City have a habit of easing past League Two opposition away from home in this competition; in 2018 we beat Port Vale 4-0. In 2020, we smashed Bradford 5-0, and tonight we barely broke a sweat against Doncaster Rovers.
I’m not sure what feels better; beating Doncaster for the first time since the 2003/04 season or just getting a degree of revenge for the last couple of seasons. Last year, we got our second clean sheet of the campaign at Doncaster in November, but it was a tepid affair in which we just didn’t have a forward threat. Tonight, we got our second clean sheet of the season after three matches! I can’t forget losing 1-0 to them earlier this year; it was my nephew’s first game and we dominated the match and still lost. Both games saw us looking toothless, and yet tonight, we looked anything but.
Let’s take some perspective; we were playing a League Two side, a team who were 1-0 down at home against Sutton until the last minute at the weekend, and a team that we really should be beating. That’s all well and good, but you still have to win the game and we did that with ease. We also did it by handing debuts to three players, one of which was Charley Kendall.
I’ll come to him in a moment, but Mark Kennedy showed he’s not afraid to mix things up with some bold changes. Adam Jackson got his first start of the season, whilst Sean Roughan got a run-out at left-back. That is a moment I think could be hugely significant; Sean is a big talent; he’s been frozen out for a year or more, but he’s back and on the up; his loan spell at Drogheda went well and just seeing his name on the teamsheet was massive for City fans.
It was also interesting to see Max Sanders starting in the holding role; many of us (me included) assumed that would be his position within the squad once Liam Bridcutt left, so it was nice to see him tried there. It meant Ted Bishop finally played in his favoured attacking midfield role, alongside Tashan Oakley-Boothe. Up top, Anthony Scully recovered and once again proved he isn’t on his way out right now, whilst Chris Maguire continued his return from the cold on the right flank.
The obvious headline from the first half was Charley Kendall’s debut goal. As soon as the team dropped, I sent my Dad a text asking if we might see Kendall score on his debut, and we got the fairytale within the first quarter of an hour. Before that we looked completely in control – passing across the back, playing patient football and waiting to find the opening. Doncaster certainly offered a different threat from the first two matches; Exeter came at us and we had to recover, Portsmouth we let play and pressed when needed, but this called for yet another approach. If that’s the test, I think we passed it because we matched the passing about with a well-crafted goal.
Kendall showed his application and work rate throughout the game, hunting and chasing things down, but his goal came purely from a striker’s instinct. Ted Bishop, pulling the strings until he was replaced in the second half, provided a perfect ball and Kendall stroked home after making the right run. I recall John Marquis scoring a similar goal last season and use saying how we’d missed that ‘fox in the box’. We’re not missing him now; it’s Charley Kendall. I think his involvement tonight shows that far from being farmed out on loan, we could be looking to keep him around the squad. he played the full 90 minutes and put in a great shift.
Bishop could have made it 2-0 midway through the half, a wonderful touch after good work from Roughan and Scully let down only by the finish which he just curled over. Ted was running the show; dare I say, he had a very Jorge Grant-esque performance, full of panache and style as he gracefully stroked passes around the pitch. He’s a player we’ve had high hopes for ever since the first round of the EFL Cup last season, and hopefully tonight’s performance was the start of his best spell in a Lincoln shirt. I’ve made a lazy comparison to Grant there; Bishop is a different player and it’s wrong to keep comparing, but it’s also hard to resist.
The first half was well controlled by City after that; anything Doncaster created was courtesy of us overplaying, but that isn’t a huge negative. Sean Roughan had a good game and whilst he may have lost possession once, he got down the flank nicely and was a bright spot in the first 45, alongside Ted and Charley.
I keep saying ‘last season’ and hate doing it, but last season we rarely put in two halves of equal quality, but we did just that, playing for the full 90 minutes at the same tempo. The second half might have been more of a contest had we not put it to bed quickly, credit of Man of the Match Ted Bishop. It was a solo goal, one of extreme quality, but Mark Kennedy mentioned Charley Kendall’s run that helped create the space for Ted. Apparently, if you give Ted space, he can exploit it and he showed that with real aplomb.
