Wycombe Wanderers are a side that throw back to a different era.
You won’t get me criticising their direct style; we watched it for long enough and loved the success it brought. There are fans out there right now who would back us vehemently if we went back to that approach, smashing the ball into the box at every opportunity. It’s not great to watch, the game wasn’t for the purists and a neutral might have been forgiven for forgetting what sport they were watching at times, but they’re in the top six, so it must be successful, right?
We can mock all we want, joke about sore necks, or giving the pitch a rest for a week, and as football fans we will do that. However, what Wycombe presented was a new challenge for us, and one that I enjoyed watching us rise to. The truth is some challenges, like three at the back, have been a problem for us in the past. Others, like ten behind the ball, definitely stump us, but rarely have we come up against a genuine, bona fide throwback to the long ball teams of the nineties, albeit with a little more refinery and ability in key areas. It wasn’t quite like watching a John Beck side, they weren’t balls-out brutal and they could play on the deck when asked, but it was certainly an altogether different show to what we’ve witnessed most of the season.
What it did was ask questions of us. Could we deal with the aerial bombardment, but have the guile to find out own way through a back three, with wingbacks, which has stumped us so often this season? Could we keep our discipline when the ball was on the deck, but have a Plan B, an approach that didn’t simply lead to us playing out from the back, being penned in and forced into mistakes? You see, that’s the game I expected yesterday. I thought we’d do our thing, and the simple brute force of Wycombe could pressure us into handing them the game; a bit like a schoolyard bully making you give them your dinner money just because he looks a bit hard. Hartlepool, Accrington, Cheltenham and a host of others haven’t been good enough to beat us, not really, but did so because we just handed over the goods. Wycombe, they’re different, we know they’re tough because they’re basically us, from the nineties, reimagined for a new audience. Gamers might think of them as John Beck, remastered in HD with the culturally inappropriate bits removed for a softer snowflake crowd.
I certainly melted like a snowflake ahead of the game, when I saw there was no Joe Walsh in the side. TJ and Poole haven’t been bad, Poole has been exceptional, but against big strikers looking to win headers? I wasn’t so sure. Bramall at full-back always frightens me defensively (and thrills me going forward), whilst seeing a young kid from Arsenal get his full league debut against the very epitome of strength and assertiveness made me clench my buttocks together in fear. Genuinely, the lessons I thought Lincoln City had taught me this season is when we’re matched like for like by a ball-playing team, we’re very good. When we’re asked a question that differs from the stereotypical image of purists football, we wilt like a Russian athlete having a drugs test.
Immediately from the kick off, you knew this was going to be a game that had little for those hunting fast, free-flowing football, but what was refreshing was our inclination to match that approach. We didn’t go long all of the time, but we did look to get the ball forward from goal kicks and free kicks much quicker than usual. It all look a bit ‘Lincoln’, Josh getting the ball in position, defenders dropping near for to receive and Wycombe players following suit, but rather than use that as our flawed starting point for possession, we looked to hit John Marquis quite a bit. In the first half, with the wind behind us, it certainly paid off; plus when they tried the same, they couldn’t really get out of their half. It meant a pretty poor game for the spectator, but it was a tactical move by MA and the coaching team that meant we often picked up possession in the middle of the park, rather than get hemmed in our own defensive third. I remember when MA said a few weeks back he wouldn’t change his style, and a few dissident voices started crying ‘arrogant’. Well, he does change his style, when he feels it necessary. He always has, he just isn’t going to talk tactics ahead of the game. Yesterday proved it; we’re not a one-trick pony.
Of course, the early goal gave us something to shout about, and it too came right off the training ground. We’ve all been, critical of wasted corners this season (although we have more shots from corners per 90 than opponents this season according to Wyscout), and we were given something of real quality to get us started. It was a smart move, a neat pass into the area pulled back for Liam Cullen, who seemed to scuff his effort at first glance. It wasn’t great defending, you’d expect a block or a foot to deflect it away, but we watched it roll into the corner. On reflection, I think it was a good finish, not a scuffed one. It was also the dreaded early lead that we almost always seem unable to defend.
In the first half, we didn’t need to defend it though, because Wycombe simply couldn’t get out. They tried to, but our defensive line was superb, and it left them open to the counter. The classic example of this came on 13 minutes, when a Wycombe attack was foiled by Max Sanders, who stabbed the ball into Marquis. His little flick found Maguire, who tried to beat the keeper from inside his own half. It looked ambitious, but David Stockdale did take a very high line all game. The shot was parried wide, and to be fair, we thought it looked tame. Again, watching back, it was
on target and a good save. The resulting corner was wasted (ha, it only took one paragraph), but yet again, we got a shot on target.
That was about it for our efforts in the first half, but Wycombe managed nine shots, two on target. Mind you, the two on target came in the third minutes and the 45th, and neither are worth writing home about. In the middle of that they had a further seven, more than us, off target. In fact, by the end of the game, they’d had 29 shots, but that means zero to me. I remember back in the days of FIFA 10, my and an old mate of mine, Kirky, used to play for hours on end. We’d always say if a game was a draw, whoever had the most shots on goal would be deemed the winner (he couldn’t take penalties and said that was an unfair way of finishing the game). If we were locked in a stalemate, we’d be bashing the shoot button from anywhere on the field, in the vague hope it might get fumbled, deflected or anything. In truth, we didn’t think we’d score, we just wanted to get our shots on target up. I’d say at least 60% of their efforts yesterday were the same.
Just before half time one young man made an ambling run from the back to alert Imps fans to his talents; Brooke Norton-Cuffy. He’s a leggy, rangy player who has a style not unlike Paulo Wanchope in my eyes, but he’s not half bad. He just seemed to carve his own path through towards the keeper, and if the ball had slightly less pace on it, he’d have had a clear strike at goal for 2-0. That was the eye-catching moment, but he showed a real maturity beyond his years in a challenging Football League debut. I’m not getting carried away, Morgan Whittaker was outstanding against Oxford but has struggled since, but on yesterday’s showing, Norton-Cuffy should be starting on Tuesday night, no doubt.
In fact, in a rather tepid, low-on-thrills first half, I felt proud of our players. We’d fought for everything, we won every second ball, and we gave as good as we got when it came to the ark arts. We took our time over restarts, we made out we were going short, then went long. Chris Maguire and former Imp Curtis Thompson had a running battle that I felt might boil over, but then everyone has that with Maguire don’t they? He’s a proper shithouse, the sort you love to hate, and I felt his influence was huge in the challenging second period. Still, at half time, I was happy, if not all that confident we’d hold out.
I did have to chuckle halfway through the first period, when their fans were singing ‘shall we sing a song for you’. I like football fan humour, and I think their 500 or so travelling fans were excellent, louder than some bigger club’s fanbases we have here. I don’t understand them signing that though, when at the same time our own supporters had not stopped for bout thirty minutes. Sometimes, the collective experience does run away with people, doesn’t it? At least make the songs relevant lads, as you did in the second half.