A thought struck me as I walked away from the ground yesterday afternoon.
Without realising, unconscious bias plays a part in almost all analyses of football, especially Lincoln City. Listening to those around us as we made our way along the Sincil Drain, I could hear those who I knew were not fans of Mark Kennedy saying how bad we’d played and how lucky we are. They’re the same people who will say how we can’t kill games off when we play well but draw.
Then there is my camp, someone trying to see the bright side of things. We hadn’t played well and won, yet I’ll note when we’ve done enough to win a game and drawn it that we’re on the right track. Neither opinion is right nor wrong, it’s an opinion, but there are very few people who are absolutely analytical and balanced the moment the whistle goes, and we leave the ground. That balance comes later, after a watch of the highlights, studying the league table and letting the emotion die down.
It even struck me in two contrasting opinions I heard of Lasse Sorensen as we left. On the one hand, I have heard enthusiastic praise for his outing at right wing-back, and in those people’s voices, a desperate desire for Lasse to do well. Lasse is a great person, he’s a fully committed, 100% every-week player, and a section of fans want him to do well more than any other squad member. Then, I walked past a bloke moaning about how he’d dropped off in midfield ‘, and he’s meant to be a midfielder’ apparently. Again, the analysis wasn’t entirely wrong, he wasn’t as effective when we went to four at the back, but again, there’s unconscious bias there. What is the betting the second guy is of the opinion that Lasse isn’t good enough? What are the odds the first section are the camp that wants him to do well?
I say all of this to balance what opinion I am about to share with you. I’ll talk about players, performances and results, and you might not agree, and neither of us is right. However, what is undisputable fact is this – for at least nine games, and possibly since Boxing Day, we haven’t gone over to the other description of matches – playing badly and losing. For me, if you’re drawing when you play well, winning when you play badly, but not losing matches, you’re on the right track. We’ve lost one in the league since the Boxing Day massacre. We knew we needed a transfer window to bolster the squad, and that’s not only happened but helped us to what is looking like a position of safety. I won’t count my chickens just yet, but it would take an absolute catastrophe for us to go down now. Those ‘sleepwalking into a relegation battle’ people have been awfully quiet in recent weeks, and my gut tells me we probably won’t hear that again until next December at the earliest. Amen to that.
There were a couple of changes, Lasse coming in at right wing-back after his outing there on Tuesday. That’s brave from Mark Kennedy, but it sent a strong message to the players – do well, and you’ll be rewarded. It felt harsh on Harry Boyes, who went back to the bench, but fans have yearned for the days when we prioritise our own players over loan players, and that’s exactly what you got. Also, Jack Diamond was taken out of the firing line after a tough few weeks, with Mide Shodipo coming in. However, that meant another one of our own, Danny Mandroiu, kept his place.
It’s important to note that we started with nine of our own players – Poole, Roughan, O’Connor, Sorenson, Montsma, Erhahon, Bishop, Mandroiu and Ben House. In recent years, we’ve heard plenty about reliance on loan players, but Carl Rushworth aside, we’re not actually reliant on any right now. The only outfield player who started that we’ve got on the borrow was Shodipo, who I thought had a decent first half, at least.
Both teams started brightly, and it felt like a really good game of football. Leaving the ground, the second 45 is fresh in the mind, but that first 45 was good value for money from both teams. A word on Oxford United – there’s no way they’re going down this year, no way at all. They’ve got some really talented players, with Brannagan and Bate pulling the strings. I liked their youth product as well, Goodrham, on the flank. He looked younger than my nephew, but he was great on the ball and is the sort of wide attacker we need around our squad, tricky and agile. I’ll confess to begrudgingly liking Elliott Moore as well (their big number five) who was booed and called a cheat throughout the first half. He was utterly dominant at the back for them, and he was a proper agitator. He’s what Chris Maguire would be if Maguire was a defender, bigger, committed and likeable.
Both teams had chances, Shodipo with the best of ours, and perhaps the first half belonged to us. The xG suggests so – they only had 0.17, compared to our 1.26. Taking the penalty out, that still leaves us shading the first 45 minutes. As usual, it was us who struck first. At first watch, everyone around me thought the penalty looked soft, but I make my judgement on three things (before I see the incident back). One – did I think it was a penalty? Possibly. Two – did the Oxford players get angry and argue the point? No. Three – does my mate Matt, a voice of reason who seems to watch the game through a neutral’s eyes, think it was a penalty? Yes. As Meatloaf once sang, two outta three ain’t bad, so penalty it was. To be fair I’ve watched it back and whilst not the most blatant penalty, we’d have been angry had it not been given.
I had zero confidence we’d score it mind you. I don’t know why, but when someone like Diamond bags however many he’s scored, you have confidence he won’t miss. Mandroiu missed in a recent shootout, and I could feel the pessimism oozing from the crowd as he grabbed the ball. It was all needless worry as he smashed it down the middle to give us the predictable 1-0 lead.
After the goal, there was a short spell where we showed the most endeavour going forward, but it was a short spell, and it didn’t bring an additional goal. However, Oxford never looked like capitulating, and they had two efforts cleared off the line – one on 37 minutes from a corner that more or less signalled the end of us as an attacking force. It’s odd to say that, but genuinely if you look at the attacking momentum below, you’ll see after that point, we offered very little going forward.
In fact, as half-time approached, it did feel a little as if we were hanging on at the end of a game. It wasn’t a case of shots raining down, but Oxford were putting it on us, and whilst the half-time whistle wasn’t a relief as such, it was a welcome sound. Mind you, Lincoln City 1-0 up at half-time usually only means two things. It’s either we’re not going to lose (glass half full), or we’re going to draw (glass half empty). Me? I was bladder half full, for half time at least, as I wasn’t braving the ruck for a urinal space until the second half started.