Everyone’s at it; even MK, writes Richard Godson.
I felt for Gary as I read his thoughts on Saturday’s goalless draw with Cambridge United. Few have invested more emotional capital in the Imps than the Stacey West founder and editor. It must be hard to come up with week after week of analysis when there is precious little worthy of analysis. By contrast, I have the luxury of writing and contributing when the mood takes me. I didn’t have the dubious privilege of witnessing City’s home game against Charlton but I imagine it was not all that dissimilar from my experience this weekend. It has certainly prompted a lot of comment on social media over the weekend, almost all of it negative.
Look, I’m just a spectator. I’m not a coach or a pundit and I never played beyond under thirteen level at school and then not particularly well, but I know when I’m enjoying a game and when I’m not. Saturday was most definitely in the latter category.
I have listened very carefully to what new skipper Regan Poole and head coach Mark Kennedy had to say when interviewed after the game and whilst there are some things they said with which I can agree there were some things with which I most definitely do not. Both Mark Hone and the sponsors named Regan as their man of the match and although I would not argue with their choice, I have to say if it wasn’t for a couple of decent saves by Carl Rushworth, we would have dropped all three points rather than the two that has become the norm of late. Rushworth then, runs Poole a close second in my book. When the new captain said he didn’t think we looked like conceding at any point, I immediately thought of Rushworth’s acrobatic leap to deny Sam Smith early in the first period and his excellent awareness and anticipation to keep out a six yard header by Joe Ironside not long after. If there were any positives to be drawn from the game it was Rushworth’s efforts between the sticks that ensured the clean sheet, not that keeping this Cambridge side at bay is anything to boast about.
That should be par for the course for our defence but to be honest, Cambridge’s defence had an easier time of it than did City’s. Dimitar Mitov had to get his knees dirty on just one occasion, tumbling to his left to gather a long range angled shot from Jack Diamond in the second half. It was a comfortable, even regulation save.
I recognise and share Regan Poole’s frustration at the way the afternoon went. I am with him in wanting to see us win games and win them in a way that gets the supporters off their seats and on their feet. I want to walk back to my car with a smile on my face and a spring in my step, but I haven’t been able to do that for a while now and it worries me.
I also want to take issue with something Mark Kennedy said after the game. Michael Hortin posed some searching questions, especially when it came to the sale of Tom Hopper and in particular its timing. Of course, it’s not simply down to the head coach when a player leaves and we don’t know all the ins and outs of the deal. Perhaps Colchester made it clear it was now or never leading to our side blinking first. Who knows? I certainly don’t, but I do think it was below the belt to use Tom’s goal scoring record as some kind of justification. Mr Kennedy talked of Hopper scoring two goals this season. In fact he has scored five. Alright, three of them were in the EFL Trophy but they were against League One opposition (Morecambe and Accrington). Also, in Tom’s defence it’s worth comparing his record this season with that of Ben House. Tom has had 14 starts and come off the bench in eight games for City since last August and his five goals come at a rate of one for every three starts. Ben has started 21 games and appeared as a sub in a further five. His seven goals in all competitions also come at one in every three starts. Neither have scored when coming off the bench. So I think any veiled criticism of Hopper’s scoring record is unfair. Alright, he is no longer a City player and the head coach will want to back his current squad to the hilt. Moreover, he was reacting off the cuff to Michael’s probing questions, but the fact that he was able to call up previous seasons as well suggests to me that he may have been anticipating just such a challenge from the BBC’s man on the spot. Yes, I declare an interest. I know Tom’s family and so I am perhaps more predisposed to defend him than some, but Hortin’s line of questioning also recognises that for this game at least, we lacked options up front. Remember, 87 minutes were on the clock before Jovon Makama was thrown into the fray, hardly enough time to acclimatise to the pace of the game and make an impact. Would Tom have been introduced sooner had he been available? We shall never know.
To my simple way of looking at things though, our problems aren’t just up front. Mark also claimed he thought we got the ball into the final third well but execution from there on was what was lacking. That wasn’t my impression, which was that most balls into that area were from the back and over the top of our midfield. In almost every case such balls found the head or boot of a Cambridge defender who returned fire with interest. Their back line was rarely caught off guard all afternoon in sharp contrast to the previous two games when they shipped 10 goals. Regan thought that if only we could have scored one the floodgates would open. He may well have been right in his assessment. The problem was that we could have played another 95 minutes and still not looked like scoring.
