I remember looking at the fixtures we had ahead of us in October and thinking we’d do well to be outside the bottom four when Halloween came around.
Sure, it’s pessimism of the highest order, but this is a young Lincoln City team, one that couldn’t defend for toffee last season, and we had a run of five former Premier League clubs on the spin. It looked daunting, especially with trips to Ipswich and Barnsley, and yet here we are, with eight points from five and three clean sheets in the league. At the beginning of the season, Mark Kennedy said we’d get better and, to coin a phrase from an underrated Oasis track, it’s getting better, man.
Lincoln City have not won at Oakwell (in the league, I haven’t forgotten the cup) in my lifetime; the last occasion we took all the points, it was just two for a win, back in 1976. That was whilst we were on our way to the Division Four title, and whilst tonight’s win isn’t establishing us as promotion contenders, it feels every bit as good, I’m sure. Back then, we probably expected to go there and win, but tonight I’m not sure we did. City fans would surely have taken a point and been happy, and yet here we are with all three. Scarily, we’re up to 11th now, and with games in hand, we could get as high as eighth.
I thought that perhaps given our starting XI got 90 minutes on Saturday, there might be changes, but there was just one; Joe Walsh coming in for Adam Jackson. Given the two have had their fair share of injuries, it makes sense to swap them around, but the rest of the team picked itself. It was seemingly a solid 5-2-3 of sorts, with us looking to soak up any pressure they wanted to put on us. The trick, as it was against Ipswich, is to keep it tight for the first 25 and go from there. I firmly believe if we’d managed that on Saturday, we’d have beaten Sheffield Wednesday as well. It’s a gameplay you can execute well against teams you’re expecting to come on to you, and we did just that.
The first fifteen minutes or so were a really tough watch, not because we were bad, but because ‘keeping it tight’ is about as thrilling as ‘watching paint dry’ for a spectator. Still, football is a sport, a competition, and we do what needs to be done. We kept it solid, let them have 75% possession and waited for them to make a move. It’s almost like a game of chess; we wait for them to get bored of not breaking us down, they manoeuvre their pieces, and we can then look to strike. Despite the huge imbalance in possession, the best chance of the game, in the early stages, fell to us. It came from the gloves of Carl Rushworth, his huge throw finding Jack Diamond, who found space to have a shot which clipped the post and went out of play.
I think people expected more from Barnsley, and like Ipswich the other week, I’m not sure I ever felt we were in a lot of danger for the rest of the half. Devante Cole and James Norwood are decent players, but I’m not sure either would be in our team ahead of the industrious Ben House, even if he wasn’t getting a lot of joy. He was a sacrificial pawn for much of the half, used tactically to keep their defenders occupied, but not really able to get in and do a huge amount. However, as the half wore on, Barnsley got frustrated, and their possession dropped off. It allowed us a little more of the ball, but as we’ve seen in recent weeks, there was no forcing of the play. Instead, we’re patient, careful with the ball and wait for the moment to strike. Sure, we can turn a ball into the final third into a pass back in three moves, but what did it cost us? Nothing.
As the half wore on, it struck me that for all their posturing and possession, neither side had a shot on goal. Instead, the half seemed to be petering out when referee James Oldham (yes, I forgot to do my ref piece for the game) indicated three minutes of injury time. Why three minutes? Rob Makepeace thought it might be because of their tendency to take ages over their throws, but Ben House had been fouled and injured for a short period which ran the clock down a bit. It was an odd moment, he was clearly taken out and no yellow card followed, but in fairness, it was about the only moment I felt the referee ever really got something wrong.
Still, he added the time on, and that gave us the chance to strike. The goal wasn’t unlike our leveller on Saturday; a delicious ball from Diamond found Mandroiu, and the man of the moment strode through and finished past Bradley Collins with aplomb. I don’t like Collins (Forest Green), and it was a superb moment to watch the net ripple with a goal they’d struggle to come back from before the break. The stadium burst into noise, which was noticeable given the home support had been very quiet for the entire first half. If I were a neutral, I’d fear for Barnsley, they’re not on a positive trajectory at all, and the noise around the place reflected that throughout.
I know that there’s the saying just before half time is a good time to score, but there’s an even better time for Lincoln City to score of late; first. This five at the back we play gives us an edge if we get our noses in front, because we defend confidently, and clean sheets are arriving like buses. By Halloween last season, we had one clean sheet; we’ve got more than that at Barnsley alone this season. There’s such a difference in the way we defend, even from eight weeks ago. O’Connor has clearly now settled and we’re seeing the player Bradford City fans didn’t want to lose, whilst Poole is just the warrior he was last season. Joe Walsh dropped in like he’d never been out (if only), whilst Sean Roughan looks every inch a senior pro. As for TJ; he got some stick from some people this week, but I don’t get it. He was outstanding this evening, operating at times as a right winger it seemed, as we made our chess move and pushed him on. He rose to the occasion, showing plenty of strength and aggression throughout.
With a goal lead, those five would be tough to get past as the teams came out for the second half.