League goals have been difficult to come by at Sincil Bank – we’ve only scored two or more at home from open play twice before yesterday (Morecambe and Fleetwood). That is at odds with our actual home record, which is good as any team in the division in terms of avoiding defeats.
We’re an anomaly, we know that. We don’t lose many, but we don’t win many. We don’t score many, but we don’t concede many. If you’re a pessimistic fan, you can bemoan the fact we don’t win a lot and score. If you’re an optimistic fan, you can champion the fact we don’t concede or lose many. Pessimists think we need a clear out in the summer, optimists see the squad evolving nicely., Pessimists think crowds are heading down, optimists see almost 8,000 turning up on a Good Friday for a relative dead rubber against a less-than-illustrious opponent as a sign that the silent majority are firmly onboard for the journey.
It can be tiring trying to work out what is what, and even I have strayed from one side to the other after a defeat. One thing is for sure though – as we streamed out of a sunny Sincil Bank yesterday, only the most pessimistic of Lincoln fans could possibly think anything too negative. We weren’t ‘superb’ in the strictest sense, but we did everything right and it was perhaps the best home performance of the season so far. We’ve had some good results at home, Derby springs to mind, and some really battling performances (Sheff Weds and Ipswich), but I’m not sure a team we expect to beat (that’s not being rude to Cheltenham, or arrogant, but if you want to push up the table, you need to be beating them) have turned up here all season and the outcome has been exactly as expected – goals, a clean sheet and a few chances to applaud.
When the team first dropped, we thought it looked like a 3-5-2. It wasn’t. We went with the trusty 3-4-3, putting Bishop and Mandroiu up with House. There was a surprise with Max Sanders coming into the midfield over Virtue, but Sean Roughan missed out, meaning Harry Boes got to build on his outing against the Owls. Joe Walsh did make the bench, but it was too soon for TJ Eyoma, so Lasse Sorensen continued in the unfamiliar wing-back role, whilst Regan played centre half. When you look at the situation, two players ruled out for the season, two other first-team defenders out, a loan player unable to make the bench due to the quota, and a loan signing returned early, it wasn’t actually a bad bench either. For me, it underlines the potential we have. I quite liked the fact Max started over Matty Virtue – I really like Virtue, but he’s on loan and Max is currently ours. I think it’s best to get a look at our players before the summer, especially those running out of contract.
Early on, it was clear the game wasn’t going to be like last weekend. We were forced into possession, which some might say is where we’re less comfortable. When we’ve been on the ball we tend to make poor decisions, look to hit the channels with little effect, and often run out of ideas. That, in no small part, has been due to wide players being very wide, leaving Ben House isolated. A good back three can easily defend that, which is why we’ve had so many stalemates, in my opinion. With players like Mandroiu and Bioshop, not natural wide players, we tend to have a tighter front three. It places emphasis on the wing-backs to provide width, but it gives us a little more in the first attacking phase. As I said, we weren’t scintillating throughout, that would be hyperbole, but we looked much more of a threat.
In those early moments, both Danny Mandrooiu and Ted Bishop looked up for it. There’s so much to admire with Mandroiu, and he’s not really shown it consistently since coming back from his injury, but I thought he was excellent yesterday. He’s got some real talent, he can glide around a player and he’s got skillful feet, as well as a few little flicks and tricks. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again and I’ll repeat it right now – given a full pre-season here, and a season under his belt, he’s going to be a major player for us. He’s drifted in recent weeks, but he looked confident yesterday after his Sheff Weds goal, and a confident Danny Mandroiu is a real handful.
We haven’t seen a lot to get us on our feet this season, but six minutes in a fierce Regan Poole drive stung the fingers of on-loan Reading keeper Luke Southwood. I wasn’t convinced by their stopper at all, but he did manage to punch the effort away from goal. It was the sort of effort we need early in a game, because it got the fans up, which definitely feeds into the players. A word on our support – I thought the 617 were excellent yesterday. It’s hard for me in Block 3 to hear everything as sound doesn’t tend to travel sideways very well, but I thought we were as loud today as at any point this season. That said, I still don’t know the words and tune of the Shodipo song, and I really hope I need to learn it for next season. More on that later.
Cheltenham weren’t lambs to the slaughter, and whilst they’re not the best team we’ve seen this season, they’re not the worst. In fact, their league position more or less reflects where they are in terms of quality of opposition we’ve faced, and for me, that’s a huge testament to their manager and board. Cheltenham Town, in terms of club size and means, should be struggling with Accrington, Morecambe, and Forest Green, they’re a decent League Two club punching above their weight. They looked, to me, like a lower-end League One club able to ensure they’re putting daylight between themselves and the bottom four. Ok, they didn’t do that yesterday, but for them to be above Oxford, MK Dons and even Port Vale is a big achievement. Last season, everyone had them as relegation fodder. This season, they’ve staved off that threat (you’d imagine). Fair play for that.
What they didn’t stave off was an Imps opener. They had their chances, fleeting as they were, with Carl Rushworth having to beat a Glenn Rea effort away. Rea, let’s not forget, played 50-ish times for Luton in the Championship over the last two seasons, so he’s a good player on his day, and he could have made it 1-0 with a speculative effort. He didn’t, it remained 0-0, and I always felt the opening goal would be enough to win the game.
The opening goal came after our most difficult spell – from 15 minutes up to the half-hour mark we didn’t have an effort at looked a bit stodgy. We were huffing and puffing, but there was no blowing the Robins’ house down because we weren’t even standing by the door. They were edging into it and the game was delicately balanced on the edge of a knife. Then, Bishop looked to get them in checkmate. He had a couple of half-efforts of his own, but as half-time loomed over us, he was the architect of the opener. Mandroiu’s smart ball saw Ted drop a shoulder and shrug off Ben Williams and Tom Bradbury before the latter blocked his effort. He remained composed and delivered the ball to the six-yard box, where Sean Long and Caleb Taylor looked to clear. Taylor’s clearance bounced off his keeper, and House pounced like a proper fox-in-the-box to rifle the ball into the roof of the net.
That was the final action of the first half, but it was just what the doctor ordered. At 0-0, on slip gives them a lead we’d maybe find it difficult to overcome. However, a goal for us sends us in at half time thinking we edged the first half (which we absolutely did) and that we could hold out for three points that would take us tantalisingly towards the 50-point mark, which will be more than enough to stay in the division.