Amidst all of the drama and action off the field yesterday, there was also the small matter of a football match being played.
Early in the morning, as I left my house for the last Full English of the season at the Corn Dolly, Fe remarked ‘hope they win’. She does it every week, but this time, as I closed the door, I shouted back ‘it doesn’t really matter’. It didn’t feel like it mattered at all. We’d finish either 17th or 18th, they’d be relegated and finish bottom and with so many injuries, it wouldn’t be a barometer of anything serious. My thought was Michael wouldn’t learn anything about his players, and the only real interest was going to be in the team selection.
It just didn’t feel like a football day. I don’t know if it was the early start or the dead rubber atmosphere. Even the Player of the Year award was a foregone conclusion, it was as if we were just there because it’s what we do. Lincoln City are my team and goddammit, I’m going to go to the last game, have beers and celebrate being in League One next season. The game, well, it was just happening at the same time.
There was no shock to find Jovon Makama had returned to the club to feature, and been ruled out (as I understand it) by a late fitness test. Once again, a Lincoln City team announcement came out and it was all about who wasn’t playing. No Adam Jackson and no Ted Bishop. TJ Eyoma, supposedly out for the season a week or three ago, came in for a start. Hayden Cann was one of four subs, joined by Tom Hopper and persistent bench-warmers Max Sanders and Hakeeb Adelakun.
I thought we started ok, a Lewis Fiorini free-kick caused their keeper a problem, but there was no pace to the game, no real urgency from either side. That’s all well and good until you gift a goal, which we did. In fairness to TJ, he never looked like he was near fit, so when Chris Long nipped in behind him and netted, it felt a bit harsh to have a pop. He was playing not because he was fit, or even on merit, but because he was the least-injured of our centre backs. It was still the sort of defending we’d seen week in, week out, and every time a goal goes in now I hear the voice of Gav, who sits behind me, saying ‘I’m sick of watching Lincoln lose at home’. He doesn’t actually say it, but it’s just stuck with me.
The trouble was, we just didn’t look like we had a response in us. Over in London, Wimbledon and Accrington both had almost nothing to play for, and they were serving up a goal-fest. That’s what an end of season game should be, not a thrown together starting XI struggling to make headway against the league’s poorest team (that’s what the table says, not my opinion). However, we weren’t doing the usual end of season game, we were doing something different, a bore-fest of errors and seemingly negative football.
Firstly, we had one midfielder in my eyes; Lewis Fiorini. He cut a lonely figure trying to do the job of eight and four at the same time. Around him, vast open spaces of beautiful, lush green pitch welcomed any interested Crewe player. At the back, Regan Poole was heading and kicking everything away, with a 50% fit TJ unable to join in. Even the darling of the fans, Brooke Norton-Cuffy, seemed to be having a stinker. Up top, John Marquis ran a lot, but got nowhere, whilst only Morgan Whittaker looked likely to create anything. It was, for want of a better word, rubbish.
I know that at half time, two friends of mine left the ground, not because they were angry at the performance, but because they could not assimilate the vitriol aimed at the players with the season we’ve had. Sure, it’s not been great at times, but we haven’t been relegated, like Crewe or Wimbledon. They were just upset at how angry people got, as is both their right and the right of those getting angry. Perhaps, 1-0 down on the final day of the season, you do begin to find out how deep those divisions are. They’re not new; remember losing to Colchester 3-0, and having the League Two title trophy presented despite being booed off at half time? I do, all too well.
It’s not even as if the second half got any better; if anything, it got worse. We played lazy balls across the back, one of which I labelled as arguably the worst pass I’ve ever seen. It was the sub, Max Sanders, who was either aiming for Jordan Wright with a seventy-yard back pass, or the centre half. He split them down the middle and we went from the attacking left to defending a throw-in. I’m not scapegoating Max, but it felt like the pass of a man who knew he was playing out of necessity. I’m told Michael didn’t tell the players he was going until after the game, so perhaps Max felt it doesn’t matter what he does; after all, he couldn’t get a kick when he was playing well.
