The EFL Trophy isn’t one I have strong feelings about. I like it on the one hand; it’s a good chance to blood young players, to get to Wembley and earn a few quid. On the other hand, they’re like glorified friendlies at times, with the ignominy of having an Under 21 team ranked as your equal.
Tonight wasn’t a kids team, it was a Barnsley squad with eleven changes in preparation for their trip to Sheffield Wednesday this weekend. We made a few changes; Jay Benn and Jack Diamond made their debuts, Joe Walsh got 45 minutes, and Oisin Gallagher made his debut late on. Tonight wasn’t friendly either, at least not on the part of James Norwood, whose elbow in Jay Benn’s face ended his night and the game as a contest.
I came out of Saturday’s game feeling a bit low, and if I’m honest, nothing that could have happened tonight would change that entirely; these games are like a one-off, and obviously, you want to win, but you know that when we meet in the league, things will be different. I recall thrashing Shrewsbury and Accrington in the Trophy but getting a single point from the league games against them. However, you can glean a bit from some players, and some selections, and these games still have to be won. Dare I say, after a tough three home matches, I’m not going to get over-enthusiastic about a big win at Oakwell, but I am delighted with how we played, and the fact we’re on our way (hopefully) to progressing once again in the Cash Cow Cup.
Barnsley perhaps edged the first ten minutes or so, but the Imps were well in it before Teddy Bishop turned on the style, again. It’s harsh for Ted, he’s bagged four in two matches, and tonight he wasn’t even Man of the Match. That’s not to say he played badly, he didn’t, but the two wide players for me stole the show. One of those, new signing Jack Diamond, really stood out. He’s got pace and a bit of trickery, and that’s exactly what I’ve felt we’ve been missing (maybe for 18 months). It was a big start for him, and with Garrick to come back into the side, it’s great news for the Imps.
I thought Charles Vernam had a solid first half as well; he’s one who has perhaps slipped under the radar a little after his tough start to the campaign, but his run out tonight will be just what he needs. He looked really sharp on the ball, and we know he’s got a trick or two, and as I keep saying (and will keep saying), we’ve lacked that. On my dog walk video this morning, I said how I didn’t feel we’d signed the wow factor players, but perhaps I’m wrong. Vernam could be that player, Diamond certainly suggested he could be, and we’ve already got a fan favourite in Garrick to come back in. To be honest, just seeing two wide players getting at their full-backs and causing trouble was refreshing; the last time we went deep in this competition, in 2020/21, the like of Zack Elbouzedi and Theo Archibald impressed. They didn’t take that into the league form, they weren’t really given a chance to do so, but I suspect Vernam and Diamond will do just that.
Bishop’s first goal involved both Diamond and Vernam, the latter grabbing the assist and teeing up Bishop for the tap-in. It was a great run into the box by the former Ipswich man and his fourth goal of the season. The fifth wasn’t long coming either; Jack Walton made a hash of a clearance, and Bishop showed good technique to lift the ball into an empty net from 30-yards out. It was another 2-0 lead for City and, for some, perhaps a certain sense of deja vu. Luckily for us, this referee had no problem finding his red card on 22 minutes, effectively ending the game as a contest. Jay Benn, who had a solid debut, got a smash in the face from Norwood, who was once again sent off against the Imps. Norwood’s stint in League One has been miserable; he struggled at Ipswich, and now can’t get into the Tykes side. Moves like that on a kid making his full debut for his new club won’t get him in the manager’s good books.
After that, it really was about controlling the game, and City did that excellently for the seventy-odd minutes that remained. It’s hard to draw too much from the game after that point, two goals up and a red card, but I thought the Imps did what they needed to do superbly. It was great to see Joe Walsh get himself 45 minutes, he looked calm and assured at all times, and when he did eventually go off, it was purely as a precaution. I really hope Joe gets back to full fitness and puts in 20 or 30 games, or is at least fit and ready to do so. he is a leader, a natural footballer who is calm on the ball and an influence on those around him. I remember how much better Cohen was when Joe played; maybe the other left backs in the squad would benefit from his presence.
Lasse Sorensen impressed also; he’s definitely growing in confidence, and with the extra numbers, we kept our shape very well. It’s really hard to praise or be critical after the red card, because it was a completely different game to most of the 46 we’ll play in the league. Yes, we did the right things well, we kept our discipline, we rarely gave the ball away and rarely looked troubled. I would be very surprised if any team goes to Oakwell between now and the end of the season and is quite as comfortable as we were for seventy minutes. That was evident by them being booed off at half time and at full time.
Of course, it wasn’t game over, and whilst the two wide players tired, we still kept going, probing where possible. The home side offered next to nothing, Jordan Wright probably won’t even need his kit washed, but the ten outfield players remained focused, looked after the ball well and didn’t commit to anything silly. We did make changes late on, and it’s a credit to the training ground routines that we added a third, according to the manager. He stressed that the pattern of play has been practised on the pitch at the EPC, and Jamie Robson’s ball was turned in by Makama for his first Imps goal. It was a nice moment for the youngster, he’s struggled to make an impact at Brackley in his early outings, but he certainly had one for the Imps this evening.
There was another final positive before the whistle went; Oisin Gallagher made his debut for the club, coming on as a late sub for Ben House. That’s what this trophy is about; giving the likes of Makama, Gallagher and Benn minutes on the field, being around a first-team environment, and it’s why I like it more than the League Cup. Both are a bit of a pain, cramming matches in every Tuesday during a period when we’re short on numbers, so to see the whole squad being used was refreshing. Do I think we’ll see Gallagher making his league debut anytime soon? No, probably not, but it’s still a step in the right direction. I also like the rule that allows us to play Makama despite him being out on loan, and I’m sure as he goes home tonight, he’ll quite enjoy it as well, given his senior goal.
I quite like Jovon; there’s a long way for him to go, but he’s looking stronger with every passing month, and hopefully, this will do his confidence a world of good. Of course, Diamond will grab the headlines, probably along with Ted and maybe Charles Vernam, but for me, there’s a huge plus over Jay Benn tonight as well. He’s one signed for the future, but of all the young players he’s the one who has;t previously been around the first team who looked like he might do a job if called upon.
After the whistle went, the fact this was an early game in a maligned trophy against Barnsley’s entire reserve team really didn’t matter. We still had to win it, we still showed the right application to do just that, and we’ve got the £10,000 prize money in the bank. That’s money that the club will gratefully receive, and it’s more than we get for beating Doncaster and Barrow (and Bristol City if we did) combined. That’s why this trophy, as odd as it is, is worthwhile. It’s why I’m so split on it; sure, it’s against Barnsley’s second string, but it’s still a first win at Oakwell since 1976/77. Okay, so it was against ten men, but we showed the right character and application to ensure we kept the lead, kept a clean sheet, and notched win. We might have had a much changed side, but the star men (Ted aside) were fringe players and new faces, which is great for competition in the squad.
For those reasons, tonight was a good night; we were in complete and utter control of the game throughout. We have still only lost once, in a month that has seen us play eight games (nine if you count Exeter on July 30th), which is a punishing schedule. However, this was very much a precursor, like an appetiser, a 3-0 win with Jack Diamond side, ahead of the main event, the final two days of the transfer window and a winnable game at Cambridge. If Wednesday through to Saturday are as positive as Monday and Tuesday, then my miserable ramblings from Saturday could seem far less grounded. Here’s hoping.
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