In the absence of a game today, I’ve dived into the archives to write up a match that I think was the pinnacle of Keith’s reign.
It isn’t the best win we had under Keith, nor the most important, but it was the last time the squad that I think was the finest of his spell as manager was together. It saw Oxford United visit Sincil Bank in a clash of two teams on great runs. I often write about the last great Imps side (or I did before 2016/17), and this was probably the game that I should have written about.
It wasn’t quite an immovable force against an unstoppable object, but both teams were certainly in form. Oxford, with Ramon Diaz in the hot seat, had lost just one in 11, leading to him picking up manager of the month. Keith’s side were on course for a third-successive top seven finish, and came into the game with one defeat in eight, with four wins and three draws. A fortnight earlier, we’d won 4-2 at Grimsby.
Unusually, there was a question as to how Keith might play. We’d beaten Mansfield 2-0 the week before, but played the second period with a 4-3-3 formation, unlike him. That allowed Peter Gain to play alongside Ciaran Toner and Richard Butcher in midfield, and it certainly paid dividends. This week, Keith reverted back to a 5-2-3. That meant in front of Mazza in goal was a defensive three of Gareth McAuley, Paul Morgan and Jamie McCombe, with Kevin Sandwith and Matt Bloomer the full backs. Toner and Butcher partnered again in midfield, with Yeo, Francis Green and Gary Taylor-Fletcher up top. On the bench were Gain, Marcus Richardson, Ritchie Hanlon, Peter Folkes and Ollie Ryan. The only injury for City was to Michael Blackwood, who had a virus and missed out.
Mick McCarthy was in the stands watching on, having already snared Liam Lawrence from Mansfield Town the summer before. It’s unknown who he was watching, but given that two Imps later played in the Premier League, it is safe to guess perhaps one of ours.
Oxford had the first chance of the game through Craig Davies, a former Manchester City youngster who later moved to Hellas Verona in Serie B. However, the Imps quickly gained control, with Taylor-Fletcher flashing a drive wide from 16-yards, before City forced six corners in succession without a goal.
Just past the half-hour mark, the Imps grabbed a justified lead. Kevin Sandwith held off former Manchester City man Lee Bradbury in the centre circle, before threading a pass through to Yeo. He broke down the left and into the area, where David Mackay had no choice but to bundle him over, although it did look a little soft. Kevin Friend pointed to the spot, and Yeo dusted himself down to smash the spot-kick into the roof of the net for goal number 14 of the season. Oddly, veteran Tommy Mooney was then booked for timewasting (after 30 minutes of the first half) at the restart, and was roundly booed every time he touched the ball thereafter, which wasn’t an awful lot of times.
Francis Green almost made it 2-0 after a Toner free-kick was flicked on by McCombe, but his spectacular overhead kick dropped wide of the post. Yeo had a chance to make it two just before half time, and City’s endeavour was rewarded with a standing ovation as the team left the field at the break. Oxford were incensed about something and surrounded the referee, with Leo Roget leading the protesting. Eventually, coaching staff dragged the players away.
Oxford never found their stride, and the Manager of the Month curse was all-but confirmed just before we’d played an hour. Taylor-Fletcher’s 25-yard drive, a Toner cross and a McCombe chance had all almost led to the second, but it eventually came from Gary Taylor-Fletcher. Yeo quickly took a throw-in and found Butcher, who in turn found Taylor-Fletcher. He tried to return the favour for Butcher, but his pass was blocked. However, it fell kindly for him, and he cleverly turned a defender before firing a wonderful effort across goal for his ninth of the season. Interestingly, it was only his third goal since August, and the fourth goal in a row that came in an Imps home win with three goals (Derby 3-1, Kidderminster 3-0 and Yeovil 3-1 the other matches).
A rampant City were having lots of fun, and Yeo was the primary tormentor. It could (and should) have been three just minutes after with Yeo’s wonderful cross finding Green ten yards out, but the former Peterborough man could only head over from 10-yards out.
On 67 minutes, Ciaran Toner went off to rapturous applause, replaced by Peter Gain. Nobody could predict it, but it would be the midfielder’s final appearance for City. Later that week, he would be involved in an altercation with Marcus Richardson, and both were banished as a result. It was a crying shame, I always point to that incident as the reason we didn’t go up automatically that season and I absolutely stand by that. Toner added some options to our formation, as shown by the win against Mansfield a week earlier, whilst Richardson was a handful from the bench as well.
Taylor-Fletcher and Green both shot wide as the second half saw all the chances flowing in one direction. Richard Butcher deserved a goal on 85 minutes, he beat Barry Quinn on the edge of the area, but his low drive was spectacularly saved by Tardiff in goal. Still, there was time for the Imps to secure the points in emphatic style, Peter Gain’s low cross late on turned in by Yeo for his 15th goal of the season.
The result lifted the Imps to sixth in the table, with 48 points, three clear of Northampton in eighth. Above them, both Southend (50) and Macclesfield (51) had played more, so a win in that extra game could see Keith’s team closing in on Swansea, Scunthorpe and Yeovil, all locked on 56 points in the top three spots.
A week later, a club rocked by the Toner and Richardson scandal were beaten 3-1 at Rochale, but the next twelve games saw seven wins and two draws, culminating in an easy victory against Macclesfield Town. That run left the Imps heading into the final three fixtures against Darlington Northampton and Yeovil just three points behind those hunting a top three spot; our rivals won all three matches, with us losing two. Had we matched their results, we’d have pipped Swansea to third place.
What ifs. What if we’d carried the tun on for three matches, instead of getting a single point? What if Ciaran Toner or Marcus Richardson had hung behind after training and not clashed on their way back to the dressing rooms? What if the Lincoln City side that brushed off in-form Oxford had been kept together for just a couple of months? Richard Butcher would have stayed, it’s likely Simon Yeo would have, and Peter Gain. Gary Taylor-Fletcher said in a podcast he might have stayed as well; how would that team have done in the third tier. Sadly, we’ll never know.