Football, eh? One week you’re in Shropshire getting beaten with barely a whimper, the next you’re in one of Europe’s major cities all but securing your League One future.
For everything last week was (miserable, toothless, dour), yesterday was not (exciting, attacking, incident-filled). We arguably played a team who did more to win the game yesterday than the team that actually did win last week, and for once we had a referee you know and trust to make the big calls, which he did. It was everything a game of football should be (for a Lincoln fan at least), and a great way to remind us all that whatever is going on around a club, whatever incident we’re all at loggerheads about, football is all that really matters.
Usually, if we go to a ground and win for the first time, I’d make a big thing of it, and winning at the Valley yesterday certainly made a little bit of history, but Michael’s team have been doing that for three years. Wins at Fratton Park and Home Park beat long hoodoos, as did our victory over Sheff Weds at the Bank. Last season, coming within a whisker of promotion certainly set a precedent too, and it’s perhaps easy to forget what we have achieved when trying to focus on what we haven’t. It was also nice to get our first double of the season in, something we can hopefully make a double-double on Tuesday night.
Anyway, onto the game of football in hand, a trip to Charlton which looked very tricky indeed. Last season, on-loan Jayden Stockley was rampant as we were beaten 3-1 in a dead rubber game, one in which we’d already qualified for the play-offs but could not make the automatics. This season there was far more at stake; I’ve said I feel a low 40s might be the benchmark for staying up, but breaking 50 is still important, both for ease of nerves and the psychology behind the total. 50 points is (usually) safety, and that’s where you want to be when the season kicks off. Ahead of these last two games, I thought three points would be a decent haul, but before kick-off yesterday, I’d have taken a point.
Even though we’re still in the relegation picture I don’t feel anxious ahead of these matches now. If anything, I feel worse afterwards knowing we’re still not safe, but it would take a huge turnaround in fortunes for teams like Morecambe, Wimbledon, Fleetwood and Gillingham for us to end up in the bottom four. Still, when Michael made his team announcement, there was feeling from some that we might be focusing on Tuesday.
Out went the new-look strike partnership of John Marquis and Tom Hopper. In came the much-maligned Liam Cullen and loanee Lewis Fiorini. Joe Walsh, out for so long with injury, was dropped on form and in came the talisman, Liam Bridcutt, for his first start of 2022. Is it really any surprise that in the first game for weeks we have a stable midfield of three, we don’t look flustered? It’s a rhetorical question, the answer is no. Might I also add John Marquis being on the bench could be a good thing for us in the long term; if he’s seen to tail off, he might not be as attractive to other suitors in the summer. Anthony Scully came in as well, with no Chris Maguire involved in the action. Cohen Bramall’s injury ruled him out with Jamie Robson chosen, whilst Brooke Norton-Cuffy also came in for Ted Bishop. I think that’s called ‘wholesale changes’, and why not after last week?
Anyhow, whilst some supporters felt we had one eye on Tuesday, Michael was quick to dispel. He said there were no injuries and that his choices were based on form. Fair play, it was a ballsy statement to make, especially as I’m not sure that three or four of those dropped were that bad against Shrewsbury. Still, Michael had a plan, and whilst he’s often criticised for not changing things enough, he once again proved himself unafraid to mix the starting XI.
It worked. I think Charlton are in a false position and they’re laden with players I’ve admired in the past. Obviously, Stockley is a decent striker at this level, albeit not looking quite as devastating as he did whilst on loan there. Scott Fraser and George Dobson should be a midfield pairing that boss League One, whilst Adam Matthews (Sunderland), Ben Purrington (Rotherham) and Sean Clare (Sheff Weds) all have a ‘top-end’ League One feel at worst. In terms of a starting XI, this is one I think should be looking at top six, not bottom eight. Of course, when we face teams like that, we match them. Usually.
The game started at a decent tempo with Charlton having lots of possession but doing nothing with it. This suits us again; when we have the ball and teams ask us to break them down, we struggle, but when they have the ball and ask us to break them down, we look decent. There were some half chances, perhaps one of the best falling to Conor Washington on the half-hour mark. He’s one I didn’t mention in the list of players I admire, despite being a Northern Ireland international. I’ve covered enough football over the past few seasons to know Washington has the attributes to be a top striker, but not the finishing ability. Corey Blackett-Taylor is a player who has previously not impressed me, but he was perhaps the best Addick on the field yesterday, and he teed Washington up perfectly, only for the shot to be scuffed from four yards out.
From almost being 1-0 down (and let’s face it, probably going on to lose the game), we took the lead. It was a goal made by loan players, Liam Cullen finding Lewis Fiorini, who then fed in Morgan Whittaker. Now, there’s been a lot of narrative around Whittaker about how he could have shot earlier, but I hate to hear the negative when the outcome was a good finish from 18-yards. Why when I listen back to reaction do I hear a player with three Imps goals, a player who has been in and out of form, being criticised for not shooting earlier when seconds later he scored? Personally, and I’m happy to be shot down, I think there’s a player in Whittaker who could benefit from a whole season with us. Sure, criticise when it’s warranted, but the lad scored the all-important opener with a good goal. His finish was smart and he was playing well until… well, we’ll get to that.
There was then a brainless sending off for Alex Gilbey, another decent player at this level. I get shirt pulling happens, but if you’ve been booked once, don’t do it again, right in front of the ref’s nose. Bobby Madley does try to keep things even on the field (Brennan Johnson against MK Dons is an obvious example), but Gilbey gave him no choice. That gave City not only a one-goal lead, but also a one player advantage. Surely, three points in the bag?
Going into half-time felt comfortable, Charlton offered nothing after the goal, and it might even have been 2-0 after a sumptuous McGrandles ball saw BNC pull a shot/cross right across the front of Craig MacGillivray. We’ve often gone in at half-time feeling nervous, worried, under-pressure or disappointed, but none of that was true yesterday, and long may it continue. Or, given our inconsistency, at least into Tuesday.