The best nights out are the ones you don’t plan.
The best holidays are the ones that creep up on you when you’ve little expectation of greatness. The best football matches are the ones where you expect nothing and get something. Anything. Of course, when you throw in the Sincil Bank lights, a huge football club (they are huge compared to us), a bumper crowd and a top-notch atmosphere, you get one of those matches that will never leave you. In fact, halfway through the second half, my mate Matt said, ‘ this is the best game since we beat Ipswich 5-3‘. Floodlights? Check. Big club? Check. Low expectation? Check. Yep, it’s hard to disagree Matthew, very hard indeed.
What I will say is for me this had something more; it brought relief. I’ve had a tough time of it lately, seeing the bigger picture at Sincil Bank. It’s unlike me as well, but I’ve genuinely found it a little tough. Maybe it’s the level of change we’ve endured, maybe it’s the performances that should have been wins. You and I know we should have beaten Fleetwood and Forest Green. We should have got something from Cambridge – those games would have us on 15 points now, or to put it another way, we should be in the play-offs.
Of course, nobody qualifies for the play-offs in September and there’s no way we’re going to be near there come May, but that’s the narrow divide between success and failure. The stats don’t back that up by the way; the xG table has us second from bottom, but we know, watching the games, we’ve the potential to be five points better off. However, going into last night’s game, a defeat could have seen us in the bottom four, already dragged into the mire. The only way to prevent that, for sure, was to beat a team with class footballers such as Conor Hourihane, Curtis Davies, James Collins and Nathaniel Mendez-Laing. How on earth was the disjointed, fumbling XI from Cambridge going to attempt that? We felt like lambs to the slaughter.
It got even worse when we saw the team. No Tom Hopper (an injured striker is the one thing we didn’t want to happen). No Joe Walsh, although my guess is protecting him with Adam Jackson returning, rather than overloading and exasperating any injury. Still, with Mandroiu, Montsma and Sanders out as well, we felt depleted. Great – a poor outing against Cambridge, frail against Fleetwood, our captain and number nine out and the squad feeling a bit understrength. What could be better when facing a team of Championship-quality players?
As it turns out, nothing could be better, because the team, to a man, were excellent.
The first ten minutes had me worried; we barely had a touch and when we did, it seemed we were nervous. TJ had a stinker against Cambridge and I suspect many hoped he might be dropped, and after the first ten last night I’d be inclined to agree with those people. He looked miles off the pace, as did Lasse Sorensen, seemingly struggling in midfield. It wasn’t awful, not at all, and Derby’s 11 outfield player tactic did look like it’d give us a chance if we pressed, but there didn’t seem to be much in the game for us other than hanging on and hoping we didn’t concede.
Enter Jack Diamond.
Actually, enter TJ Eyoma, creating a chance for Diamond with a smart crossfield ball. It was the moment TJ changed from the pale imitation of himself we’ve seen, to the TJ of 2020/21. He picked up a ball from Garrick and after a short run fed Diamond. The on-loan Sunderland star did the rest, turning his man and getting into the area, where he was fouled. No doubts about the penalty whatsoever.
It was the first moment of the evening where I thought ‘hang on’ – the first moment in the day where I could see us scoring. Oh, the pessimism had oozed out of me all day long and yet like Liz Truss I was switching my opinions within seconds to fit the occasion. Like a Liberal turning Tory, like a remainer suddenly getting behind Brexit, my outlook went from pessimism to optimism in one swift turn of Jack Diamond’s nimble feet.
I’ll avoid the obvious diamond references, a stone refined, polished and exquisite, because his penalty was all about blunt force, power and definition. A stroke of his boot made it 1-0, and what a fitting way to get his first Imps goal after winning a penalty in our fixture against Sunderland. That day he was on the opposite side, last night it was the opposite end, but the outcome was the same. Goal.
After that came real hope, because we began to see the potential in this team, something that had perhaps faded since we lost at Peterborough. The work rate was more like Oxford away than anything else, with chasing, harassing and raw strength. Sean Roughan, the Man of the Match by a long way for me, was excellent. Their winger, Mendez-Laing, played Premier League football for Cardiff as recently as 2018/19, and he had a tremendous ability to turn endless bad balls into good ones, yet our young left back never flinched. In fact, he was rarely beaten; a player we didn’t even give a full 90 minutes to against Bowers & Pitsea last season. He was outstanding for me, and he could have netted in the dying embers of the first half with a stinging drive that went over.
I thought Virtue gave our midfield a bit of structure also; he was excellent for maybe 60 minutes, but he faded later on. I did chuckle as he went to celebrate with Diamond, and the winger pushed him over. It’s a good job the Derby players weren’t able to outmuscle him in the same manner! It’s not really fair to pick out one or two players, because we were excellent all over the park without the ball. In fairness, when we had the ball we weren’t at our best; a few passes went astray, but everything we gave away, we recovered. On the rare occasion we were breached, Carl Rushworth was there to save the day. One stop, from a drive straight at him, was particularly impressive purely for the power of the effort.
I was gutted for Ted coming off how he did; he’d looked really lively after finally getting a start in central midfield. There was a feeling Tashan was another who disappointed at Cambridge, but he looked fired up last night. There were a couple of moments where he really threatened Derby, not least as he was tugged back on the halfway line after shrugging off Hourihane just after half time.
Derby had the ball in the net but it was correctly disallowed, and other than that, I felt it was fairly even,. They tried to play out from the back, but we pressed well, almost in a 4-4-2 with Bishop coming to play alongside House out of possession. We reacted to triggers as well, so when a certain player got the ball, one of ours pressed. When it was released, we reshaped and waited for the next pass. It was organised and measured, described by Chris (podcast fourth wheel) as the blueprint for playing teams like Derby. By that he means good teams, possession-based teams who want to play against us, attack us and win the game.