I read it of Charlton Athletic recently that their slow start has at least in part been put down to a disrupted pre-season and the late arrival of a number of signings. I think the same could also be said of Lincoln City, writes Richard Godson.
Reaching the play off final extended the previous season by three weeks, during which time no one at the club could be sure whether we would be paying our football in League One or the Championship come August. The outcome will no doubt have influenced the club’s recruitment policy and I have no doubt that the delay induced an unavoidable paralysis in our transfer activity. Compare that with twelve months earlier when we effectively stole a march on our rivals, getting in early with loans and acquisitions, thereby ensuring the squad had plenty of time to gel prior to the opening kick-off, which itself was delayed until September. No such hiatus this time around with the season getting underway before the final pieces of the squad jigsaw were in place. Some are still missing you may say and no one at the club would argue with that.
Since then, the manager’s public pronouncements have been couched in terms of expectation management. He will have known that, having led the division for much of the previous season and only just missing out on promotion, fans would naturally assume that the club’s onward march to its destiny was assured this time. He would also know, however that there is nothing inevitable or smooth in the fortunes or trajectory of a football club. He himself was out of action for a period during the summer and this was no doubt as unexpected and alarming to Michael and his family as it was to all of us. That he seems to suffering no ill effects as a result is a monumental relief to all.
The club’s movements in the transfer market having got off to a delayed start meant that new signings arrived late in the day resulting in what I recall from the friendly at Boston as a lack of cohesion amongst players and I think it is fair to say that the side is only now beginning to gel, not helped by a succession of injuries and early season fitness issues, exacerbated by a number late arrivals. He may have been a key member of the side last season but do not forget that T J Eyoma was employed by Tottenham Hotspur until he was unveiled to wide acclaim ahead of the home game against Bolton Wanderers. It was another three weeks before he made his first league appearance, away at Cambridge, the same day that fellow defender and new signing Jamie Robson pulled on an Imps jersey for the first time. I think it is fair to say it has taken time for both of them to get fully into their stride and I don’t think it would be uncharitable to say that only now is T J starting to inspire the confidence we all had in him last season. Similarly, praise for Robson increases week by week. I cannot leave out Regan Poole who continues to grow in stature. The increasing cohesion of the back four, in spite of enforced changes has done nothing but assist the confidence of young loan keeper Josh Griffiths who, let’s face it, has pulled off some stunning saves and richly deserved his man of the match nominations. If this is beginning to come across as a propaganda piece, I assure you it is not intended to.
No one would deny that the midfield has had a disrupted opening to the season with Liam Bridcutt ‘hors de combat’ for the last month. There have been occasions when those who were playing appeared to lack confidence in each other. However, McGrandles, Bishop and Sørensen have settled to their task as their game time together has increased. It will be a nice dilemma for Michael when skipper Bridcutt returns to fitness but it is also a comfort to him that the trio currently occupying those positions are showing themselves to be up to the task. At Hillsborough on Saturday I was particularly impressed by Lasse, who I felt in earlier games was often prone to losing possession, was now not only winning the ball but more than capable of keeping it.
On Tuesday night, Dan N’Lundulu capped a fine and hard-working performance with his debut goal for the club. He was well supported by Fiorini who continues to improve and Maguire who unsettles his opponents by not only putting himself about but evidently getting under their skin in the process.
Mention of Tuesday night brings me to attendances. A couple of things prompt me here. One is something I read on Fake Book (yes, that’s deliberate) about capacity at Sincil Bank which prompted me to comment that, other than the Stacey West development, I didn’t see any justification for extending the seating at the stadium on the grounds that we are pretty much at peak home support which may even have dropped off slightly when compared with the last season in which spectators were permitted. I made the comment without checking the figures and write this, having now done so. After the home game against Burton on 7 March 2020, following which the season was suspended the average number of home supporters at Sincil Bank stood at 8,153. The highest home support number that season was 8,431 against Sunderland the previous October. This term, the average number of home supporters (not the total attendance, remember) is currently at 7,837 with the highest home support number of 8,164 coming in the 1 – 0 defeat by Ipswich Town.
Thus far the average number of home supporters is a little over 300 down. It will almost certainly change, particularly when the likes of Sunderland, Sheffield Wednesday and possibly Portsmouth come visiting. I have my doubts about the last one, notwithstanding the identity of the manager there, because it is on a Tuesday night and such games do not seem to be as well attended as those on a Saturday afternoon, but it does reinforce my impression that demand for additional home seating is not out there. From my vantage point in the Selenity stand, I cannot help noticing significant gaps particularly in Block 1 of the Co-op stand along with swathes of empty seats in the Krypto Cloud South Park end.
The second prompt was the posting of a photograph of Imps fans away at the DW Stadium the other night which attracted a number of disparaging comments from supporters of other teams. Whilst I ignored the comments, I have since taken a look at our travelling support this season. As you would expect, the highest number travelling to a game was to Hillsborough. This applies both in terms of the absolute number, 3,170 (the number of tickets sold anyway) and as a percentage of the total gate, 13.48%. In absolute terms the lowest travelling number so far to a league game is 241 at Morecambe although this number represented 6.95% of the total gate. The 302 who travelled to Wigan amounted to 3.47%. Wigan was a rearranged fixture but I am still prompted to ask why, when they plan the season’s fixtures, do the suits at the league think it is a good idea to make fans from Lincoln travel to across the country to Morecambe and those from Portsmouth make the trip to Lincoln after work on a Tuesday evening? It just doesn’t make sense to me.
A Saturday visit to Morecambe, say, might well have inspired me to take the Mrs, book an overnight stay in a nice hotel on the seafront and return to the Shire on the Sunday. What I cannot do, however, is leave my office in Lincoln at 5.30 on a Tuesday and expect to be in my seat at the Mazuma Stadium in time for a 7.45pm kick-off. I’d have to get a wiggle on to make it there for the second half and that’s without the prospect of a 4 hour journey back to my home near Boston after 45 or so minutes of football. That is why I am so full of admiration for those supporters who do make trips like this, in spite of the obstacles placed before them by the football authorities.
So are we punching above our weight? In terms of team performance, I am hopeful we are just beginning to. Our player budget is said to be in the bottom half of League One and we currently sit at the foot of the top half of the table. If we can overcome Shrewsbury (and unforeseen circumstances necessitate my absence) on Saturday we shall enter the FA Cup break from league action in at least twelfth place and possibly higher. The manager has spoken of getting through to January and kicking on from there and the optimist in me would like to think his estimate might turn out to be somewhat on the conservative side. Of course a lot can change between now and the end of the year so he is probably justified in his caution.
As for crowd size, whilst we have slipped back from the level of a couple of seasons ago, we currently stand tenth in average gate for the season so far. Ahead of us are 9 clubs, all of whom have Premier League or Championship pedigrees. The way is led, of course by Sunderland, who contrary to the opening verse of the song sung by Toon fans, only have 19,000 empty seats at the Stadium of Light. Sincil Bank, by contrast is running at 85% of capacity, so yes, I’d say we are most certainly punching above our weight.