Sucker Punch: Imps 0-1 Cambridge United

Credit Graham Burrell

I’ve sat here for a while thinking about where to start, which is reflective of my day yesterday.

Normally, I start my articles with a one-liner or two, a quote or something similar. Usually, I start my day with my Dad in the Corn Dolly in Wragby with a Full English. Due to their insistence on having a Christmas break that lasts until February, we can’t do that, so we wandered around town looking for somewhere else yesterday. Hopefully, not knowing where to start this article turns out as well as that did; we ended up in what I think is called Car Park Cafe behind the train station. Lovely stuff, by the way, a proper old-school cafe.

That was a good start to the day but by 5.00 pm, walking back along the Sincil Drain with Dad as we do most weeks, the joy of such a good breakfast had gone. City had been undone, sucker-punched in a manner that should have felt devastating. The problem was, it didn’t. It felt a bit of a kick in the balls, but I didn’t lay in bed last night wondering what I’d write today. I didn’t argue with Dad at all as we walked along the middle of the road with hundreds of other Imps. There was a strange calm, as if we’d been beaten but in a manner you could almost accept.

I’m never saying you should accept defeat, but for much of the game we played very well, and we were undone by the sort of defending you might expect from a back four that’s been patched up and cobbled together in the manner it has. The whole game we were the better side (that’s not to say Cambridge were poor by the way), and a draw was the very least we deserved. You don’t always get what you deserve in football though, and so it proved.

Michael picked an attacking team, reflecting the need to break down a strong Cambridge rearguard. At their place earlier in the year, we carved through them at will, but this is a different team, hardened by a few months of League One football. I said before the game that I had huge respect for Mark Bonner, and yesterday didn’t change that; despite us going with Scully, new boy Liam Cullen, Morgan Whittaker and Chris Maguire, Cambridge didn’t come for the draw. I’ve seen plenty say they did, and I think maybe after about 30 minutes they’d have been happy with a point, but in the early exchanges, we saw two attacking teams giving the game a go. Fair play to them for that, we’ve seen enough of sides like Accrington coming here with two banks of five waiting for a chance on the break. At least Cambridge came to make a game of it, which deserves something I guess.

Credit Graham Burrell

I think Max Sanders might feel hard done by not to play, but in the context of this game, I don’t think it is personal. It’ll be interesting on Tuesday to see what Michael does; how do you get all four of our attacking players into the same side, but go to Rotherham and do what we did to Sunderland? The answer is you probably don’t. Sanders looks better as the holding midfielder alongside McGrandles, with Fiorini at the head in the eight role, at least when we want to make the pitch smaller. Yesterday, we didn’t want to make the pitch smaller, and so it called for the attacking formation. Interesting, Michael has been criticised for a ‘one size fits all’ approach, which isn’t the case at all, as yesterday proved.

After some good early football for an energetic and organised Cambridge side, we finally found our feet. You could argue Cambridge might have scored as early as the eighth minute, a Ted Bishop block from Sam Sherring’s effort made it look like a half-chance, but it was a decent opportunity. However, after that early flurry, we took control, and I think for the first time this season, we saw the Imps of last year in full flow. By that, I mean the little give and go balls on the edge of the area, the overlapping full backs, the creativity to get the ball into good areas. Cohen Bramall, a man who clearly got a second chance for Christmas, has seized it with both hands, and we should have taken the lead from one of his balls. On 25 minutes, a little backheel set him free on the left, he whipped a ball in and the new face, Liam Cullen, stabbed at goal, only to be denied by a block.

I liked the look of Cullen, he was a player who didn’t shine in the way Whittaker did last week; there’s no flicks and tricks, but he did take up good positions in the box. Occasionally we still saw the ball flash across goal, aching for a touch, but at times Cullen popped up into the right place, only to be denied. Considering he’s been with the club two day, I thought he had a solid debut that should have been capped by a goal.

Credit Graham Burrell

Whenever we did get a chance, Cambridge were equal to it; Maguire robbed Ben Worman and had a good effort blocked on the half-hour mark. Four minutes later, Morgan Whittaker’s ball found Bramall (again), and his pull back was fired at goal by Scully, only to be blocked. Whittaker fired a weak shot at the excellent Mitov a moment after; it was all Lincoln. This was the moment we needed to score; had we put one in the net in those ten minutes or so before half time, we’d have broken Cambridge’s resolve. Mind you, Newcastle couldn’t do it a week ago, and Cambridge showed it was no fluke; they are an evolving side, and one who look to me very likely to remain in League One against most people’s predictions.

Two key moments before the break gave us both hope, and ultimately disappointment. Just before the BIG chance, a move started with us playing out at the back that saw Poole play a ball to McGrandles, who made up forty yards before sliding in Chris Maguire. Mags was one-on-one with Mitov, appearing almost certain to add to his hat trick in midweek. Not only did the keeper make a save as Mags opted to stab in along the ground, not lift it into the air, but the rebound came back off a defender and out for a corner. It was a classic sweeping move up the field, not a counter-attack as such, but the move you’d expect us to make against a team willing to have a go.

Credit Graham Burrell

The big chance, and I mean big chance, happened seconds later, and for me, it was the moment to bring three points. If we bagged right before half time, Cambridge would have to have come out all guns blazing; they’d slowly retreated into their shells and as the attacking momentum graphic showed, they’d barely ventured into our box from the fifteen-minute mark. Once again, it was yet another shot assist by Bramall, overlapping nicely and finding Cullen in space. The striker did everything right, got the effort on target, with power, but Mitov pulled off a super save. Everyone around me thought it was going in, but the keeper’s proven that last weekend was no fluke for them, Gutted.

I was obviously disappointed, but also heartened. In the space of a couple of minutes we’d created better chance, more clear-cut chances, than at any time in games against Hartlepool, Accrington and Portsmouth. We didn’t score them, so the outcome is arguably no better, but we actually looked like scoring, at home, on more than just one occasion. That shows the progress being made in terms of personnel and confidence. It was good to see, if not a little tempered by not actually seeing the net rustle.