The officials got some oblique stick from MK. He has to choose his words carefully to avoid official retribution and perhaps the referee should have clamped down sooner on the visitors’ time wasting tactics which began a mere 30 minutes into the game. Referee Peter Wright certainly did make some bizarre decisions, none more so than after stopping the game for a possible head injury to a Cambridge player when Sorenson was advancing with the ball, he then gave the drop ball to the visitors to the astonishment of everyone present. However, I don’t think the ref played a serious part in our failure to unlock the Cambridge defence. That is down to the players on the pitch, whatever the head coach may say. They, presumably, are playing in the way the boss wants them to and he directs them in a way that he feels plays to their strengths. The trouble for me though is that the system could be seen not to be working from an early stage in the game. Ben House is under six feet tall and he could not be expected to compete for high balls against defenders a six inches taller. I had my great nephew with me yesterday and as we came to half time I ventured to him, in retrospect somewhat naively, that there would be changes in approach and possibly personnel after the break. Mark Hone claimed to see an improvement in the second half. I can’t say I did.
It is very difficult for a player to come into a side halfway through the season and bed in immediately. This was amply demonstrated by Olamide Shodipo who struggled to deal with the scraps fed to him, manfully as he evidently tried. To be fair, he wasn’t alone with regulars struggling also. Similarly, it cannot have been easy for Harry Boyes, another recent arrival, when he was introduced alongside Jovon in the eighty eighth. Alright, they’re professional footballers and expected to deal with whatever is thrown at them, but I’m not going to expect too much from the new intake in these circumstances. Certainly I will give them the benefit of the doubt for now.
We then come to the transfer window and our activity during it. MK has said repeatedly that the aim of the club is to finish the window in a stronger position that when it started. We are not there yet, with one loanee leaving and two arriving against two contracted players departing. I’m sure any business we do is subject to constraints imposed by the club’s financial situation and here I want to bring the board into my thoughts. I am not going to criticise them. Far from it, I recognise they have to strike a delicate balance between financial stability off the field and success on it. Five years ago the club benefitted from a windfall brought about by an unprecedented run in the FA Cup. The money was invested wisely in developing a first class training facility that not only serves the squad for the time being but also cannot but impress any potential recruits and play its part in persuading them to sign on the dotted line. What goes on at the Elite Performance Centre also has a vital part to play, especially when it comes to persuading top flight clubs to entrust the development of their future stars to our care. Frankly, if what currently takes place up at Scampton gives rise to what passes for the aggressive attacking style of play advocated by the head coach when he arrived at the club, I can only conclude that bring another Brennan Johnson to Lincoln is going to be harder in seasons to come.
It is a difficult balancing act for the Chairman and his directors and investors, weighing the club’s solvency and supporting it with their hard earned cash and recognising the risks of failure on the pitch with all its attendant consequences, possible relegation, reduced attendances and revenue both at the turnstiles and from commercial sources. Our progress in successive FA Cup competitions since has failed even remotely to emulate the achievements of that heady season and this will have had a huge impact on revenue. To the board’s credit though, they made hay while the sun shone. The EPC is well established and it is now for those who determine what goes on there to make the most of what it has to offer.
I will say this, Lincoln City is undoubtedly a well-run club with an infrastructure that compares favourably with any in our division and not a few at a higher level. We have a board and senior management team with all its various arms or branches that gives the reassuring impression of being on top of its brief. Engagement with supporters is second to none and the transparency evidenced in presentation of the accounts is enviable. Unfortunately, performances on the pitch right now are not living up to this. To be fair to Mark Kennedy, I am perhaps judging him before the case for the defence (no pun intended) has rested. He has stressed that the strategy for the window has been with the rest of the season in mind and not just this game. As I write, he and Jez George, another who has faced the ire of supporters over the weekend, have 48 hours to fulfil Kennedy’s stated aim of finishing the window stronger than when we started it. He and others from the club will be subjecting themselves to questioning from supporters at the forthcoming live 200th Stacey West Podcast on 9 February.
Be sure to tune in if you can’t be there. There could be fireworks!
PS – Everyone who has applied for tickets for the show so far IS able to come. I can’t reply to everyone at the moment – Gary