Banana Skin Avoided: Imps 2-0 Cheltenham Town

Credit Graham Burrell

If Wednesday was an occasion to savour, yesterday was a purely functional 90 minutes in which we got a job done.

Never have there been two contrasting occasions within such a short space of time. West Ham in the cup, a star-studded lineup in front of a packed Sincil Bank, then 65 hours later, arguably the worst team to grace the Bank in the League since Covid are guests in front of what I think is one of our lowest home crowds post-Covid. Of course, football being what it is, we lost the big occasion and came away from a tough test yesterday with three points.

Let’s be honest – few teams will be as bad as Cheltenham were. They had one shot on target, offered virtually nothing and, at times in the first half, looked as easy to open as a tube of Smarties. Their one real threat, Aidan Keena, went off in the first half and with him went their chances of getting that elusive first goal, although they changed shape at the same time, which made the game more difficult for us. You know a team are bad when the warm August sunshine turns to chilly October clouds, and you haven’t scored a single league goal. On yesterday’s evidence, I can see why.

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However, let’s not forget doomed Doncaster getting three points at the Bank or Southend United in freefall, beating us 2-1 a few seasons ago. Lincoln City and clubs struggling at the foot of the table are not usually a good mix, for us at least. This game was a huge potential banana skin, one we needed to win with two tough away fixtures on the horizon, but one that seemed set up for us to struggle in. I boldly predicted a 0-0 at the start of the game – but I’d have taken a scrappy 1-0 win. In the end, we got neither.

What did we get? Almost certainly a tired set of players who looked drained in the latter stages, sticking to a game plan and coming away with a cherished three points. We were professional, organised and effective without ever being brilliant. The bottom line is we got the job done with ease, seemingly never having to get out of second gear and certainly not suffering from a lack of striker (four paragraphs in, I’m getting better).

There were few surprises on the teamsheet – Jaden Brown earned a recall at left back, Adam Jackson returned in the middle of defence, and Ted Bishop replaced Ali Smith. Danny Mandroiu returned to the bench after a month’s absence which was a welcome sight indeed.

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This isn’t a game that produced a lot of talking points. Neither side laid siege to the other’s goal, but there’s no doubt we were the better team. We had a little less possession than they did, and the two teams’ xG was more or less the same as well. Clear-cut chances were at a premium, and much of the excitement was generated by an erratic match official in Ben Atkinson. I joked that I hoped his performance wasn’t going to be like pulling teeth, given that he is a dentist, but he certainly liked to cause pain. More on that later.

It wasn’t a classic, but two moments of excellence from Classe Sorensen (cheers Ben) lit up the early stages. The key in this game was for us to get a goal early – do that and I felt we’d be okay, but the longer it went on at 0-0, the longer they might believe they had a point. Cheltenham might be bad, but they’re still committed; they still have heart and desire. They just don’t have a game plan or much quality. If they could get players behind the ball, against a team with no fit strikers, then they might just have nicked a point.

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Five minutes into the game, that belief was knocked out of the park. It’s a goal that might not get the praise it deserves in the grand scheme of the season because it’s so simple. Sean Roughan picked out Ted with a typically accurate pass, and in turn, Ted found a Lasse with a lovely ball. He stroked home a finish with consummate ease, and it looked like a great afternoon for the Imps. In fairness, the defending was not great – Sean Long let the ball drop over his head when Ted collected, and Ted’s pass went in front of the back four, behind the midfield two, without a green shirt anywhere near. Lasse found enough space in the box to execute the finish, and whilst it took some nice play from us, it really should have been defended better as well. Still, that’s not our concern.

16 minutes later, it was already job done. A team who have not scored a goal in two months of football are not going to get three away at a team that held West Ham to a clean sheet for 70 minutes, so the second just killed the game off. Again, it looked so easy, Ethan Hamilton finding Hackett, who held on to the ball as Lasse overtook their left back like a boy racer overtaking a cyclist. Those rapid Danish legs powered into the area and lifted a finish into the net for two. My comment to Matt was, ‘If they’re not careful, this could be six or seven’. Bold prediction – the Lincoln City that beat Blackpool and Wycombe 3-0 could have had five or six yesterday. But, with no fit strikers (hat trick) and the draining game on Wednesday, this was always going to be about getting the job done.

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Both sides had half chances, Another simple move involving Ted and Jaden Brown saw a Haks effort deflected over, and Cheltenham were able to get a couple of wayward shots at goal. As I said, I liked Keena for them, but when he went off on 35 minutes, seemingly injured, I felt all their hopes of getting anything from the game, slim as they were, went with him, even if it did lead to them tightening up across the back. If they were going to get anything, it wouldn’t be from one of their green shirts, but that of match official Ben Atkinson.

I’ve defended referees of late, but I do find it a little hard to fully defend Atkinson. Oddly, it’s not the major incidents that people were angry about that have irked me; it’s the inconsistency. For instance, Adam Jackson was booked early for a foul (where he looked to win the ball for me), but identical offences committed by the visitors went unpunished. There were seven yellow cards in total, including the one issued to Mark Kennedy, and I don’t recall a single bad foul all game. Atkinson was fussy, but he also applied the letter of the law to key decisions. For instance, Ted was fouled, clearly, but then got booked for waving an imaginary card at the ref. I’m afraid that’s the right decision, and in one of our earlier games, we were on the other side of that – Joe Garner was fouled and then booked for his arguing against Carlisle. In our opening-day fixture, House was fouled and then booked for his arguing as well – that’s the rule. It’s frustrating, but to avoid the bookings, don’t argue. It’s not rocket science.