Sucker Punched: Bristol Rovers 1-1 Imps

Credit Graham Burrell

Disclaimer – I didn’t see yesterday’s game in real-time. I was at the Badlands Punk Festival in Lincoln, so I followed on my phone and got back to watch the highlights this morning. 

It’s odd, trying to stay engaged from a distance, following a game through updates by supporters, and then seeing incidents with your own eyes afterwards. I can’t say I’m a massive fan of remote support like that, but it does give you a different flavour from the game.

However, given that I haven’t watched the whole game, I’m not going to insult your intelligence by trying to offer insight and analysis. I shall instead seek to pick apart what I do know and what I have seen, to give you an overall taste of where I am after the encounter.

Firstly, it’s really disappointing to have two strikers out injured already. It’s all well and good saying we need to sign more players, but we were having trouble putting Tyler and Ben side by side up until last weekend, and suddenly, we’re now unable to put an out-and-out striker on the field. Jack Vale has been signed, but he is injured as well – that’s not bad business on the club’s part. Vale played 15 times in the Championship last season, and if he hadn’t been injured, we’d be unable to get him. Blackpool and Derby were both interested over the summer and when he’s fit, he’ll be a massive asset. Right now, that doesn’t help, but give it a couple of weeks, and we’ll be in a strong position. What we can’t do is praise the depth of the squad after beating Wycombe, Shrewsbury and Blackpool but lament poor recruitment after a draw at Bristol Rovers. It could be worse – we could have lodged an £800,00 bid for a striker and see it collapse on deadline day.

Credit Graham Burrell

Of course, when your two top strikers are out, you need everyone else to be fit, and captain Paudie O’Connor is still ill. When it rains, it pours. That said, we were able to go 3-5-2, drop Alex Mitchell in for his first start in the League, and pair Danny Mandroiu and Reeco Hackett up top. Both can play centrally and have before, so we weren’t entirely without forwards, as we were away at Oxford a couple of seasons ago.

From the highlights, it seems we didn’t get a grip in the first half. Rovers had more possession without creating anything that looked too clear-cut, but we came out without a shot on target and 0.04 xG. Some might suggest that’s an outcome of having fewer attacking options, but with Hackett and Mandroiu, I think we had players who could carry a threat. Given the team selection and lack of options, I’d have happily taken a draw, and as half time was called, we had just finished watching a band called Moskito. The band were decent, a draw was solid, and whilst a lack of creativity would have frustrated the hardy souls who were down in Bristol, it was a functional outcome I think most of us would have accepted before kick-off. After all, there’s the belief if you win your home games and draw away, you’re onto a decent thing. Obviously, you have to mix it up, but in 75% of games you play away, a draw is acceptable. This was one of those games.

Credit Graham Burrell

In truth, they could be a little more aggravated at their attacking output. Aaron Collins, Luke Thomas and Jevani Brown are all good options at this level, whilst Scott Sinclair, Anthony Evans and John Marquis should add creativity as well. Quite why they felt they needed to spend £800,000 on another striker I don’t know, but if we had that embarrassment of riches to pick from and still only mustered one shot on target I think we’d be hacked off. I did ponder to Chris, a fellow gig-goer, that Barton might just be the new Karl Robinson – a manager I feel is holding his team back from achieving better things. They’ve got a good squad, and plenty of choice, and they’re not quite firing.

That said, I consider us to be a top-ten team in waiting, so a response after the break was nice to see. Of course, our goal was as easy as you’ll see, but it’s the effort from God (sorry, Ethan Erhahon) that really gets me fired up. He’s hit it so sweetly after it drops to him, and whilst the rebound is best described as ‘kind’ it is still worthy of watching again. Jacko won’t win the goal of the season, but he did become the ninth different scorer this season. We might point to the lack of a striker as a problem, but of those nine scorers, not one is an out-and-out striker. House and Walker have had hands in goals, no doubt about that, but it’s nice to see goals coming from all over the park.

