Before I start my write-up today, I want to pay a brief tribute to Marcus Needham, who passed away yesterday. I found out about it whilst eating lunch before today’s game and, like many Imps fans out there, it knocked me for six. Marcus had a letter printed in the Sports Echo around the time of my first-ever one, 1997, and ever since, we’d jousted about various things, politics and football mainly. Sometimes our views differed, but we never argued. He had a way of debating and discussing things that was always respectful, intelligent and informed, which is absolutely reflective of his personality. As a key member of the 617, he helped drive the club’s support through difficult times and will be sorely missed. My condolences to Liz, his family and his close friends. RIP, comrade.
With that, it feels almost secondary to do a write-up on the game, much as it felt secondary to attend a football match after the news broke. However, there was a football match to watch, one made better by the loud and proud support of the 617, which Marcus has been such an important part of. This was the type of atmosphere we could only have dreamed of seven or eight years ago when we were in the National League, and it made for an afternoon packed with passion and controversy.
I tweeted at half time that I felt we’d got an inconsistent referee, and I haven’t had the pleasure of watching back the key incidents. I will tomorrow, but like the other day, I want to pick up on those early doors. Before that, let’s look at what we were up against today – Ipswich Town, destined for the Championship, are the best side to visit the Bank this season, bar none. They appeared to have few flaws – they defend well, they move the ball excellently, they have threats out wide from wing backs and attackers, they have a presence in the area, and if that’s not working, they have an embarrassment of riches on the bench. They’re a second-tier side in waiting, whilst we aspire to be a secure League One team, which is their nadir. We’re at the height of our powers right now, and they’re at their lowest ebb.
They started the game brightly, had lots of possession, but we did a few bits as well. Ben House dragged a shot wide after a lovely ball through the middle, and whilst they threatened, I’m not sure they ever made me think they were going to run away with the game. It was a scintillating encounter against what I feel is a slightly weakened Lincoln City side – Lasse Sorensen wouldn’t be in my first-choice midfield, but he showed lots of industry and endeavour, whilst TJ has been out of the side for a few weeks, but was almost certainly Man of the Match this afternoon. What we needed was a little bit of luck, perhaps a decision to go our way, and I’m not sure we got that.
I didn’t do my referee piece today, but the official was Declan Bourne, a man who sent off an Imps player last season (rightly, TJ away at Crewe) but also awarded a penalty that was 100% outside of the box in the same game. I’m told the club received word that was not a penalty in the weeks afterwards, so Bourne isn’t one I have a lot of time for. Maybe it meant we were ready to jump on him for every little thing, whereas an element of calm might be more appropriate. I’ll tell you how I saw the big moments in the first half, and perhaps have to retract it when I’ve had the benefit of a replay.
Firstly, I thought they had an effort that bounced off the bar and went over the line; maybe that was my bad angle, but it looked like we got away with one. Up until a certain point, I thought the referee was handling a big game in the correct manner, although a bit of pushing at shoving at a corner ended up in a defensive free kick, which looked unfair. I remarked to my mate ‘Nostradamus Matt’ that we never got anything from those situations, which proved to be some keen foreshadowing. Matt believed it was our day, from the moment we met in the fan zone, but I found it hard to agree with him.
Two big decisions in the first half made our fans incandescent with rage. The first was what appeared to be a foul on House. A beautiful ball through saw him trying to shrug off a defender, steadying himself for a one-on-one with the keeper. In real time, I felt House was fouled, as did 8,000 of the 10,000-strong crowd. If it’s a foul, it’s not a red card; the double jeopardy rule dictates that he gets booked, not sent off if it’s a penalty. The ref didn’t think it was a penalty, and I’m sure there will be some debate. For me, it’s a penalty.
Not long after they go up the other end, their lad tries to turn Jackson who appears to haul him down. There’s no doubt it’s a free kick, but the question is, was it denying a clear goalscoring opportunity? It looks to me as if O’Connor was covering, but if it were the other way around, I might not be quite so gracious. In truth, it was a decision which could have gone either way and will be interpreted one of two ways, so the referee hasn’t made a mistake; he’s made a justifiable decision that differs from mine. It’s hard to call him out for that. My argument is the foul on House should also have been given, but again, there is a case for it not being a penalty, so it’s not like the official has missed (for instance) an elbow to the face. It would be nice if one of the two had gone our way, but they didn’t.
What that meant was after a first half where we’d executed the perfect away performance (at home) against the best side in the division, we were going to have to do the same but with ten men. To make matters worse, we were also going to have to do it without our best midfielder, Matty Virtue, who pulled up with a hamstring problem not long after the red card. Our fans were incensed that play wasn’t stopped, but there is no rule to say it must be; it wasn’t a head injury. They were on the attack; they were under no moral obligation to put the ball out either – that was another moment that caused arguments, even between people around me, but my take was Ipswich, and the referee did nothing wrong at all. It was just another little moment that went against us, but it further created that ‘us and them’ trench mentality which served us so well against Bolton, and again throughout the second period.
Of course, now I’m sitting here without the fog of being at the game clouding my judgement, it is easy to be a little more pragmatic. Declan Bourne could have made a series of calls in our favour, but did not. They were not the sort of calls that were absolutely one way and he called them the other. Unlike an elbow to the face in the build-up to a goal. Did I already mention that? Sorry.