Away Day Delight: Sheffield Wednesday 1-1 Imps

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Draws, the scourge of Lincoln City fans across the season. That was the perception three weeks ago, but there’s a time and a place for a draw. The time was 5 pm, the place was Hillsborough, and the 1-1 draw was celebrated like a win, and rightly so.

On September 2nd, 1978, Three Times a Lady was top of the charts, and cinema fans were awaiting the release of a musical called Grease. This writer wasn’t born, and it was the last time the Owls beat the Imps in a league fixture. You have to go even further back for a Wednesday win at Hillsborough – in October 1977. Of course, the caveat is we’ve only played them three times there (in the league) since, but still, history is history, right? If their current form continues, we’ll be making another away trip there next season.

I’ll come onto the away trip, one of those worth writing about I feel, but for now, let’s stick to the football. A draw would be the most ‘Lincoln City’ thing to do against the Owls, but looking at the team selection and the opposition, it didn’t feel within our grasp. In recent weeks we’ve lost the biggest weapon in our arsenal, our strength at the back, and we’ve struggled for goals as well. It’s not a good combination, and whenever the opposition scores first, we tend to struggle. Our record against teams in the top six is good (until Peterborough replaced Derby in there), and yet there was a lot at stake. A Wednesday win would put them top, a draw too, but leaving Plymouth with a game in hand and on level points. Sure, a draw would be the result many predicted with their hearts, but heads? Mine said a Wednesday win as they left our fixture list for another 40-odd years.

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The team looks a little threadbare – TJ Eyoma, Lewis Montsma, Paudie O’Connor and Joe Walsh out at the back. One loan winger with a terminated loan, and another winger now out for the season (Charles Vernam). You could argue in a fully fit Lincoln City side, that’s at least four first-team players out. Sean Roughan came back from Ireland duty with a slight knock and was asked to play left-sided centre-half against one of the division’s most robust forward lines. Lasse Sorensen was forced to right wing-back again, Harry Boyes hadn’t made a stamp on the team since his loan move. In midfield, Barry Bannan is the most talented player in League One, hands down, and we were without Ethan Erhahon in the starting XI to marshall him. Max Sanders hasn’t had a lot of football and Matty Virtue is probably still coming up to full match sharpness after his injury.

When I saw the team, it felt like lambs to the slaughter. Sure, Sheff Weds hadn’t won in four, but they score goals, they create chances and when they do hit their stride, 26,000 home fans can see them hand out a five-goal thrashing, as they did to MK Dons and Cambridge. As you’ll read, it was a top away day, but would it be a case of football ruining a good day out?

No, because those lambs shook off their clothing to reveal themselves as wolves, fighting doggedly for everything, and making a statement about that soft underbelly we’d seen in recent weeks. It’s been a blip, and whilst we know exactly what’s needed for next season in terms of attacking intent, the thing that has made us strong, and virtually safe, this season is still there. Passion. Determination. Spirit. What was hugely refreshing was it came from one or two faces that I felt haven’t quite had the chance to show what they can do.

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It didn’t start like that. I took my seat with the game 20 seconds or so in, and it was all the home team. I felt like that was the case most of the game, let’s not kid ourselves and think we were the better side in terms of possession, we weren’t. That’s not who we are, but remember, we all celebrated a League Two title win a few years ago labelled as the best team out of possession in the entire league. Being good without the ball isn’t a sin, it seems to be enough to give us a fifth season in the third tier, the joint-longest in my lifetime, and that’s not a bad thing.

Mind you, those first 15 minutes or so I felt we looked a little overawed. We have a young squad, and Hillsborough is very different from almost every ground we’ve been to in the league this season, or indeed any season for a long while. You can talk about your Stadium of Lights or your Pride Parks, both nice grounds, but is there any quite like Hillsborough? It’s a bit rough around the edges and in terms of fan experience it perhaps needs some work, but for a player on the field, it must be hard not to get swept away a bit. I’m old enough to remember it hosting nearly every cup semi-final I can remember, and it feels like you’re playing at a venue that still retains what English football used to be about, in the eighties and early nineties. It has shrugged off the advance of technology, avoided the sanitation of the modern game, and yet retained the atmosphere that helps them brush teams aside, at times.

That atmosphere was evident when Michael Smith got their opener. He’s a striker you’d love to see in a two with a workhorse like Ben House, and along with Barry Bannan I thought he made the Owls tick early doors. Bannan is a cheat code at this level, effortlessly helping switch play, stretching our black shirts left and right, and cause mayhem. Bannan wasn’t involved in the goal – Will Vaulks’ long throw was nodded back to him, and he delivered the cross for Smith to head home. It was all a little too easy, and around me, there was a collective sigh. Here we go again. Their fans were up, the noise levels lifted and it felt very ominous indeed.

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The goal didn’t kill us off, it galvanised us. They still had possession, and they still saw more of the ball, but they didn’t actually do anything with it. Smith scored on 12 minutes, and after that, they had three shots, all weak and off target, two of which came in quick succession on 41. The Hillsborough roar didn’t spur them on, and we had as much to do with that as anything. We harried and harrassed, we took our set pieces and half chances when we could, and we even created chances – five of them, three on target. Yep, we might have only had 28% possession, but we topped the xG ranking in the first half, 1.01 to 0.41 according to Wyscout. Darren Moore said his team should have won the game considering their xG, but in the first half, it was us that could easily have been 1-0 up.

Harry Boyes started the move that got us level on 28 minutes. The Sheffield United man didn’t get the boos I expected during the game, unusual I’d say for a red to be playing at the home of the blue half of Sheffield. He won a meaty challenge on the halfway line and strode forward with confidence. I had a moan as he did, he had an overlapping run I lamented him not taking, so just to shut me up he tested their keeper with a decent drive. It was parried, and in wandered Danny Mandroiu to take his season tally to six. By the way, those six include two against Wednesday, one against Ipswich, one against Charlton, and the winner against Oxford – it’s also from just 14 starts. There’s a cracking player in there, and I firmly believe once this season is over and he’s had a pre-season here as well, he’ll go from strength to strength.

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That turned the home support, or sections of it, on a sixpence. It was us I felt might score again, even though we didn’t have as much of the ball. One effort from Max Sanders saw their keeper parry the ball rather than hold onto it, and I wondered if perhaps we’d spotted a weakness. We didn’t get to try our luck all that often, but we did create chances, and my bum was definitely off my seat. Isn’t that what many have been asking for? Well, if you were there yesterday, then you’d have no reason to complain.

Half time trundled around, and if games were decided on possession, we’d have been dead and buried. If they were decided on xG, we’d have been leading. As it is, they’re decided on goals, and we both had one to our name. It was a point that would take them top, but they wouldn’t be happy with that. It was a point that would take us nowhere, and we’d be utterly delighted with that.