One step forward, one step back. That’s been the season for City, and whilst we can’t step back into the relegation picture, we did take a step back in terms of a positive outlook for the future today.
Nobody can argue we put in a decent shift, and like Cheltenham on Monday, it felt like one or two of our players were on the beach today. If you canvass a few fans, you might be told that one or two are welcome to stay there for next season; I’m not sure the names Michael will call out and the names you might think are the same. However, it’s Michael’s job to sort the wheat from the chaff, and we have both wheat and chaff in the squad.
Sadly, the Return of the Haks didn’t happen, mainly due to our appalling injury record. Hedidn’t start, as I thought he might, but thanks to us losing players in the first half, there was no scope for him to come one either. Within moments of the game kicking off, Conor McGrandles went off injured, something that will definitely end his season (albeit there’s one game left, so let’s not be too heavy on the season-ending injury rhetoric). One suspects that’s the last well see of Conor in an Imps shirt, his girlfriend moved back up to Scotland and, according to Michael, he was close to returning north of the border before signing for us.
Those first twenty minutes or so weren’t all that bad; Liam Cullen had a great chance to put City ahead which he didn’t take, and perhaps had we scored, things might have been different. I can see some talent in young Liam, but he has had a couple of decent chances in recent weeks and hasn’t taken them. We didn’t score though, and Accrington’s physical threat was too much for us as the game progressed. We got to so few of the second balls it felt like a training exercise at times, and one or two of the players who might have hoped for big games didn’t deliver. More on that shortly.
We hit the post, they hit the bar and maybe for a short period, City fans were getting the sort of performance they deserve, albeit with the hint of danger in the other direction that we’ve become accustomed to. Sadly, everything turned in a few moments just after the half-hour mark. In fairness, the well-organised and robust home team had been getting the upper hand before Ben House committed a foul, and injured himself doing so. Michael Appleton suggested it could be a dislocated shoulder and broken collarbone for the former Eastleigh man, another blow for the Imps, and whilst we smarted from losing him, we conceded a weak goal. The header away should have been better, it wasn’t, and Colby Bishop ended up grabbing the opener.
In recent weeks, when we’ve conceded, it hasn’t been the end of proceedings, but this was. From the moment they scored, we just crumbled. It might have been losing two of our midfield, but from 34 minutes onwards, dare I say, we were so poor it is a challenge to even write about. Accrington didn’t need to be good (and to be fair, they looked a lot better than they did at our place), we offered so very, very little. In fact, we offered so little, that I don’t really know what to write about.
There were positives; Lewis Fiorini looked interested and alive, but alongside him, I’m afraid Max Sanders has missed his chance. I remember being lucky enough to attend the final game of last season against Wimbledon when Sanders started and was told he might play his way into play-off semi-final contention; he missed his chance. Twelve months later (and a few decent performances I might add), he got another chance, but for long periods, he wasn’t involved. Michael Appleton said after the game one or two players might have played their final game for the club; I strongly suspect Max is one he was referencing; he was completely anonymous today. He wasn’t the only one; Anthony Scully came on and barely had a kick, but he does have plenty of credit after a decent season.
Who else stood out? Brooke Norton-Cuffy, for once, didn’t really have an impact, and whilst Jamie Robson wasn’t the worst of a bad bunch, he didn’t shine either. After the game, Michael mentioned that Liam Cullen had a decent game; I didn’t see that at all. For a striker, he wastes too much, and when we needed strength up top, we didn’t get it. It’s not his fault he’s not the strongest, and perhaps not quite Michael’s fault that he only had one tactical sub to make after the two injuries. Perhaps, 1-0 down at half time and so obviously outfought, he might have considered Hopper or Marquis, but the option wasn’t really there. Instead, it was like having a bad meal at a restaurant; the starter was awful, and it was just more of the same for the main course. At least we did get a decent dessert from Fiorini, but it wasn’t enough to save the afternoon.
It’s hard to be hyper-critical after being so positive just a few days ago, but that’s Lincoln City 2021/22, isn’t it? One minute you’ve seen enough to think we’re on the right track, the next you’re struggling to understand what’s gone wrong. Against Cheltenham we were superb, Whittaker was a monster and we attacked with consummate ease. Today, the same Whittaker struggled to get involved, and our attacks were few and far between. Accrington weren’t bad, they were basically what Accrington have always been; a bit direct, well-organised, physical and competitive. They are four words you cannot use to describe us today at all.
We lacked leaders; no Bridcutt, McGrandles or Hopper really showed. Maguire isn’t a leader despite his experience, but maybe he might have gelled us a bit. Instead, we flapped about like a pair of discarded trainers flung over a telephone line (every estate has them), directed not by ourselves, but by the things around us. Accrington didn’t need to be good, they just needed to stick at it.
There’s even a bit of a bad word for Jordan Wright; for the second time in three matches, an opposition goal can be partly attributed to his mistake. His parry presented Bishop with his second of the game, and a player like that needs no second invitation. It came after a spell of no pressure from Lincoln, no chances, and in truth, seemingly no real desire to get level.
Even a red card for their keeper did little to help things. You’d imagine after the opposition goes down to ten men we’d have something to offer, but no. Instead, we just flapped around in the wind, occasionally maybe looking like we might create something, but not laying siege, not dictating player and not looking like we had an extra man on the pitch. The free-kick from the red card offence was (no surprise) wasted, and on the game went. Even when the unfortunate Ted Bishop joined the small club of players brought on and off in the same game, nothing changed. I know the fans love John Marquis because he claps a bit and understands that fans like to see some thank you for their efforts, but he didn’t really do much in terms of kicking the ball towards the opponent’s goal. If being offered a big deal is all about clapping and walking around the pitch, I should still be Poacher because that was my main attribute.
The visiting supporters did get something to cheer, a Lewis Fiorini goal that was the pick of the bunch, but it was too little, too late. There was never any indication we’d score at 2-0 down, so when the on-loan Manchester City man pulled that from nowhere, there wasn’t a belief we’d go on and grab an unwarranted point. Instead, the rest of the game just crept by, as if losing 2-1 was enough. Why wouldn’t it be? For half an hour, we seemed content to lose 2-0.
The thing is, that was enough. Losing 2-1, losing 2-0, it didn’t matter today. Five of those that started (Norton-Cuffy, Fiorini, Cullen, Whittaker and McGrandles) are highly unlikely to be here next season. Adam Jackson, thought to be out of contract, is also 50/50, and with his recent performances, you might think Jordan Wright is another who won’t start 45 games in 2022/23. Max Sanders is a fringe player who rarely stands out when he starts, which leaves just Poole, Robson and House as the players from this starting XI likely to feature on a regular basis next season. That’s no excuse for the performance, the loan players (Fiorini aside) didn’t turn up today, and they’re always a key difference between success and failure, but when three of your XI are likely to play regularly next season, I think it says a lot.
That’s that, really. Sure, I haven’t dissected the whole game, because what’s the point? We were poor today, we didn’t deal with Accrington’s physicality, the conditions, the injuries and going a goal down. However, when things conspire against you, you need leaders, big performances and a spine through the team that keeps everything together. We didn’t have that, and whilst some might disagree, I think we witnessed one of the weakest performances of the season as a consequence; spineless.
Still, let’s not forget Michael has done a good job keeping us in this division, and we’re no better or worse off than we were a few hours ago. Nothing’s changed, we know what we are, where we are and things that need to happen over the summer. Lose 2-1, lose 8-0, nothing really alters at all. It’s just painful to take seeing your team look superb one week and awful the next but, and I can’t stress this enough, I’d rather than that awful every week.