Excitement. That’s what I’m told football is about.
We’re getting a classic example of how excitement can easily be dulled at the moment by the fact the World Cup is a week away, and nobody cares. A World Cup shouldn’t be played when the leaves are on the ground or when domestic fixtures are taking place. It’s a classic product, rubbished by awful planning and ruining the excitement.
That’s how some people have seen Lincoln City of late. Even I’ll confess, the toothless snarl we showed at Vale Park was a long way removed from exciting football, but over the last few matches (we’ll ignore Chippenham), Lincoln City have corrected that. Imagine if, a week before the World Cup, FIFA realised they weren’t providing fans with what they wanted, so they switched it to England and gave the Three Lions a bye into the last 16. That’s pretty much what yesterday felt like for us.
We haven’t been bad this season, not by a long shot, and whilst some games have left me feeling utterly deflated (Peterborough, Cambridge, Port Vale Chippenham), those games have been offset by much better afternoons (and evenings), with stoic performances at Portsmouth, Ipswich, Barnsley and Bristol City. We’ve been entertained at home (Sheff Weds and Derby), but we’re a work in progress. Nobody is disputing that, but I think the realisation is finally beginning to hit home. We’ll have more games like yesterday, and we’ll have more games like Port Vale away, but anyone who says this club is in decline or on the wrong tracks needs only look at yesterday to see they’re wrong.
Why? Because we matched the top-of-the-table team and perhaps deserved a win? There’s that, obviously, but for me, it’s the way with which Mark Kennedy looks at each game and tweaks something – he’s a work in progress as much as the team, he is adjusting our setup to be better with each little lesson. Think about it – we conceded three at Bristol Rovers, and looked like conceding every time they attack, so he goes three at the back, and the goals stop. We then look a bit blunt up top, so he makes another minor tweak, pulling the wide players tighter to the striker, not going long quite so much, and what happens? We create chances. By the way, this started with Accrington at home, and despite all the moaning that night, we created chances, but he switches the full backs after not quite showing enough penetration. Mark Kennedy is open enough to admit he’s learning at the same time as the team is developing, and he’s humble enough not to try to stick to a philosophy that doesn’t work.
Yesterday, the best team in League One right now came to Sincil Bank, fearing they might not get a result as they had five injuries. Lincoln City, with five injuries almost set in stone, like a quota we need to fill, felt otherwise. Sure, our captain is out, our red-hot new signing with three goals in three games, our most creative attacking midfielder, our star central defender of a year or so ago, and one of our big-name loan signings. Still, that’s par for the course at Sincil Bank; you shrug it off and get on with it, don’t you? After all, our recruitment is so bad that even with those five players out, we’re able to throw a competitive XI together to put in a performance (detect the sarcasm). The problem in the squad isn’t ability – I am beginning to think (bar a third striker) that we’ve got a borderline top-half squad here. The issue is consistency and getting the right blend. Outside of that, I’m feeling really positive about the direction we’re heading in.
Look at it this way – you’re playing a team top of the table, a team who have only dropped eight points this season in the league, and not a single person outside the ground was predicting a defeat for the Imps. For me, after last weekend’s humbling at Chippenham, that shows that we’re on the right track. Ok, we can’t beat the teams we’re ‘supposed’ to beat, but when your fans are more upbeat facing the best team in the league than the worst, I think we’re going in the right direction. However, what was different yesterday was the manifestation of the now inevitable home draw.
What many expected was a tight defensive performance without the ball, looking to hit Plymouth on the break. Instead, we just hit them like an angry driver ploughing into a crowd of NPCs on Grand Theft Auto V. This wasn’t the ‘five-at-the-back’ negativity of seven days ago; it was the ‘three-at-the-back’ attacking formation Mark Kennedy explained he was working towards. The tweak has been Jamie Robson coming in on the left and Regan Poole shifting to right back, and that’s facilitated by Joe Walsh’s return to fitness. In Walsh, O’Connor and Jackson, we have three centre-backs that I firmly believe would walk into any team in this division, bar none. There isn’t a single side that wouldn’t look at those and include at least one in their defence. With Roughan and Eyoma waiting in the wings and Montsma coming back to fitness, our defence is looking formidable.
Further up the field, my preferred midfield duo of Sanders and Virtue started again, with Jack Diamond returning after two matches cup-tied to sit one side of Ben House. Charles Vernam, a proper Lincoln lad with the city in his blood, is finally getting the run of games on the other flank to create a tight front three. From the first kick to the last, it just worked.
In a way, it was a frustrating opening ten minutes and a brilliant one as well. Plymouth set up to win the game, but they perhaps hadn’t quite banked on us playing the way we did. With our forward three being closer together, it meant they were man for man on the Plymouth backline. Their full-backs couldn’t tuck in and double up because our full-backs did what wing-backs should do and got really far forward. Regan Poole was excellent, always willing to be the out ball, but also getting far more opportunity to show he doesn’t just tackle and head, but he can pass, move and cross as well. On the other flank, Jamie Robson was as close to Man of the Match as you can be, always offering the out ball. Why was it frustrating? Because the ball just wouldn’t bounce for us.
