City lifted themselves up the table by ending a six-point week with six away goals against Bristol Rovers.
That’s the least exciting opening I think I could ever write for a nine-goal thriller, and I really didn’t know how else to start. The last time City scored six away from home was against a woeful Port Vale side, and on that occasion, I remember thinking that if Port Vale could defend, they could have taken something from the game. Today was similar; Bristol Rovers weren’t a bad team going forward, but they were reckless on the ball and defended worse than we did all last season, which is really saying something.
What really struck me was Mark Kennedy’s anger after the game, where after talking about our goals and the big win, he seemed more perturbed about the decision-making that led to us conceding three (as well as them hitting the post). I genuinely think if this game had finished 6-6, nobody could have argued, and fundamentally if you could have had 12 goals in a game, then defenders haven’t entirely done their job.
However, I’m not going to sit here and find negatives in a 6-3 win without acknowledging the obvious positives. They started when the team was announced at 2pm; Tom Hopper was back on the bench, Max Sanders was also back in the squad, and no apparent injuries other than Ted Bishop from Tuesday. The game against Derby required players to put their bodies on the line and I feared the usual ‘oh no, such and such is injured’ when the teams came out. Immediately after dodging that worry, I checked out The Gas team news and was even more shocked; they’d gone three at the back, but left their only fit centre back (the one who had been sent off and had the card rescinded) on the bench. Harry Anderson, reported to have a broken foot on Wednesday, played. It was either a massive mistake by Joey Barton or an utter masterclass.
Quickly, it became obvious it was a mistake. Despite conceding six, Bristol Rovers didn’t play badly in patches. Luke McCormick and Sam Finley both had control and I felt our midfield felt a bit fractured in places. The early exchanges saw us clearly worrying their makeshift back four, with veteran midfielder Glenn Whelan looking decidedly ropey. However, we struggled with their setup further up the field; Jordon Garrick looked uncertain who his man was, and Aaron Collins was a constant threat zipping about all over the place.
It felt like a game where the first goal might be crucial, but even in those early exchanges one where we might see four or five in total. There was a fragility about both defences, but for us, a certain panache going forward felt really good. Much of it came through the feet of Jack Diamond, a player who, at the moment, looks every bit as strong as any loan we’ve had at the club in the last few years (and that includes you-know-who). Diamond is the type of player I said we needed last season, the winger with unpredictability, directness and fire in his belly.
However, everyone said we needed to sign a striker on deadline day, literally everyone, and yet our centre-forward opened the scoring as early as the seventh minute. Diamond was the creator (of course he was), and House poked home from close range after making the right run. Yep, you heard it here first, folks; as our two leading men from last season sat on opposite benches waiting for a chance, the new kid on the block made it two in two.
Before Rovers had a chance to respond, we went 2-0 up, and House was involved again. His movement was too much for Glenn Whelan, whose soft tug brought the former Eastleigh man down. It was a softer penalty than Tuesday nights, but Tom Nield had no problem pointing to the spot after having a good look. That always makes me laugh by the way (even though I wrote it). How can he have a good look, it happens once and that’s that.
Jack Diamond stepped up and had a bit of a chat with their keeper, with whom he was at Harrogate last season. Belshaw tried to put Diamond off, but the on-loan winger wasn’t having any of it, and he slotted home for 2-0. Lincoln City with a 2-0 lead, right up until Tuesday evening, was a precarious situation. On Tuesday, we erased memories of comebacks by holding firm, today we did it by just going hell for leather.
I felt after that we dropped off a bit. In patches, we attacked well, but The Gas were trying to spark attacks, and their midfield was getting plenty of joy. Jordon Garrick struggled throughout the half, and the midfield looked disjointed; I don’t think the first 45 were the best Lasse has turned in this season. Neither of those players were to blame for the goal; Regan Poole made a horrible decision, Paudie O’Connor got stuck in No Man’s Land and Aaron Collins rounded Rushworth, who had a rush of blood to come off his line, to score an easy goal on 18 minutes.
After that, it was back to the walls at times, although even at 2-1, you felt there were more goals, but not another six. Antony Evans struck the post with a free kick (I think that’s the sixth time they’ve hit the post this season, by the way) before it should have been level. Regan Poole certainly made amends for his error, Ryan Loft rounding Rushworth and trying to slot into an empty net, only for our skipper to appear from nowhere and hack the ball away. It felt like a matter of time before a disjointed City lost a two-goal lead again.
Instead, a break in play for an injury to Sam Finley brought an element of calm. With five minutes to go before half time, Belshaw made a decent stop from Garrick before the home side went up the other end, and Rushworth saved Loft’s effort. In response, a fine Imps move involving several players resulted in House just prodding an effort wide, ahead of six minutes injury time. It was frenetic, frantic and exciting for a neutral. For Imps fans, it was a little too open and nervy.
One move in those six minutes ultimately defined the game. It sounds obvious, but at 2-1 the next goal is crucial, and as both teams hunted for it, only one would get it: us. A big goalkick eventually saw Evans’ clearance bounced fortuitously off McCormick, and Diamond was able to take advantage to restore our two-goal lead. The winger did well after carrying the ball wide to slide it between the keeper’s legs; it felt like game over.