For probably the first time this season, there was nothing on the line.
The win on Easter Monday took us over the 50-point mark, so this was as close to a dead rubber as you’ll get. Port Vale are not quite free of relegation’s evil clutches, but they’d be desperately unlucky to go down now. Two teams with so little to play for served up arguably the most exciting game this season, or probably any season since lockdown.
There’s almost certainly a temptation, after a game like today, to accuse the referee of ruining it. Three red cards, a penalty, and a slew of odd decisions certainly would usually have us screaming angrily, but the truth is David Rock made the game. His decisions turned this from what was looking like being another fairly non-descript, routine game at the Bank, into something it will be hard to forget for a very long time indeed.
Usually, you get a few paragraphs about the team selection and what I did before, but I’m writing at 6:30 pm and I need to be in Lincoln for 10 am tomorrow for the 10k, and if I dally too much on the introduction, I won’t have time to tell you about everything that happened, because a lot happened.
The team was unchanged from Monday. There you go, team news sorted.
The first ten minutes showed what a half-decent side Port Vale are. They’re a team I don’t think will suffer second-season syndrome at this level. Players like James Wilson and Matty Taylor know the level well, Tom Pett is a seasoned pro, and Dan Butterworth, the Blackburn loanee, certainly has plenty about him. The first ten minutes or so, they came at us with real hunger, and whilst there wasn’t anything for us to get unduly worried about, they had all the play.
I did notice a couple of little things before the opening goal, which made me wonder if it might get a bit tasty. Matty Virtue put in what Big Ron would have termed a reducer on James Wilson, a really tough tackle that pretty much ended the striker’s afternoon, after five minutes. Wilson tried to play on and got to half time, but he certainly wasn’t the same threat he’d suggested he might be in those opening exchanges. I also noticed an incident between Ben House and one of their lads, whose number I didn’t quite get. It looked innocuous, but there was an elbow thrown in House’s direction, absolutely provoked no doubt. It felt a little niggly, like something was boiling underneath the surface.
On 12 minutes, the Great Dane himself scored another fine team goal for the Imps. The passage of play that found Danny Mandroiu was nice, but his ball can only be described as absolutely delicious. When you watch back, keep an eye on Shodipo, who could easily have taken it on, but left it to run for Sorensen. He had a lot of work to do, and he did it incredibly well to give us the lead. He strode in behind the defender and dinked a lovely finish into the back of the net. So far, so good.
It might have come against the early run of play, but from there, I thought we eased into control. It felt a bit like when you meet an aggressive, but ultimately soft dog. They bark a lot at the beginning, but they don’t bite, but when you assert a bit of dominance, they just stop. That was this game in a nutshell up to around 28 minutes, and a cracking move by the Imps almost found Ben House in the area to make it 2-0, but Mandroiu’s ball was just behind the striker.
Then, the madness began, oh and madness it certainly was.
Let’s be honest – David Rock lost control of the game for a short while. It started when Carl Rushworth made an uncharacteristic error when a ball was played back to him. A slightly heavy touch almost let in Matty Taylor, and the two tussled. Both went to the ground, and David Rock pointed to the spot. Here’s the thing – if it is against us, I’d expect a penalty. With us being the punished team, I can see the problems with the decision, which is impartiality for you. Personally, I was gobsmacked when the penalty was awarded, and I know I’m in the minority there. Rushworth made an error, but he didn’t haul the striker down as suggested in my eyes. Taylor has hands on him as well, and when Carl does go down, it’s to poke the ball away, not to foul Taylor. With that in mind, I could see two possible decisions. It could have been a free kick, as the tussle started outside the area. If he has to give a penalty, then there’s the double jeopardy rule that says he should look to keep Carl on the field if he tried to play the ball. Carl has tried to play the ball in my opinion, both have hands on each other, a red and a penalty? Not for me.
Jordan Wright came on for Matty Virtue and that was the right call. Virtue had the booking and there’s no doubt that influenced MK’s decision. Wright has a habit of saving penalties, but he didn’t save this one.
From being 1-0 up, we were quickly 2-1 down and a man down. Taylor despatched the penalty, and I confess, I got a face on and chose to go down to the loo. As I went to get a drink, they scored again. I’ve watched it back, it’s a rubbish goal to concede, and under the stand, there was a furious reaction from some kids who seemed to want to watch the game on the telly, despite being there. As I turned back with my drink, ready to go and watch the capitulation of Lincoln City, I saw a red card flashed. It seems from my position with my back to the screens, under the stand, I saw as much as the 8,000 facing the pitch. Clearly, the assistant referee on the far side saw something, and from our point of view, it’s a good job it wasn’t the assistant on our side of the ground, that’s all I’ll say.
A rather breathless first half was far from done. At even Steven, in terms of player numbers, we had every chance to get back on terms, and we did so with another smart goal. Lasse and Regan started it before House and Shodipo crafted a chance for Mandroiu to hit yet another inch-perfect ball. It evaded the defender and found House, who had made a great run and whose finish was so nonchalant that around me, we thought he’d bottled it. It must have been the angle, because replays suggest it was the coolest of finishes, flat-footing their keeper in his awful purple and green combo, and levelling the scores. That’s 13 this season for House, and no less than his energetic performance deserved.
The action wasn’t over. A spirited Vale sought to make a game of it, and Butterworth, a real livewire, almost made it 3-2. Mal Benning, a former Mansfield veteran of our title-winning season, was booked for a challenge on Mandroiu that really didn’t warrant a yellow. It felt like the referee was letting the occasion get to him, but his decisions had made it an open game, even if both were highly contentious.