamental risk to fitness for our players. We were forced to risk players, and behind the scenes, that game has caused plenty of problems. A couple of days later, we went into Oxford United without Dan N’Lundulu, who was injured because he came back too quick. Ted Bishop and Conor McGrandles both played and have since been in and out of the side too. It was an unnecessary game, given that Sunderland were playing their first in the competition last night. Having had off the record chats with people at the club, the real picture emerged of us essentially being bullied into playing a game that has negatively impacted our season.

That’s where I draw the line, when the Premier League’s kids become not just a sideshow you either tolerate or you don’t, but when their needs are put before those of the real club, with actual points on the line. I’m not saying we would have beaten Oxford had we not played Man Utd U21s, but five of our players started both matches, games they didn’t need at that stage of the season. It was August 24th, and yet here we are, on October 6th, and one of the other teams in our group had only just kicked their first ball of the campaign. I don’t have a problem with the timing of last night’s game, nor the Bradford game, as we had weekends off after, but that United game was forced upon us and that should not be the case.

Credit Graham Burrell

Am I boycotting the tournament? Considering we’ve played 17 games in it since we won at Wembley, and I’ve attended just two (both as a non-paying guest), maybe I am, inadvertently. I’m not jumping on that bandwagon though, I don’t have a problem with the tournament if priority is given to the right clubs, but it isn’t. Man Utd U21s were not just deemed our equal in terms of the competition, they were given priority over us regarding scheduling and I find that the line that shouldn’t be crossed. I’ve always said this tournament is a bit of a freakshow, but I can live with it as I didn’t feel it was a route for B Teams in the EFL structure, but how can I be so sure when an U21 team is given priority over a proper club? I can’t. That’s why I didn’t go; it’s why I didn’t go against Man Utd and it is why I won’t go if we get through to the next round (unless we get to Wembley, then like all but a handful of supporters, I’d ditch this belief just for a trip to London).

Why an article at all? Why not just do what Fan Hub do, and pretend it doesn’t exist? Because it does exist. We did play, players did find some benefits and I’m stuck between being a proper observer of Lincoln City and someone pissed off at the cup and modern football. That’s why instead of a report, I have picked out three things we can take from last night’s game.

Chris Maguire

Credit Graham Burrell

I’ve spoken to those who went, and whilst few players came out with real credit, the glimpses were getting of Chris Maguire are promising. We need a spark up top; we need someone who can grab a game by the scruff of the neck and make stuff happen. We haven’t seen that consistently from any of Ted Bishop, Lasse Sorensen or Hakeeb Adelakun yet, but we have seen the potential in Chris Maguire. I get the impression he has the ability to be the key we need to unlock certain defences, and whilst he can’t do it alone, nor without a regular nine, he might just recuse a point here and there for us, which is going to be crucial going into the autumn and early winter period.

Joe Walsh

I don’t know how he played; I haven’t asked, but is there a finer sight in recent weeks as Joe Walsh putting on a Lincoln City kit. I’ve joked, tongue-in-cheek, about his fitness, likening him to Mr Glass from Unbreakable, but we know his quality if we can get him fit. He’s an experienced central defender, and last season he would have won Player of the Month more than once had he put enough games together to qualify each month! For that alone, hearing him come through 45 minutes is a Godsend, especially when most of the injury news we get makes me feel like climbing into our water butt in drizzle and having someone seal the lid on me, waiting for it to fill up slowly over time. That’s the feeling I usually get after a game, waiting for the injury news.

Credit Graham Burrell

Max Sanders

I’ve watched the highlights, Jamie Robson driving a shot over when Sanders had made a great run down the flank, and I’ve heard of a bad bunch, he wasn’t the worst as well. I’m wondering if Sincil Bank’s forgotten man might just be beginning to get the idea. I was told he struggled to adapt to senior football after coming out of Brighton’s U23s, and maybe he’s just about getting up to speed. Let’s be honest here, a couple of our other central midfielders have struggled to impress; I’ve liked Fiorini but he was poor at the weekend, and both Bishop and Sorensen run hot and cold, in the same way, my taps do when I forget to put the boiler on. In Sanders, I see a strong footballer, likely to put himself about more like Bridcutt but hopefully packing the same quality on the ball as some of the others. Seeing him get two appearances in a week is seriously good news for the depleted, threadbare squad.

Credit Graham Burrell

The Negatives

We lost, conceded the first goal (again) and failed to keep a clean sheet (again). I’m not drawing all that much from it; their second goal was almost certainly the fault of Sam Long, but the youngster will learn plenty now he’s heading to Gainsborough on loan. Conceding first is really doing us and I heard Michael admit that the goal affected a few of our players; we can’t keep letting that happen. If we concede first, we have to show the spirit we showed on Saturday, not let it get to us.

Make no mistake, last night’s result is embarrassing because Sunderland played a team of kids and reserves. It almost felt like us against Sunderland Under 21s; they’ve got the depth and the academy to make that work, but we still had enough senior experience on the field to win that game, and we didn’t. It’s hard to take positives from that outcome, especially as I didn’t see that game! What I will try to do is put it to one side, brush it off as a non-entity game with little impact in the bigger picture, and take the next ten days to hope Michael gets players fit and shores up the leaky defence ahead of Charlton, a proper game in a proper competition with something tangible at stake.