There are Lincoln City games that fade into obscurity within days; one where less than a month later you’re asking ‘which team was it who we drew 0-0 with last month’.
There are those that remain in your memory because of the occasion; play-off matches, semi-finals, games where entire seasons are won and lost. There are games you remember because you beat local rivals or opposition you bitterly resent. Then, after all of that, there are games that you remember like yesterday’s 2-0 win against Oxford.
They’re games you remember because they remind you why you love the game of football, how it can twist and turn, surprise and delight. Let’s face it, there’s been very little delight since the end of October, perhaps going back a bit before that, but finally, after 84 days, we’ve got another home win in the league. It wasn’t just a win though, it was a feeling of finally being back, dare I say for the first time since pre-Covid. I know we’ve been back in the round since Fleetwood in the early part of the season, but there have been mutterings of disconnection, discontent which has grown and spread like Omicron which has, in truth, never left me walking away from a game feeling quite the same as I did the day we beat Peterborough 2-1 at the start of 2020. Yesterday, I felt that.
I felt the joy of the Imps finally scoring home goals from open play, attacking with the intensity and panache that we watched on iFollow last season. I enjoyed so many happy faces, shocked at the open-ended nature of a game that we should have not been winning. Come on; we’ve lost to a poor Hartlepool side in the FA Cup, rolled over for Accrington who were one of the poorest teams I’ve seen us play. There’s no way a team with the likes of Cameron Brannagan, James Henry and Gavin Whyte should be losing to us, is there? Well, yes, there is actually, because as I’ve been saying for many, many weeks; we’re not as bad as some people think we are. In fact, when we have all our players fit and healthy, we’re actually quite good.
You couldn’t have told me that going to the game though. Hearing news such as Adam Jackson being out, Walsh, Hopper and now Bridcutt all long term, an unidentified Covid case and just the one new signing so far left me feeling decidedly negative. Sure, I’ve been running the Worst Lincoln City Signings Ever to add a bit of context to the players we signed in the summer (none of whom are anywhere near the list), but it didn’t change what I felt in my heart. Outwardly, I spoke of us dropping in the bottom four meaning nothing as we didn’t play, but inwardly I looked and it made me feel sick. I looked at Oxford and Sunderland in the space of a couple of days and thought we might be four points adrift by the time Cambridge come, with that nervous pressure all around the ground. Yup, it wasn’t so much Oracle of Optimism (if you know, you know), but Pages of Pessimism when it came to me pre-match.
The team selection didn’t help. Cohen Bramall still at left back? A midfielder relying on a misfiring McGrandles, and inconsistent players like Fiorini and Bishop? Nope, I walked into the ground knowing, deep down, we’re not far away from being a good side, but fearing we are too far away to get what was urgently needed points on the board. It didn’t really matter though, because my fears were unfounded. From the first blast of Seb Stockbridge’s whistle to the last, we were utterly superb.
That’s right, there were shades of Cambridge away in those opening exchanges, with the Imps playing some lovely football. We started brightly, and kept the pressure on throughout the first half. Of course, this is Lincoln, so there were moments that made me grip my seat, but in the main we saw the vision that Michael has for the team, not the injury-riddled outcome we’ve had to endure over the past couple of weeks. Oxford are a very good side, there’s no doubt about that, and they weren’t quite on it in the first half, but that didn’t mean we had it easy. However, isn’t it amazing what having Scully and local hero Morgan Whittaker in the squad does. Remember the Groundhog Day articles I did? About how up until the final third we look decent, then it all goes to mush? Well, yesterday we had a final third.
For me the most crucial aspect of the afternoon was the crowd, and even though we were vocal across the game, one moment lit the kindling under the crowd and the team; Chris Maguire’s audacious effort that their keeper tipped onto the post. It was a cracker, from out of nowhere, but I just felt something release from the crowd. If I’m honest, it felt like someone popping the balloon of pessimism that had not only engulfed me, but many objective supporters like me. That one effort was enough for 11 red and white shirts to finally get the unconditional backing. Even when a pass went astray, the nervous energy had dissipated. Lincoln City supporters suddenly saw Lincoln City, Michael Appleton’s Lincoln City, in the words of a great Imps character ‘back again’. Lincoln City were back.
Those willing to scratch under the surface know we never went away. We played well against MK Dons but folded like a bad poker hand at the end. We played well against Cheltenham but gave them their Christmas gift early to cost us three points. We’ve played well enough, over three games to have seven or nine points. I’ll be honest, I’ll take the four and be bloody happy with them.
After a great spell of pressure I feared the game would run away from us when Montsma came off. We’d been playing so well, so to see the big Dutchman crumple to the floor in agony was heartbreaking for him, but also for us. Another injury, again from something on the field and out of our control. Those minutes slipped by with him prone on the turf and the waves of pessimism might have crept back in. We’d have to move another full back to centre back, our attacking midfielder to right back and shuffle the central area around as well. Major disruption we just didn’t need. Lewis went off to huge applause, Lasse came on and immediately, we scored. It was so quick my entire row were still at the toilet, getting their break in before the half time rush.
The goal that lifted the crowd was created by a player who, in fairness, I have been critical of in recent weeks. Lewis Fiorini is clearly a talented kid, but he’s looked, at times, nervous when things don’t go well. I thought he did okay against MK Dons until his miss, and yesterday he capped a great display with a superb assist. His pass to Scully, in space, created the first goal, but Morgan Whittaker’s run help create indecision amongst their back four as well. The outcome? Anthony Scully rifling in his first league goal since the last-gasp penalty that earned us a draw against Plymouth. Astonishingly, for a player with 12 this season, it was only his second home league goal from open play. What a cracker it was too.
My hope then was ‘get to half time’, and we did. We went a big longer, managed the game and saw out seven minutes with little fuss, bar a good save from Josh Griffiths from a free-kick. To add balance, Oxford suffered a blow as well, Cameron Brannagan having to go off injured, which I guess disrupted them almost as much as our injury disrupted us, although they had a full complement of subs, and we had a bench that looked as empty as it ever had.