I intended to watch the game yesterday, go to Wragby Christmas market to mull things over, and then drive home to write it up.
As I stumbled out of The Ivy Club just before midnight, with nine pints of Estrella (and one Stella thanks to my Dad’s interpretation of a round) and some whiskey in my belly, I realised I wasn’t going to make my own deadline. Actually, that’s a lie; I didn’t even think about writing the game up until we got home this morning. Briefly, I got a sinking feeling, knowing that I was perhaps again going to write up a ‘different game’ to the one others saw. Then I pondered on the game and, despite the result, realised I don’t care if I write up what seems like a different game to everyone else. Why? Because I know what I saw yesterday, and aside from losing, I’m not all that upset with it.
Lincoln City, over the last eighteen months or so, have occasionally turned up and shown little fight (Portsmouth at home last season, for instance). We’ve turned up to games and showed zero attacking threat (Shrewsbury away last season) or looked disjointed at the back (Peterborough away this season). Yesterday, no matter what anyone tries to tell me, none of that was true, and for me, that’s the takeaway. Okay, so we lost, I get that, but we didn’t go down without a bit of a fight, we weren’t outclassed, and on another Saturday, we’d have been two up before 20 minutes were up and home and hosed by half time. The thing is, this beautiful game we all love is littered with wins and defeats. Sometimes, you lose matches you should have won. Sometimes, you win matches you should have lost. If every single game has to be dissected and presented as evidence of fundamental flaws in the master plan, we’re doing it wrong.
Of course, on paper, we had enough to win yesterday, but as we took to the field in what I personally feel is an all-out assault to the senses (our third kit, labelled on social media as the best-selling third kit ever), I’m sure Salop felt the same. They’re much like us; they have been in the top two or three before, failed in the play-offs and are now settled into their own reality of being a relatively small fish in an average pond where a few stray sharks have got stuck. The only difference is we’ve got a Checkatrade Trophy in our cabinet, and they haven’t. Small mercies, right?
Seriously, think about their recruitment; loan players from a division or two above (Saydee), established League One stalwarts (Leahy), players who shouldn’t be in this division but whose trajectory took them to the Championship and back down (Bayliss and Shipley); hell, they’ve even got a Sunderland loanee at the heart of their team (Winchester). They’re much the same as us (just in a better kit yesterday), they really are, and so matches like this will never be easy. Of course, I want us to win, but I don’t think our world is crumbling just because we’ve lost at a ground we lost at last season. In fact, we had shots on target, we had efforts, and we could have sent the game the other way early doors – that’s a huge step up from what was absolutely dirge last time we were there.
A team unchanged from the win against Morecambe took the game to Salop in those first fifteen minutes. It was one-way traffic, with the hosts looking nervous and us with the metaphorical wind behind us (I don’t know about literal, I watched at home). We attacked with verve; we picked out space regularly, and on another afternoon, we’d score. Ben House dispossessing Marosi was perhaps our most clear-cut chance, although a Matty Virtue strike certainly looked like it might go in as well. A well-hit Vernam free-kick almost caught their keeper out as well – another good opportunity. I’ve zero complaints if we’re working opposition keepers. I know there will be the ‘you have to take your chances’ brigade, but first, you must create chances. I remember a former Lincoln manager once telling me if his team drew 0-0 and had 20 shots, then drew 2-2 and had two, he’d be angrier about the second result, because if you keep creating chances, eventually, you will score goals. It’s why I go on about xG – if you’re putting the ball into dangerous areas and making the opposition keeper work, then you might lose one or two games you should win, but overall, you will score goals.
There’s no secret that we’re light up top – Chris and I highlighted that in the podcast this week. Charles Vernam is getting a run when perhaps he’d be someone we’d bring on late in a game, but with Garrick and Danny Mandroiu injured, we’re operating on two wide players, not four. Ted Bishop is another who would be in the mix with his guile, so I’m not concerned massively that we didn’t have the options there yesterday. I’ve said since the summer we’re one light; I’m not hiding from that fact, but in House, Diamond and Vernam, we have a decent League One attack. I also thought those opening exchanges were dominated by Sanders and Virtue, both looking increasingly assured in their midfield roles, working well off each other. I had no worries at all until the moment O’Connor went down injured, and the balance of play shifted.
It’s not unusual to pinpoint an exact moment when things change. Last season in the Shrewsbury fixture at our place it was when Adam Jackson went off. Whether Steve Cotterill got a message to his players during that break, or perhaps it was just the moment’s respite that gave them a chance to regroup, we weren’t the same after that. I can’t say Shrewsbury were great either, but they got more of a foothold in the game. Leahy, Winchester and Bayliss are a tasty little trio in a Lague One midfield, and they began to assert themselves. However, I didn’t feel we’d concede. Until we did.
Usually, it’s nice to dispute a penalty, even if you know in your heart that it is a spot-kick. Sadly, there wasn’t even a bit of wiggle room to argue it wasn’t fair – Jamie Robson’s hand was up, the ball hit it, and it was as clear as any penalty you’ll see. It’s easy to say it was a crazy moment, but it certainly doesn’t mean Robson is a bad player, which I immediately saw all over Twitter (which led to another round of muting, lovely). Obviously, in an ideal world, you don’t stick your hand in the air when going for a ball in the area, but he did, and it was a penalty. Leahy made no mistake to get his second goal in three games against the Imps, sweet revenge after his red card against us for Bristol Rovers in 2020/21.
Of course, the goal right before half time was tough to take, 1-0 down without having done too much wrong, and it gave them a chance to get in and tweak things slightly. For us, all that was needed was more of the same.