Love Spreads: Derby County 1-1 Imps

On Valentine’s night, where 2,285 Lincoln City fans chose to show their love for their club, affections were reciprocated in another memorable away performance.

It had a bit of everything; goals and good attacking football, a bit of controversy (which I think the ref got more or less spot on), a battling and committed defensive display and a show of unity that seemed so far removed from the draw with Cambridge that you’d be fooled into thinking we were a different club. Our first league visit to Pride Park was one that we might not get many chances to replicate, but ultimately, it is up there with Ipswich and Barnsley as examples of what we do right this season.

In simple terms, we β™₯ Lincoln City, and Lincoln City β™₯ us. The perfect romance.

I’ll come to why in a minute, but let’s deal with the game, shall we? It was one I termed a free hit, which is silly because no game is a free hit, but after back-to-back league wins and four clean sheets, I felt this was one we could lose and not be too disappointed. Obviously, you don’t go anywhere to lose, but this is Derby County, a top-end Championship team in a Premier League quality stadium. They have wonderful players like Conor Hourihane and Nathaniel Mendez-Laing, who do not belong in the same league as Morecambe, Accrington Stanley or Lincoln City. They can legitimately sing ‘champions of England, you’ll never sing that’, even if those singing it can’t actually remember their triumph or name more than maybe one player who played during that time. They’re a big club, and we’re doing our best to make our way in the same division.

It is nights like this where I remember having to climb into a tree to watch us play North Ferriby, or recall sitting in the Gateshead stadium surrounded by empty spaces and wondering how we got here. It would have seemed unreal to imagine six years ago, but as we wandered around Pride Park, a ‘new’ build that does feel like it’s Derby’s stadium rather than a soulless bowl, I couldn’t help but appreciate what we have right now. So we drew 0-0 with Cambridge a couple of weeks back; it’s not all that bad, is it?

In a couple of weeks, other things have changed. We no longer fear the teams being announced, wondering who’ll be missing this week. There are options which we debated on the way there. Would he play Boyes, a faster wide-left player, in favour of Roughan? Could Sanders come in and give Ted a rest? Is Adam Jackson up for 270 minutes in eight days? Those are questions we weren’t asking even six weeks ago – back then, it was all about what we might have to do, not what we could do. Mind you, after all of that; we were unchanged for the third game in a row. I don’t have the numbers to hand, but when was the last time we could field the same 11 in three consecutive matches? Sadly, it won’t be four in a row, but it was nice while it lasted!

I expected Derby to come at us at breakneck speed, creating chances and looking to get back on the horse after their defeat against Wycombe. Instead, they looked mooted, subdued, and left little pockets of space when they attacked. Undoubtedly, David McGoldrick makes things tick for them, but very few of the other players stood out. Instead, we pressed when needed, forced several turnovers, and maybe had some of the best early chances. Just four minutes in, some lovely football between House, Diamond and Bishop saw the on-loan Sunderland man side foot into the side netting from a tight angle. It was an early warning for the Rams, and one they didn’t heed.

Before I continue, let’s be very clear – I’m not saying we dominated or anything when I talk about our chances. I did think we got the game plan spot on. It was very much like Ipswich and Barnsley away, but we had more control and looked more dangerous. We weren’t just playing on the break, but we were organised and didn’t take unnecessary risks. Diamond and Shodipo were outstanding on the flanks, partly because they got the right back up from Poole, Roughan, Erhahon and Bishop. Those six looked like they’d been playing together for years, and with House’s unreal efforts up top, we had a viable threat other than big boot and chase, which we more or less needed against the other two big clubs.

I don’t have a problem with Ben House’s second yellow, which we’ll come to, but I have a small issue with the first. It came not long after Jason Knight had got himself booked, leading with an elbow in an aerial challenge. That adds context – but then there appears to be a handball between Hourihane and McGoldrick out by the flank, the latter heading into the former’s arm. From the replay, it’s not clear, but from my angle in the stand, it was. The ref allowed play to continue, and it looked like even McGoldrick would stop. Instead, Knight strode away with the ball; House has gone in to win the challenge but overstretched slightly. There’s no malice, and nine times out of ten, it’s a free kick but no card. However, their reaction got House booked.

I guess there are no real complaints, we’d expect the same, but it was a weak booking. Not as weak as Paudie’s on 40 minutes, a tackle which prompted me to remark that it wouldn’t take much for the ref to give them a big decision – it seemed he was intent on being the Valentine’s darling of the 23,000 home fans. Of course, he wasn’t, he was managing a tough game well, but when the adrenalin kicks in, you think the world is against you!

The next big moment came just before half time, which was in our favour. The goal was a great example of winning the ball back high and staying focused – Erhahon the instigator, Montsma with the snapshot saved by Joe Wildsmith and Shodipo reacted quickest to fire into the roof of the net. Of course, we all wanted that moment, the goal to celebrate, and we got it. 2285 fans watched the net ripple right in front of us, and suddenly we were in with a shout of three points. The fact Shodipo was about five yards offside when Lewis had his shot? Not relevant at the time!

I do wonder about the offside rule. Technically, when the shot is taken, Shodipo is not offside – he is, but he’s not interfering with play. Surely, when their lad parries the ball out, our man comes into play? I don’t know; what I do know is it stood, and Poole wasn’t sure because as Shodipo slots home, Poole is already looking at the assistant referee. He didn’t see anything, and City were a goal to the good on the cusp of half time. By the time Scott Oldham blew for the break, we remained 1-0 up at Derby County.