I’ve found sitting down to write this a bit tough. There’s so much to write about, it could be six pages long and we wouldn’t quite cover the nuts and bolts, but I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m going to jump straight in at the deep end, no waffling about team selection or anything like that.
Last night, Lincoln City deserved to progress to the quarter-final of the League Cup for the first time in our history and, but for two fairly poor decisions, we could well have done. I didn’t travel to the game – I wish I could, but there are no holidays left in the bank, so instead, I found a stream on ESPN and watched that. I expected a tough game for City, and when Nathan Jones named a full first team (more or less), I feared the worst. 90-odd minutes later, not only has my fear not been realised, but any fears I have going into the second half of the season have been alleviated.
Here are the headlines – the referee and his officials determined the outcome of this game, not the two teams. Their leveller had a hint of offside about it, and there was a stonewall penalty shout in the second half. I want to get straight into these decisions that will stick with us for the next 26 years, just as Egil Ostenstad’s dive or Gary Willard’s broken watch has. The name Jarrett Gillett is one Imps’ fans will remember for many, many years to come.
THE IMPS LEAD AFTER TWO MINUTES!
A City corner causes all sorts of issues for the Saints backline, allowing O'Connor to rise above Bazunu and nod home!
— Lincoln City FC 🇺🇦 (@LincolnCity_FC) December 20, 2022
Firstly, the decision he gave us – the goal. If I’m taking my rose-tinted glasses off for a moment, there’s more than a hint of controversy about our goal, and if we’re going to talk key decisions, then we have to start there. After a brilliant start by the Imps, we bundled the ball home with fewer than 120 seconds on the clock. It came from a Sanders corner, Maitland-Niles made a hash of the clearance, and Paudie O’Connor challenged former Portsmouth keeper Bazuna for the ball, with the ball ending up in the net. Neil Davis, the lino at that end of the ground, flagged, presumably for offside. Gillett overruled him, and we went 1-0 up. Park that for a moment.
Later in the half, as the Saints finally got into gear, they levelled. A cross from the right was swept home by Che Adams, who appeared to be offside. Subsequent replays showed that in terms of the modern game, he was offside. It might have been an arm or a toe, there wasn’t daylight, but the goal should not have stood. I saw comments such as ‘VAR would have ruled it out’. Yes, it would. However, it would also have ruled out our opener.
⚡️ THE perfect start!
— Lincoln City FC 🇺🇦 (@LincolnCity_FC) December 20, 2022
If VAR is used for our goal, it can’t be offside as their player slices it over, but O’Connor’s challenge on Bazuna would have been given as a foul. Any contact on the keeper is seemingly deemed a foul under the current laws, and there was enough there to suggest a referee might have ruled the goal out. Of course, Adams was offside, so VAR rules that out too, but they’re either two goals or two ruled out. We can’t say, ‘it should have been 1-0’ because that’s only applying the logic to one side of the argument. The only way you can say that is if you acknowledge there’s the possibility ours could have been ruled out but wasn’t and that two wrongs don’t make a right.
The other big decision is cut and dried – we should have had a penalty, no questions asked. Against Shrewsbury the other week, Jamie Robson handled the ball as his arm was in an unnatural position in the area. Nobody argued; there were no qualms from me. A handball of that nature is a penalty. When the ball is crossed, it is lifted onto the defender’s raised hand by Regan Poole challenging. There’s no doubt in my mind it’s a penalty, and as my mate Pete said this morning, if it’s up the other end of the field, it’s more likely to be given.
No jokes about quality is it's filmed from a screen in my phone, but this is the handball. 100% pic.twitter.com/rmmY21gyZD
— The Stacey West (@Staceywestblog) December 21, 2022
The game has genuinely left me feeling like I don’t want to write anymore, but that would be so unfair. Back in ’94, when we took Palace to six minutes of injury time and lost the game, we were battered for 90 minutes, not registering a shot on goal. Last night, that wasn’t the case. Obviously, Southampton were the better side; there’s no doubt about that, as they have better players and went almost full strength. But we had something else – fight, spirit and hard work. We had the perfect game plan, perhaps not quite as well planned as the early goal, but once we got that, we had something to hang on to and fight for.
The first 10 or 15 minutes, we really took the game to them, and despite not creating anything too clear-cut, we did enough to justify the lead. They didn’t really have a big chance until the goal, but as you’d expect, they dominated possession. It wasn’t like against Ipswich, where there were chances – we restricted them to very little indeed, and their goal was perhaps their first good chance of the game.
After that, they didn’t really trouble us much, again, despite having the lion’s share of the ball. They could have scored just before their goal; only a Rushworth save prevented that, but we could have bagged as well. A lovely move involving House and Virtue provided a chance for Charles Vernam, who was excellent all evening. Bazuna saved his shot, but it meant at half time we’d had a couple of shots and a goal, as had they. Yes, they’d had a couple more, but this was a full-strength Saints, and they should have been on top.
I thought we came out in the second half strongly, and, in reality, we never looked like conceding. The back five were brilliant, and it must have been nice for Sean Roughan (pronounced Ruffan by the commentator, much to my annoyance), who trialled with the Saints a few years ago. Poole led by example, and the back three of Jackson, O’Connor, and Walsh will be very difficult to break up when Montsma comes into the fold.
The big plaudits must go to the midfield two of Sanders and Virtue. We need to pull out all the stops to keep both at the club – progression isn’t always the new faces you have in the squad, but also those you can retain. Sanders is getting better with every game, and Virtue purrs along in the middle of the park just like Finnigan or Richard Butcher did once, but on another level. The difference is technique – Virtue has clearly been schooled at a higher level, and he’s proven to be the perfect Bridcutt replacement, a key question we needed to answer in the summer.
Ben House has already proven to be an asset, perhaps more so than any of us credited him with at the start of the season, and whilst Mandroiu is only just coming back, he’s a real threat. To a man, we were excellent, and nobody could begrudge us for being level at half-time.