The goal killed off any resistance Doncaster might have had planned, and not long afterwards it was three. Anthony Scully, looking to be the first Imps to score 15 goals or more in three successive seasons since Andy Graver, got himself off the mark. He did the hard work and provided an opportunity for Chris Maguire, who couldn’t convert, but his effort fell to Scully for a simple tap-in. 3-0, game over, into the draw for the next round.
After the game, Mark Kennedy was happy. “Very pleased, thought we were excellent tonight,” he said. “First 15 minutes we started very well. The worst thing that happened was scoring and we lost our way. I thought second half we were awesome, on and off the ball with some really good passages of play.”
There were several notable talking points to pick up; late debuts for Morgan Worsfold-Gregg and Jovon Makama, which MK said were not token minutes. It’s interesting as when we spoke to him at the beginning of the season he said he wouldn’t give young players minutes if they didn’t deserve it, which reflects well on the young players. Also, there’s been a reluctance to go with youth over the past five or six years, certainly to go heavy with the young players. I think those two coming on, as well as Sean Roughan starting, shows a new belief in the academy graduates. Of course, the players coming through now should be better than six years ago; we’ve developed the academy massively, but it feels like a big step.
Actually, quite a lot feels like a big step. I recall last season people complaining about a lack of connection; was it a hangover from Covid, or just people not feeling the manager’s personality at the time? I don’t know, I didn’t feel that way, but there’s no doubt something has changed. It’s not just winning games either; this was the first win in three for City, but each game has felt like a step, as if we are moving towards something and the fans are all on board. It’s hard not to be when you’re winning, but it’s not just that; there’s a purpose to the football at times, a resolve in our defensive play and a belief from the stands I’m not sure we’ve collectively felt much over the last 12 months. Even Lewis Montsma, in the away end with the supporters felt it.
It’s easy to get carried away, but there’s a feeling around the place at the moment I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s a strange one for us, especially in recent times, and it might even be something I haven’t experienced since 2006. You see, back in 2006, Keith’s side had lost in the play-offs, the great man left and we had this air of uncertainty. It’s not unique; we’ve had it a lot, but that was the last time that air of uncertainty was met with something that felt new and exciting, something that had me optimistic really early on. That season the approach felt new, as if we’d had a hard reset and had started again. Something about this season feels different; the players we had who underperformed last season are upping their game, the youngsters look full of promise and suddenly we feel like we have quite a strong squad, especially given Kendall and Roughan’s performances tonight.
I’m getting carried away, I know, but I like to think I understand this club and I can feel something happening, something changing. I predicted us as outsiders for a struggle this season but I’m not so sure now; I think we’ve got the ingredients to be up at the top of the bottom half of the table, if we stay injury free and keep developing as a team and for me, that will be a super outcome after what seemed like a tough pre-season. What’s really encouraging is that chat I had with a club insider before the Exeter game. “If we can get through today (Exeter), Doncaster and Portsmouth, we’ll be okay”. Well, we’ve more than got through them; we’ve gone around 250 minutes without conceding a goal, we’re unbeaten and the fans are buying into the project.
I know, never too high, never too low, but there’s a sense of relief in me that is hard to shake. Relief that we haven’t come out of a transitional summer a pale shadow of our former selves, a relief the players we’ve asked to step up have done that, a relief we’re trusting our young players with minutes and a deep relief that perhaps the pundits predicting Lincoln City to be relegated were wide of the mark after all. There’s a long way to go (even longer now we have a second-round game to play), but the early signs just keep getting more and more encouraging.
Plus, we finally beat Doncaster Rovers. at the ninth time of asking. I’ll drink to that.
DON’T FORGET TO RATE THE PLAYERS EVERY WEEK!
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