At the beginning of the season, I called Oxford as a team going for promotion. Free of the Karl Robinson shackles, I could see them clicking and being the version of themselves they often threatened under their former manager.
Being proven right was about the only thing that went right last night. On a personal note, after we got beat, I came out of the ground and stood in dog mess (for a few seconds as I wondered if it was just wet moss). We then got back to the car; within five minutes, I felt my clutch going awry, and before we hit Wragby, my car was on the side of the road in the rolling fog, necessitating a lift home. It was there all night, and in truth, if we’d been at Sincil Bank all night, I’m not 100% sure we would have scored.
I’m not going in two-footed on the team in this write-up. We are where we are, and aspirations of breaking into the top six are as good as I feel it will get for a couple of months. Last night, a better side played against us, a side packed with ability, a side so well drilled they made finding space look effortless. The opposition is always the one factor in a game that people forget to take into account. Lincoln were either ‘rubbish’ or ‘brilliant’, and there’s rarely an acknowledgment of what role to opposition plays in that. Oxford, after the first ten minutes, were excellent, and we didn’t deal with it at all.
That’s the game in a nutshell, but there are other bits we can discuss if we must.
The line-up looked exciting, with Jack Vale making his first start for the Imps and Danny Mandroiu back in the side. Lasse played on the left, Adam Jackson got another outing in a tight run of matches, and Sean Roughan again preferred to Jaden Brown at left-back. It felt like we were beginning to get some semblance of a proper attack back together, and for five or ten minutes at the start of the game, that was what happened.
The first real incident wasn’t around matters on the field but Sam Long’s injury off it. I feared the first-year ref might have been losing grip early on (he didn’t) as he allowed Long to be treated on the field, something that was stipulated should not happen in the new rules. The Oxford physio and ref seemed to exchange words, and eventually, a clearly injured Long was escorted from the field. We then had a bizarre spell where he sat waiting for help that never came – no stretcher was provided to carry the struggling player off. He was finally handed a pair of crutches to walk around the pitch himself, and I really felt for him, if I’m honest.
The early zip about our play was quickly extinguished by their opening goal on 13 minutes. It came from nothing, really, a corner that looked debatable in the first place, whipped into the near post, and Oxford were 1-0 up. All I’ll say about that is, how many times? Luke Plange. Tomas Soucek. Jack Burroughs. All from corners, all at the near post. Just add Ciaron Brown to the list and hope that on the training ground, our Achilles’ Heel (I originally mistyped that as Hell and thought about leaving it in) is being addressed. I genuinely fear every time we give a corner away, which is mad considering the quality we have at the back.
That said, aside from Jackson, I’m not sure the quality was all that evident last night. We went a goal down at Charlton and responded well, but Oxford are a different kettle of fish. Mark my words – they’re going to be around the top two all season on last night’s showing.
Controversial opinion – I don’t think we were that bad in the first half. We tried to play some nice stuff, players tried to be brave on the ball, but it just didn’t come off. I’d rather get beaten trying to win, and I felt in the first period, we did that. However, Vale and Mandroiu looked to be a little off in terms of their communication, and an astute Oxford side had sussed out or big switch fairly early. We didn’t win the midfield battle, and yet we did still keep ourselves in the game. It wasn’t a great performance, but given Oxford’s xG (0.8) in the first period, I felt the opinion we’d been overrun and ‘it could have been two or three’ was a little knee-jerk. They were the better side, zero doubt about that, but I thought Tom’s instruction to try to be positive was sticking. That said, so was his assertion that it wouldn’t always work – that was also true.
Oxford didn’t sit back, but they were able to be less adventurous than they would have been had the game remained at 0-0. I felt our chance would come in them coming at us, but they didn’t need to do that, and it showed. I’m not saying that sat back, but they certainly took fewer risks. That said, their passing was excellent at times, and they made finding space look effortless.
It didn’t help that a couple of our key players were having off days. Paudie looked to struggle for much of the game, although I noted him on his knees early in the first half after a clash, and I do wonder if he took a knock. Ethan Erhahon also looked jaded, tired, perhaps? Once or twice he lingered on the ball, and he struggled to get out of the tight situations that he was skipping clear of a couple of weeks ago. Jack Vale looked lively but didn’t get a lot of joy. However, as half-time rolled around, I didn’t feel we were out of the game. We were second best, absolutely, but on the balance of play, Oxford couldn’t have been too aggrieved had the scores been level.
At half time, I had the pleasure of going pitchside for a photo to celebrate running 5km every day in October. Some of the other guys connected to the club ran 10km a day, which I take my hat off to! A lot of money was raised for Prostate UK, which was the main driver in putting myself through utter hell! It was nice to get pitchside – I used to be there every game, and it’s remarkable how different that area is now compared to back in the day. A lot has changed, and I hoped the same could be said for the second-half action.