I have now had time to check out last night’s key moments and found a spare hour as the rain comes down to get some thoughts out there.
Firstly, thank you to Richard Godson for the match report today; I appreciate all contributions on the site. I did manage to listen to the game, but couldn’t commit to writing anything. Now, I can.
I think my first reaction to last night is ‘if only we could turn up for 90 minutes’. This Lincoln City side goes from utterly ridiculous to absolutely excellent in minutes, but we can’t find a way to stick on the latter for a full game. Sadly, we have managed to make the former last 90 minutes (or for the whole of November), and that’s my frustration, and the silver lining adorning every cloud this season. There’s clear evidence of what Michael wants the players to do, we saw it last night for 45 minutes, we’ve seen it here and there, in flashes, throughout the season. If we played as well for entire games, or months, as we did in the last 45 in South Yorkshire, we’d be top ten without a doubt. So, why are we not doing it?
Firstly, it’s almost certainly leaders. This weekend, as we won at Wimbledon, I didn’t think we played well and we lacked a leader on the field. Last season, I recall lamenting the loss of Liam Bridcutt; when he plays, we’re better. When he’s absent, we turn to McGrandles (missing the last two games), or Poole (missing last night). Whilst Joe Walsh is experienced, I don’t see him necessarily as a leader; a leader isn’t just about age, it’s about influence, firing the other players up and the only ones we had last night were Hopper and Marquis. I think that’s one reason why we folded like a freshly laundered pair of jeans before the quarter-hour mark.
How often have we seen City concede one, then another this season, or look susceptible after conceding? Crewe springs to mind, albeit two penalties, but it’s a real issue. Often, that is marked by fans as a lack of desire, but I think it’s a confidence thing. What I will say is despite last night’s woeful first half, I thought we showed character not to concede four or five in the first half. When the second went in, and Jordan Wright hit the deck for a prolonged period, I saw ‘Rotherham 6-0 Lincoln’ in my head, and another painful parallel with 2010/11. I keep saying, this isn’t 2010/11, this side is different, and yet the first hint of a similar occurrence and I’m panicking!
Not only were we resilient to shrug off the awful performance, but in the second half, we matched the league leaders, a team who will be in the Championship next season. What drives me crazy is that it was the exact same players with such a different performance; you could be forgiven for thinking we had changed our entire squad. How does this happen? How do 11 players play so poorly in the first half, then come out and match a team like Rotherham in the second? It doesn’t make any sense. In the first half, Michael Smith got the better of our defenders every time; he didn’t get a sniff in the second. Our midfield was as penetrable as Lidl budget toilet paper, porous and barely there in the first half. In the second half, Lewis Fiorini was excellent, pulling the strings like he was the master of a Punch and Judy show. How? I don’t know the answer, I really don’t. All I do know is if we’d played in the first half the same as we did in the second, we’d be three points better of this afternoon. Instead, we’re one game closer to the end of the season.
Of course, the great second half performance means nothing, not really. We know we’re inconsistent, so it proved nothing. We know that on our day, this team is as good as any in the division, we’ve proven that on occasion. However, we also know that when we’re not on it, we’re worse than any team in this division. In fact, we epitomise this division, we are the single-team embodiment of ‘anyone can beat anyone’. Sadly, on most occasions, we bloody beat ourselves.
I still feel we’ll get the three wins I think will keep us in this division this season; I think we’ll go into the final day of the season able to have a bit of fun, a few drinks and be thankful we’re a League One club next season. It might not go down that way, but something tells me we’re going to be alright; just. We’re turning in full halves of the slick City these days (and even a full 90 against Sheff Weds). That’s more than we managed in October and November, which gives me hope. However, Michael will know he has a big job this summer; he needs a 40-game a season enforcer and leaders for next year, and at least two centre backs who will also start 95% of our games. For me, that’s where the inconsistency comes from; a patchy squad, punctuated with persistent injuries and at times, a lack of a regular spine.
Here’s a word of caution. I see parallels between us and Bristol Rovers; coming up out of the National League, into League One, and establishing as a third-tier side. The Gas struggled to kick on, and they booted Darrell Clarke and brought in Graham Coughlan. That deviation from Clarke’s method ended with relegation last season. If you look at Huddersfield, they struggled last season, stuck with their manager and his principles and have done well this time out. Those who have wished Michael out in the past might wish to take that on board; for me, Appleton’s Imps can be as good as any team in the third tier. His job is not to turn things around; we do the right things and when we’re on it, we’re a top team. Michael’s job next season is to assemble a squad, from the current players and new recruits, that can be consistent not for 45 minutes, or once a month, but for 85% of the matches we play.
If he does that, I still believe he can one day lead us to the Championship. Maybe, after the article published on the site earlier this week, I’m the deluded one.