Edging Ever Closer: AFC Wimbledon 0-2 Imps

Firstly, let me be utterly frank with you.

I wasn’t at today’s game, I didn’t watch it on a VPN and aside from three key moments, I only have the radio commentary to go on. I don’t want to try to make you think anything other. I have reasons; I broke up for a week yesterday, Fe and I are having some time away in Norfolk and there just wasn’t the time to get down to Wimbledon. I cannot comment on the game’s intricacies to any real degree, which means today’s report will be shorter than normal. Usually, if I do not get to a game, I wait until Sunday, watch the game back by whatever means I can and write from there.

Today, I can’t do that, because I want to write about it now. Why? Because I think that today’s game was a seminal moment in our season. As we know, defeat would have left us just two points from Wimbledon and (as it turns out) five from safety. Instead, we’re eight points clear of both the Wombles and the dreaded drop zone. The job is not done, but we have edged closer to a fourth-consecutive season in the third tier of English football.

In my opinion, Tuesday night’s clash with Ipswich Town was partly sacrificed for today’s game. Tom Hopper didn’t kick a ball then, because we needed him now. The same goes for Joe Walsh, and I thought Cohen Bramall was included in that; I was wrong. However, the team selection was heavily impounded today by Conor McGrandles’ suspension and, of course, the ongoing situation with Liam Bridcutt. It meant we were light in midfield, with Lewis Fiorini, freshly in from the cold, partnering Lasse Sorensen, even more recently back in the squad. I felt it looked a bit light; I like Fiorini when he’s on form, but I’d have loved to see him and Max Sanders. Or Sorensen and Max Sanders.

I don’t want you to forget what he looks like – Credit Graham Burrell

Anyway, whether we agree with team selection or not, Michael picks the players he feels can win us the game, but even with the new-look front two, even with Morgan Whittaker growing a little in confidence, the first half seemingly belonged to Wimbledon. Michael said we’d have lots of possession; we didn’t. Instead, Wimbledon had the better of the half-chances, in front of a vocal crowd. I can’t help but chuckle when I put MK Dons and Wimbledon side by side though; Wimbledon have built within their means, a stadium for their supporters, not a stadium for their dreams of top-flight football, and it was easy to tell it paid off in terms of atmosphere. You can have 10,000 in Stadium MK and it feels empty; 8174 watched this afternoon at Plough Lane and it sounded like many more. That created a frenetic sounding game, one full of desire and perhaps a little short on quality.

In Lincoln City games the first goal is always crucial. If we score it, great (usually, we need two, but I’ll come to that). If the opposition scores it, it always feels like a long way back for us, whether that’s the first minute or the last. That’s why, after a tense first 30 minutes, I celebrated like we’d won the FA Cup at Fiorini’s strike. In reality, neither him nor Sorensen had got into the game, but one thing with Lewis is his quality; we know he’s got a long-range strike in his locker. I remember watching his highlights from last season and thinking ‘at least he’ll score a couple’. His strike set up our first goal last Saturday, and it gave us a lead we never lost this weekend. I think that any Goal of the Season competition this year will have that as one of the main contenders by the way (maybe not across the whole division, but 100% in our own awards). It was a beauty, and it knocked the stuffing out of Wimbledon for the remainder of the half.

Wonder strike – Credit Graham Burrell

Just to get to half time with the lead was a huge positive, and I made the mistake of looking at the table at the interval. It hit home to me how important this result could be, not just because of us and the Wombles, but also Fleetwood (who were winning at Burton), and the others around us. We’re not safe until we have more points than it is possible for other teams to get (obviously), but there’s a point where you know you won’t be in the bottom three next week, or even the week after, even if you lose three or four on the bounce. Right now, we could lose three on the bounce and it would be very unlikely we’d be in the bottom three. At half time, I thought maybe, just maybe, we could plan for League One football next season.

I expected us to be under the cosh for the opening fifteen or twenty and that was certainly the case, but without any real threat. I know their lad blazed over when he should have scored, but otherwise, this three at the back approach does make me feel a bit more confident of getting results. Of course, having the calm head of Joe Walsh back helps, and with Regan Poole very comfortable in the middle of a three, or on the right, I just feel we have a bit of balance. Fitness allowing, a Poole / Jackson / Walsh combo would be preferable, with Eyoma fighting Norton-Cuffy for the right wing back role, and (apparently) right winger Morgan Whittaker keeping Cohen Bramall and Jamie Robson out of the side on the left.

