“Don’t get carried away” was the cry last week. “Let’s see if we can go and back it up against Bristol Rovers”.
I’m certainly not going to get carried away, and I still think we’ll be tucked in between 12th and 16th at the end of the season, but two weeks ago, I was fearful of much worse. Isn’t it funny how later results often give context to ones that felt good or bad, at the time? I remember the Ipswich and Bolton draws feeling like good results, but they weren’t so strong on either side of defeats against Charlton and Burton. The Cambridge and MK games got a negative reaction but paired with two wins and now four consecutive clean sheets, they feel like decent enough points. Look at it this way – if we take eight from every 12 between now and the end of the season (which we won’t), we’d get an extra 36 points and finish on 73. I’d take that, even if two out of every four games was a 0-0 draw.
Town felt a bit ominous all afternoon as if there was some foreboding on the horizon. Dad and I went to the Treaty and then Gwynnes, and on the way between the two, there was some sort of standoff between a Bristol Rovers youth club and patrons of the Anchor. It felt like a throwback to fixtures of old, and although I’m sure there was no trouble as such, it gave me a sense of what was to come from the Gas. They’re not a particularly nice team to play against, and sections of their support were certainly best described as unsavoury. However, I’ll give them credit inside the ground, they didn’t bring the largest number, but they remained behind their team for most of the game and made more noise than some teams who brought more.
Mark Kennedy stuck with the same 11 that won 3-0 at Accrington, with Ethan Erhahon getting his full home debut and Lewis Montsma back on the Sincil Bank turf for the first time since January 2022. Harry Anderson was on the bench for them, and was bound to get a warm welcome if he made an appearance. John Marquis was also amongst their subs, ready to come on if they didn’t start on the front foot. As the team with the highest number of goals in the first fifteen minutes of matches (I was told that I haven’t actually checked), they were expected to come out throwing punches (not literally) and battering us down early.
We came out and got right at them from the off, carrying on the sort of showing we put on at Accrington. Within five minutes of the kick-off I was already sold on Ethan Erhahon as the messiah because he’s basically like a fit, young Liam Bridcutt, although Etahn was actually born in Scotland. He just does the simple things really well, his touch is exquisite at times, and if he loses the ball he almost always wins it straight back. Comparisons to other players are often lazy, but it is hard not to liken him to Bridcutt, a talented football packaged in a robust, combative midfielder’s skin. Those players (as I’ve said a million times before) make the game easier for everyone around them.
It wasn’t just Ethan that stood out for me. There was a fear Lewis Montsma wouldn’t come back the same player he was before he was carried off against Oxford, but it seems he is. If anything, he might even look a little better than the player who was part of Michael Appleton’s poorest spell, the pre-Christmas 2021 period. Montsma glides, and central defenders don’t usually glide. He feels laid back in possession and has a languid style that almost makes a John Akinde penalty look committed. However, he’s such a good footballer and he comes alive in a three, because he has the freedom to stride forward and bring the ball out, as well as the ability to do something with it when he does.
That’s picked out two players but once again, to a man, we were great from the start. Paudie O’Connor and Adam Jackson offered a threat at set pieces, and down the flanks Mide Shodipo and Jack Diamond felt like a threat. Ben House is just a wonderful example of a young striker going places, whilst Ted Bishop is definitely afforded more freedom to get on the ball knowing he has
Liam Ethan able to pick up the pieces should he lose possession. Which he didn’t, by the way. Even at full-back, two players described earlier in the season as ‘not natural wing backs’ looked comfortable in the wing-back positions, and throughout the opening period, I never felt we’d concede.
Obviously, we didn’t. We haven’t conceded now for 450 minutes of league football (including stoppage time in that), and I don’t think we ever really looked like conceding yesterday, bar perhaps the free kick in the second half. Paudie’s header was tipped over the bar by Ellery Balcombe, a keeper who enjoyed his last visit to the Bank, saving two penalties in Doncaster colours. He pulled off a double save from Ted and Regan on 17 minutes as well, as City threatened to run riot, but by that point, we were already 1-0 up.
The goal is a little controversial if we’re being honest. There’s no issue with the short corner, but as Diamond delivers the subsequent cross, one of their boys is on the floor after a tussle with Ben House. It’s a case of the usual pushing and pulling at corners, and House has come out on top. There are referees who might not have allowed the goal, although the replay I have is inconclusive. Still, Tom Reeves, the match referee, did not pick up on it, or if he did, he did not deem it a foul. That allowed Regan to nod home at the back stick, giving us what turned out to be the winning goal with just 14 minutes gone.
The referee had a tough afternoon because Bristol Rovers are a very sly side. I’d noticed a tendency to ‘mistime’ aerial duels to create a collision. I think it was Loft in the first half who watched a ball come over the top, and as Paudie went to head it away, he judged his back header not on where the ball was, but on where our man was. A couple of other challenges were elbow-led, and whilst I’m sure they’d say the same about us, I thought they looked a niggly team. I also lost count (it might have been four) of the ‘professional fouls’ they committed, trips or pulls with zero intent to play the ball. We’ll talk about one later, but there were multiple examples of them stopping an attack without intent to win the ball. One, maybe even two, you accept because everyone does it, but four or five? Not for me.
However, Tom Reeves, a man with no red cards in the first part of the season, made it three in four just before half time, and I have to say, it looked a little harsh to me. A long ball forward was clearly there for Rushworth to win, and Loft did what I felt he’s done before, went up for the ball with no intention of winning it. He’s led with his elbow, catching Rushworth under the arm. My initial reaction was ‘you sh1thouse’, but Paudie’s was a little angrier. I never thought a red card was coming, until it did. Was it a red? I think maybe, if you lead with your elbow, it shouldn’t matter where you catch a player, but at the same time, I think our reaction helped grease the wheels, so to speak. U try to look at these moments as I would if they happened against us, and my comment would almost certainly be if you give the referee a decision to make, then the fault is with you, so with that in mind, whatever Tom Reeves decided, Ryan Loft was the man at fault. No elbow, no red; it’s pretty simple.
The attack momentum shows that it was a first half dominated by the Imps. Nothing would really change in the second period.