Crewe could have been further ahead. Wright parried a shot onto the post, and they missed two or three glorious chances to put the game out of sight. In fact, they only had one shot fewer than the afternoon they hammered us 4-1 at the Bank in 2017/18, and that could easily have been the scoreline yesterday.
In hindsight, a couple of the players might have benefited from being forewarned about the decision between Michael and the club. A new manager will watch videos of matches and study the team, and there will be a fresh start for some. That might be for Max, or it might be for Haks. I remember, on 75 minutes or so, looking across at Haks sitting on the bench. Here’s a player who appeared in the Championship last season, not able to get a run-out in what was a pretty awful Lincoln performance. When we needed to make a change on 56 minutes, Lasse Sorensen came off and we brought a centre forward, Tom Hopper, on and not Haks. We’d already taken a wide attacker off on 37 minutes (Scully), and instead of bringing Haks on, gone for a midfielder in Max Sanders. In fact, Haks was so far down the pecking order that a player seemingly written off by Michael a week ago was preferred to him.
That why I cheered louder than I had all afternoon as I saw him stripped down with just over ten minutes to go. With the score 1-0, the season over and nothing at all to play for, he was finally going to get his minutes. Then we got a moment that finally roused the fans. It started with Chris Long being nudged into the hoardings as he challenged for the ball. He was hurt, but rather than stay off the field, he wandered on and then went down in a ploy to waste some time. Meanwhile, Brooke Norton-Cuffy did what he does best, got at their defence and created a decent chance, or rather, a rare decent chance for us. The ball went out for a corner and another of their players was down looking for treatment.
Their physio came on, as did ours to treat their other player. Long was roundly booed, he’d dragged himself onto the field and our fans weren’t happy. He was getting pelters as he came off after his treatment, and sneakily walked the length of the field so he was positioned close to their area to come back on. The other lad who was down doing the same, so as we were taking the corner, both could get in the area quickly. Given it was about the only thing fans had to get passionate about all afternoon (until that point), they were getting all sorts of abuse, which was quickly drowned out by cheers. Finally, we scored from a header from a corner, albeit against the team bottom of the league who had just nine on the field. Still, a goal is a goal.
One figure seemed to be crestfallen by the goal; Hakeeb Adelakun. He’d been stripped and ready to come on, but momentarily sat back down. Had his chance passed? Nope, three minutes later, he replaced TJ Eyoma, leaving us with one central defender on the field. Mind you, it was the best one, Regan Poole.
Haks came on and I felt he looked really hungry. Maybe he knew there was a new manager coming in and who knows, perhaps they were even watching somewhere. Whatever the case was, he did have some attacking intent, and with seconds left of the 90, he lashed home a goal worthy of winning any match. I’m not sure many players would celebrate a 90th-minute winner in a dead rubber with a somersault, but if anyone deserved the chance to say ‘fuck you’ with a bit of acrobatics, it’s Haks. He’s struggled this season, but there have been moments of quality and he produced the only real exciting moment of the final game.
Of course, after the final whistle, the real drama began. We’ll do a look back at the season on the podcast, and doubtless, I’ll write plenty more over the coming weeks, but in terms of match action, that was the lot. I might not have waited at the end, I was eager to enjoy some of the sunshine with a few pints and the Oasis tribute act, but I wanted to see if the rumours were true. I wanted to see if Michael said goodbye to fans. He didn’t, he accompanied his team around the ground, letting them take the applause that, despite the tepid final day win, they do deserve for staying in the division. That was a sharp contrast to the Crewe players, who had to head over to their fans and thank them as they sunk out of our league.
Briefly, I left the ground for beers and the end of the drama, but that proved not to be the case. I guess there were more than a few of us who realised how very apt it was going to be when the Oasis tribute act belted out Don’t Look Back In Anger, and the afternoon’s big news began to break.