Seriously. Football. It’s bloody mad.
We were the giants to the slaughter on Saturday, turning in a substandard performance against a team 90-odd places below us. It was seen as a low point in the club’s cup history, a game that represented all the negative aspects of Mark Kennedy’s Imps, unable to create anything and looking toothless in front of the goal. 72 hours later (72 unhappy hours on social media), the Imps turn in a performance that must rank as one of the best cup performances outside of 2016/17, a 3-1 win against a Championship side, progressing to the Fourth Round of the League Cup for only the second time in our history (the other time being 1967/68, when we saw a record crowd at Sincil Bank against Derby County – you can hear about that cup run by listening to the Roger Holmes podcast).
I can’t tell you much about the game, I’m afraid, I’ve been listening to it on the radio rather than watching anywhere, so I can’t start dissecting things. I’ll try to have a watch tomorrow and give you a catch-up. However, I had to write something because we couldn’t shy away from the result on Saturday, so we should celebrate this. It’s easy to be critical and easy to praise, but if we’re doing one, as a fanbase, we should do another. Of course, we should never get too high and never get too low, and it is easy to do, but we’re being described as sensational by the commentary team, and rightly so.
Mark Kennedy made a few changes – Carl Rushworth returned in goal, which is a big bonus. The back three saw Adam Jackson make a return, with Roughan playing on the left instead of Jamie Robson who was sick. TJ Eyoma also played centrally with O’Connor, with Regan Poole on the right. Matty Virtue and Max Sanders made up the midfield, with Charles Vernam and Tashan Oakley-Boothe tucking in either side of a returning Ben House. Seeing House, in particular, back in the team is really important, as we have looked a little light up top. In fairness, it didn’t look like the sort of starting XI that could beat a Championship side, not on paper.
The key tonight was much the same as it was at Ipswich a couple of weeks ago; we needed to keep it tight early doors, perhaps get to half time with a half chance, and go from there. Well, that was my ideal plan, but not Mark Kennedy’s. He said in an interview earlier today the club weren’t into the game in a good place, and it got a lot of sarcasm on social media. It seems that people might have been better off holding their tongue because it sounds like we looked like a team bang in form.
Six minutes in, and the question ‘where is our next goal coming from’ got the answer ‘Matty Virtue’, as he rifled in from 20-yards. That goal we have been able to watch, and it’s an early contender for goal of the season, a strike worthy of putting a midtable League One side into the lead at a Championship team. Now we had something to defend.
Only we didn’t defend – we played the attacking football that MK promised at the beginning of the season. Before we go any further, the question ‘why couldn’t we do that on Saturday’ is easy to answer – Chippenham didn’t let us. They wanted to force us into possession with few openings and to hit us when they could, and it worked. The Robins wouldn’t shut up shop from minute one against a lower-league side, they had to be adventurous, and that meant we could do what we’d been promised for a while. The personnel were somewhat forced into their roles; it could be argued Oakley-Boothe, Vernam, and House would all have been sitting this out if we’d got a fully fit squad, and yet all three played a crucial part in a memorable victory.
Ben House was one of those ‘for the future’ players we signed last season, and despite accusations of us being light up top, he netted his fifth goal of the season to give the Imps a 2-0 lead. It was all him, forcing his former Eastleigh teammate Joe Low into an error, capitalising and showing some nice composure to finish. On Saturday, we looked bad for ninety minutes and the fans expected a response. There are few responses worth as much as a two-goal lead inside 15 minutes in a cup tie away from home.
My fear was a repeat of Fleetwood, where we got a two-goal lead and shrunk back, but instead, we just kept on pressing, fighting and battling. It sounds very much as though we looked like the better team, this wasn’t like Ipswich and Barnsley, where we shut up shop and hoped. Instead, we sought to control the ball in the middle of the park and bring our front three into play. Tashan, a player I like the look of more and more every time I see him, seized his chance with a great performance, whilst Matty Virtue and Max Sanders had control in the centre of the park. I kept hearing Vernam’s name in connection with runs, crosses and positivity, which is great. He was so unlucky at the beginning of the season, playing all pre-season and then getting injured a week before. He’s had something of a false start, but tonight will definitely do his confidence the world of good.
Nigel Pearson might have made a grave error in starting with a weakened side, and the fans made sure he knew it with a cacophony of boos as the referee blew his whistle. The former Leicester boss sought to rectify that with three changes at half time. It was meant to swing the game in their favour, a couple of big guns coming on to throttle our attack and give them 45 minutes of ascendency. The aim (and I might get tired of saying this) was always going to be keepi it tight in the first fifteen minutes and hang on to the two-goal lead. Instead, we killed them off early. Vernam sent in a free kick, Virtue hit the post and O’Connor nodded home his first goal for City. 3-0, and into Wonderland.
From there, the result never really felt in doubt. Pearson brought as many strikers on the pitch as he could, but for every chance they had, we had one in reply. There was never a moment where it felt like we’d collapse and concede three or four – the three at the back that we play does make us look more solid, and that’s been evident in the fact we haven’t conceded two in a game since October 1st. Even with big names like eight-goal Tommy Conway on the field. He did become nine-goal Tommy Conway, pulling one back for the hosts, but it was too little, too late.
What’s really heartening is on another day, it could have been four or five for the Imps. Ben House and Vernam both had chances, and a Tashan cross almost brought a fourth for City. It would be greedy to ask for anymore – tonight was a game to savour, a game to remember, and the perfect tonic to a game to regret from Saturday.
What does tonight’s game prove? Nothing we didn’t already know. It showed this work-in-progress team do have the ability, that the recruitment in the summer (and last year) isn’t as woeful as people say. We will have more lows, that is football, but it was nice to show that the last game was a standalone result quickly. We’re not consistent, and we’re not the finished product, but nobody could listen to that game and the reaction and still believe we’re not heading in a positive direction.
Charles Vernam, Tashan Oakley-Boothe, Matty Virtue and Paudie O’Connor all came in the summer, and all were superb. It’s so easy to be critical of players when it doesn’t work, but there has to be credit when we do. Personally, I thought we were decent against Accrington, I don’t think we’ve been on this downward trajectory that people talk about. We work hard, we spring a press perfectly, and MK has shown a willingness to tweak formations and set-up to effect the result. It won’t always be like that, but we must recognise that – one result doesn’t make a season, even runs of three or four without a win will happen, but they don’t mean a thing. The only thing that matters in May is when we talk about a league position after 46 matches, and any cup runs we might go on. We would have loved an FA Cup run, but we won’t get it. However, we are getting a League Cup run. That must be judged as success, and we might still get one in the Papa John’s as well.
That’s it for now. We must never get too high, never too low, but after the nadir of Saturday, this result was about much more than progression to the next round – it was about immediate redemption and proving what quality there is in the squad. We did that, and in doing so, gave supporters something to remember for many years to come.
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