How many times did a scuffed clearance, ricochet or header out just evade our player at the last minute? The answer is all too often, and despite us being as close to sensational as we have been for a long while, we just didn’t quite get the rub of the green. If there was a lucky bounce to be had, the visitors got it. If there was a player whose run was just a yard too early or six inches too late, it was a red shirt. However, we had an intensity to our play that was very different from recent weeks. We were having a go at the league leaders, and it clearly got our supporters up off their feet.
Credit to the Pilgrims; they’re by far the best side we’ve seen this season. They’ve got some really good players who make fantastic runs and have good ability on the ball. For every attack we had, you felt they had one to count it, and it just made for this end-to-end spectacle in which I never felt like we’d concede, but there was just enough danger and mild peril to lift it out of the ‘PG’ category.
I’m always impressed with Jordan Houghton; he’s one of those players I’d love to have seen in a Lincoln shirt, but I also liked the look of former Sunderland youngster Bali Mumba; really tidy on the ball. I know Morgan Whittaker didn’t get the expected goal, but I thought he looked like a confident outlet for them as well, whilst Ryan Hardie and Niall Ennis are quality at this level. Plymouth seemingly have what it takes to stay in the promotion race, and given the strong numbers they travelled in, fair play to them. To bring more than a thousand on a mid-November afternoon all the way from Devon was impressive, and they contributed as much to the atmosphere as our own excellent home supporters. By the way, I keep hearing crowds will drop off, but with more than 9,000 in the ground and 1,100 visitors, I make that a significant uplift in home support since Accrington; that’s with a humbling ‘worst-ever’ (not my words, the words of randoms on social media) FA Cup result. Not bad for a club in decline.
Ryan Hardie went closest for the visitors early, a big punt over the top evaded Jackson, but the former Rangers man couldn’t quite lift his shot over Rushworth. Not long after, it felt like first blood might be ours when Regan Poole picked up the seconds from Jackson’s header, but his strike was saved well by Cooper. It felt a bit like the effort against Accrington from Jack Diamond, where it goes in if it’s placed anywhere other than where it was. To be fair, their keeper made a great stop, didn’t know much about it, and City paid the price later on.
The problem with playing well against the best team in the league is you know they’re going to do the same, and when they did take the lead, it was a rare goal for which I can’t really blame anyone. Normally, Lincoln concede, and it’s a sloppy throw, or we haven’t cleared our lines or something like that, but this was just a good goal from a strong opponent. We have a Stacey West group chat, and the word ‘thunderb&stard’ came up (I’ve found out that if I swear in articles, News Nows doesn’t carry them on the feed). It was a great strike after a good block from Jackson. Perhaps the quick free kick could have been blocked, but you can’t dispute it was a fine strike which gave them a lead I felt was barely warranted. I don’t mean they hadn’t done enough to score, just that we had our chances as they had theirs, and it all felt very even.
City could have levelled through Charles Vernam, who might be disappointed with his inability to guide the ball into an open net. We pressed high up the field, forcing the goalscorer Adam Randell into giving up possession. Virtue (excellent all afternoon) won the ball high, and Diamond’s shot was parried into Vernam’s path. He wanted a touch, but the ball skidded under his boots, and the chance was gone. Mark Kennedy said afterwards it affected the former Burton man for a short period, but he still had a crucial role to play.
The game hinged on two critical moments just before half time. A great ball to Ryan Hardie saw the striker get around Jackson, who clipped him as he did. To Haride’s credit, he stayed on his feet and curled a beautiful effort at goal, which Rushworth did superbly to claw out from under the bar. Had Hardie gone down, Jackson might have been in trouble, and within just a few seconds, we saw the game flash before our eyes. It felt, in terms of significance, a lot like Mendez-Laing’s disallowed goal against Derby – a moment we immediately leveraged to our own ends.
Deep into first-half stoppage time by now, the corner was dealt with quickly, Diamond dispossessing Mumba before House played the ball forward, and Vernam broke at pace. He put the disappointment of his miss behind him to force Cooper into a stunning save, making it a corner up the other end within maybe twenty seconds. That led to a great delivery from Vernam, who picked out Sanders at the back stick. He took a touch and rifled into the roof of the net from a tight angle to level the scores.
It was a huge moment for Sanders, and one he clearly enjoyed. He’s one player who has been on quite a journey at Sincil Bank, not favoured by the previous manager, called out in post-match interviews and dropped no matter what he did, but this season he’s getting better and better. He celebrated in front of the Coop Stand (is it still the Coop Stand? it’s not, is it?), and he clearly enjoyed his moment. I suspect he’ll have a few more if he keeps playing the way he has recently.
It meant the Imps went off at half time with the Dambusters ringing in their ears and cheers throughout the stadium. They always say just before half time is a great time to score and I usually scoff and claim any time between the first and last minute is good, but in this instance, it felt like a game-changer. We’d go in confident, positive and with a bounce in our step, whilst Plymouth had no time to reply.