Five Positives: Imps 2-0 Newcastle United Under 21s

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The Imps progressed to the knockout stages of the EFL trophy last night for the fifth season in six with a comfortable 2-0 win against Newcastle Under 21s.

I didn’t go to the game, nor watch it, as I have a problem with us being classed as equals with Under 21 teams. I do find them strangely engrossing fixtures, but the friendly atmosphere is not something I’m a huge fan of. I regret my decision, if I’m honest, mainly due to the experimental lineup and the appearances of some players I’m keen to watch in action. With that in mind, I got up this morning and watched extended highlights to gain an insight into how we did.

However, I won’t insult your intelligence by trying to write a match report for a game in which I haven’t seen a single kick live. Instead, I’ll point out five things from last night’s game that struck me as important for the football club.

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Ahui Debut

Elicha Ahui coming into the side is likely a symptom of Jay Benn’s injury, but it was nice to see the youngster make his debut. For me, this is what the competition is all about, giving some of our younger players a chance to show what they can do. When else better to do it than against a top Premier League academy to get a barometer of where Ahui is in his development?

He had a good outing at full-back, according to the numbers; he made some successful dribbles, didn’t give the ball away too much and got some interceptions in. Some people at the game commented he was their Man of the Match, which is great news, especially for the academy. It also proves that hard work does pay off; his story is an interesting one and his debut should be heralded as a big win for the club.

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Injury Returns

I scoffed on my morning dog walk video when Cornell said he’d like to see Joe Walsh and Jacob Davenport play, but one started, and the other came on within 20 minutes. It seems he’s better informed than me, or indeed anyone, as we’ve had little update on either player. I do find it challenging that there’s never an indication of when players are coming back; nobody seems to know what the crack is with Tom Hopper, either. If the mystery is ahead of a league game, I get it, but Newcastle Under 21s are not coming to the Bank looking to target Joe Walsh or altering their gameplan depending on who we have in midfield. I genuinely think if on the morning of the game I’d known a couple of those players were coming back, I might have gone.

Anyway, the surprise announcement is a good thing for the club. Joe Walsh is a top footballer, especially when we go three at the back, and his return is massive. It leaves us overloaded with central defenders, especially with Lewis coming back as well, but competition for places is a really good thing.

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I guess Jacob Davenport was a little further away, and the plan might have been for him to get the final 20. That’s what I’d take from him replacing Tashan but then going off towards the end of the game. For me, a fit Jacob Davenport is a player pushing for a place in the starting XI, so his return is also big news for fans.

Mark Kennedy’s Passion

I recently did an article on Joey Barton’s utter disdain for the EFL Trophy, and whilst his comments were relatable, I found them a little distasteful to supporters. Some fans still go to these matches, and they expect their manager to be invested in them. Besides, there’s money for winning games, and that increases significantly beyond the next round. That means you want a manager who is fully invested in the matches.

Also, they’re a great chance for the boss to try different things out. We’ve been three at the back for a couple of matches now, but eventually, the run of matches against so-called big teams will end, and we’ll need to break down teams who want to stop us from playing. Last night was a chance for us to try creating more chances, and some of the fringe players got their opportunity to show what they can do.

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That’s why it was nice to see Mark Kennedy getting booked for kicking the ball away. It wasn’t petulant at the Newcastle team, but anger at one of his own players. We’re 1-0 up against Newcastle kids and the manager showed the sort of commitment to earn a booking because something didn’t happen as he wanted it to. I like that – in fact, I respect the fact he treated this game like any other. Barton’s comments might resonate with supporters, but devaluing the competition is not the way I’d want my manager to go, for the sake of Elicha Ahui, Charles Vernam and the other players getting valuable minutes, and for the sake of £10,000.

Interesting, by the way, that Barton hates the competition so much he put out a strong side to beat Swindon last night and progress to the next round.

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Freddie Draper

He could have fit under the returning player category, but I wanted to discuss Freddie in broader terms. Of course, it’s great to see him in the squad and in the team, and something tells me that the clamour for us to have a new centre forward could subside a bit now he’s back.

There’s a lot to like against Freddie, and his success or failure won’t come down to an appearance from the bench against Newcastle kids, but he took his goal well; he shrugged off a challenge and showed a striker’s instinct to finish. He’s a strong lad, he’s built like a 25-year-old, and he’s always been fearless. There’s a similarity, in my mind, with Sean Roughan here. We knew Sean was a good player, but as he’s got older there’s a certain strength to his performance and character that I think only age can bring. Freddie, like Sean, plays like a player older than he is, meaning as he does get older, we could be in a good place with him.

Stripping it back to last night though, with the ongoing mystery of the missing captain, we do need another option up top, even if it is just fresh legs for the last 15 minutes of a game. He made his debut at Hillsborough against Sheff Weds last season. Could it be he gets his first Football League outing of this campaign against the same opposition? If he’s fit, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him in the dying embers of the game.

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Another Win

Whether it feels like a friendly or not, whether you rate Under 21 teams or not, this was a professional, competitive match and a win for the Imps; that’s significant. We’ve lost just four matches in 17 and we’ve gone 304 minutes without conceding (that includes the injury time in the games since Bolton’s second). That’s as many clean sheets as managed in 22 matches from the start of last season, and before you say ‘EFL Trophy’, our clean sheets between August and November 2021 included Bowers and Pitsea and Bradford in (you guessed it) the EFL trophy. It was also our seventh clean sheet of the season, which was as many as we kept all last season. Someone said on yesterday’s live stream that winning breeds winning and there’s no doubt our recent run of results looks much better now. It’s four wins in seven, and that’s got to be good for this group of players.

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I was left thinking about last season, something I do a lot, and it’s perhaps a fallacy, but I recall chatting to Michael Appleton and him saying we wouldn’t see the best of the group until October (this was in August). Ahead of this season, Mark Kennedy said the same; it’s a new group that would only get better. Look, I know we only beat Newcastle kids, and from what I’ve seen on the highlights, it wasn’t a rampant performance by any means, but I can see the progression. We’re getting harder to beat, we’re beginning to find some creative players further forward, and we’re seeing fringe players rising to the occasion when asked. Our young players are getting minutes as well, which has to be good.

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It’s £10k in the bank, another debutant and another step forward. I don’t care for Under 21 teams in the competition, but I do like to see Lincoln City progressing in cups and building a stronger squad. Last night there were a flow of positives and aside from Tashan’s injury, few negatives to speak of. It was a good workout, another win in a month I think many had written off before a ball was kicked, and a chance to maybe set our sights on Wembley yet again. It’s a big ask, but I think we’ve got a deep enough squad to put a competitive side out against whoever is put in our path, as long as they turn up like they did last night.

There were other positives I haven’t mentioned; Danny Mandroiu’s first goal for the club was well taken, and an appetiser for things to come one hopes, but Jordon Garrick showed good strength and tenacity in winning the ball to create it. Garrick might be the third man on the flank as things stand, but he has some attributes like strength that might be useful both from the bench, and against teams looking to stifle us going forward.

There were decent outings for Lasse (yeah, I’ve watched a bit more of the game now, couldn’t help myself) and Jamie Robson, who played two delicious balls in for Freddie, one leading to the goal. It was really a night for positivity and promise. It’s fair to say there were plenty of positives to take from a game that held little interest for me. It always seems to be the case!