Credit Graham Burrell

I genuinely thought we’d win after that. I’d been looking forward to seeing River Jumpers doing an acoustic set, but it was blurred out by constantly refreshing my phone. I was on Twitter, Chris on Flashscore, and we watched as injury time came around. Four minutes seemingly ticked away, and as the band struck up their final song, I thought I’d be heading for another pint of Camden Hells to celebrate. Instead, Chris’s watch went off.

Let me tell you about Chris’s watch. He has alerts set up to Flashscore. When watching on iFollow, his watch can often go off for a goal before iFollow shows it. If watching on a VPN, his watch can go off a good minute or two before a goal – last season at Exeter, we were 1-0 up and thought we’d got a second, as his watch went off during our attack, only for them to go up and score. Sadly, his watch went off, and we knew immediately Rovers had equalised. His watch alerted us to the goal for Chippenham whilst on a train in Dusseldorf. It never seems to bring good news.

Credit Graham Burrell

I don’t have a problem with late goals – you go through stages of scoring them (as we did under DC) and conceding them (twice this season). I don’t see it as a fundamental problem right now, and when we’re 11 points from six games, the only frustration is what might have been – without those goals, we’d have 15 points and be two clear at the top. Shoulda, woulda, coulda. No, what bothers me slightly is the fact it’s direct from a corner, a free header, and one tall player appears to have turned his back as he seeks to win a header. I don’t know whose job it is to win that header, but it has to be better, pure and simple.

There were two chances for us to win it after that, showing the good and the bad of young Jovon. Firstly, he had an effort where a pull back to Ali Smith looked to be a better option, and then he used his body well to feed Lasse, who might have nicked it for us. He didn’t, but he did work their keeper.

Credit Graham Burrell

On to Jovon – he’s a player likely to head out on loan now we have Jack Vale in, and I think he needs that. He’s had a bit of game time for us of late, but a year ago, he was on loan at Brackley and couldn’t get into the team. Physically he’s an asset, but I think he needs regular game time at National League level or higher to be effective for us. I saw some criticism of him on social media, and it feels a bit harsh. He didn’t make a great decision when he broke down the wing, but he did get beyond his defender to create the opening. It may have been his man who won the header, but we don’t know that for sure. I don’t like to single players out, especially not when they’re probably not players who would get game time if our three other strikers were fit.

We come away from the Memorial Ground with a point, sucker punched when all three were on the table. The same happened at Sixfields, but the crucial aspect is we took points in these matches. We’re not the finished article, but I firmly believe we have the personnel to keep getting better and to start to ask questions of the opposition. We’re unbeaten since the opening day of the season (a defeat I drunkenly forgot in an unfortunate late-night tweet), and we’ve only conceded a single goal in normal time this season.

Credit Graham Burrell

However, when my afternoon was peppered by people sending me in-play tables showing us top, a draw felt like a defeat, just as it did at Northampton. I get why people shared that – you take the little things when you can, but we shouldn’t even be looking at the table after games when only six have been played, let alone during play. Still, it was nice to see Lincoln City top, albeit for a brief period, because it shows that, for now, we’re fighting at the right end of the table. If we’re still there after 12 matches, and if we get players back, I see no reason why we won’t be, then I’ll begin to get excited.

Anyway, it’s another good draw away from home that feels like a defeat. I always turn to the lyrics of Sit Down by James at this point – ‘If I hadn’t seen such riches, I could live with being poor‘. If we hadn’t been moments from a 1-0 win, we’d have taken a 1-1 draw. It wasn’t to be, thanks to a late sucker punch, but Lincoln City are still heading in the right direction.

As for us, we enjoyed the rest of the evening in the manner you might expect after a solid away point, Riskee and the Ridicule made our ears bleed in a good way, and eventually, we bowed out and headed for the safety of bed. We’ll be back at Badlands Festival next year – I wonder if the Imps will also be back at the Memorial Stadium?

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