Maybe, TJ Eyoma will get his chance to play wing back on Tuesday night, thanks to Norton-Cuffy’s red card. It’s one of the incidents that I have seen, and for me, it’s not a red, not at all. I know Michael Hortin thought there was no complaints, but how many times over the last few weeks have we seen our players shoved, two-handed, with no punishment? Plenty. I can’t recall the referee that bottled it at the Bank a few weeks ago, but there was one who allowed a throat grab to go unpunished. Mind you, at least that referee saw what happened. Carl Brook, a weak official, didn’t see the incident with Brooke clearly and he still sent him off. He’s apparently said it’s for a headbutt, but in the clips I’ve seen, there’s no headbutt. Expect an appeal but, knowing the FA, don’t expect a reversal of the decision.

Sent off, but will it be rescinded? – Credit Graham Burrell

By the way, if the decision is reversed, I’d expect Mr Brook to have a week or two off. If he has sent off a player without actually seeing the incident, that’s criminal. It could have cost us dearly. Instead, it strengthened our resolve.

There’s no doubting our commitment today, to a man, and that includes the usual punchbag of Morgan Whittaker. Every player fought, they might not have been brilliant, but they showed fight and spirit. I don’t think anyone dares say otherwise this evening, not if they wish to keep their credibility. The yellow card count testifies to that, although it also points to a card-happy referee (as I called in my Ref Watch article this week) who perhaps lost a bit of control. Mind you, his ineptitude does appear to have worked in our favour late on.

At 1-0, with ten men, I was bloody nervous, and there was a spell of three corners that had me almost pooing my pants. I think it was a Jordan Wright mistake that led to the first, then a Jordan Wright save that led to the second, a real case of redeeming a mistake quickly. I think there ought to be a word or praise for Wright; when he signed I had visions of it being a Charlie Andrew signing, a young stopper coming to warm the bench and not get games. Well, he’s been thrown in at the deep end and whilst he’s young and inexperienced, he made some decent saves today. I still wonder if we might sign an emergency stopper on loan, but this experience will stand Jordan in good stead going forward.

My nerves, and doubtless yours, were settled late on with another City goal, and whilst Ted Bishop’s name is on it, John Marquis was the creator. Marquis, who had very little to feed on all afternoon, chased every lost cause, as did Tom Hopper. On this occasion, it was the former Portsmouth man who got his just reward, stealing the ball and then unselfishly teeing up the sub, Bishop. To be fair to Ted (who I thought might start) he still had to finish calmly, and he did, to give us a late 2-0 lead.

Settled my nerves like double-dropping valium – Credit Graham Burrell

Referee Carl Brook still had a part to play, denying what looks to me like a stonewall penalty to the home side late on, which proves he wasn’t a homer, just a pretty poor official. The noise from the radio was deafening, certainly reflecting what I imagine was the atmosphere in the ground, both hostile and jubilant. I wish, more than pretty much anything, I’d been able to make the trip. Still, as the free kick got punted up field and the minutes ebbed away, I felt just as happy as those down in London.

The final whistle brought, for me at least, complete and utter delight. Despite our win last weekend, I’ve spent every moment from Tuesday night until kick off worried about this game. No McGrandles was a big factor, then Josh Griffth’s injury – it felt like we might be hauled back into the scrap. Instead, we fought, we battled and we scrapped (a bit too much at times according to the referee), and we came away with not just a big three points, but a season-defining, imperative three points. I said before the game it was must not lose, but that a win would be huge. Well, now we’ve got the win, it’s bigger than huge. Huger, one might say, if that’s a word.

We’re not safe yet, I get that, but as Doncaster and Crewe drift away, I feel we’re now setting ourselves apart from the Gillingham, Wimbledon, Fleetwood and Morecambe battle immediately underneath us. I claimed we should be in the next group of teams, the Charlton and Shrewsbury area, and results have proven me right in that respect; I think looking up now, rather than down, is possible, but of course, it can all change. However, two weeks ago we left Sincil Bank having seen a team lacking fight and desire, devoid of creativity and ideas. Since then we may have lost to Ipswich, but we’ve won pretty (Sheffield Wednesday) and today we’ve won ugly. I feared we couldn’t do either, but 14 days have happily proved me wrong.

I can now focus on a few days away without football casting a cloud over things. I can head out tonight for a bite to eat with my mate Dave, without the churning in my stomach that proximity to the bottom four brings I know you feel the same, I’m sure there’s an element of a weight being lifted, just as it was last weekend. The last seven days have been crucial for our League One status, but this afternoon has been a seminal moment in the story of our 2021/22 season, and it might just be a key point in Michael Appleton’s reign as Lincoln City manager, which he bloody deserves.

As do you and me. Have a good evening Imps.

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