The Wind of Change: Imps 0-0 Derby County

Credit Graham Burrell

“Take me to the magic of the moment. On a glory night. Where the children of tomorrow dream away. In the wind of change” – The Scorpions.

As I walked up the street toward my car after the game, I couldn’t help but think the wind of change had blown through Sincil Bank and would continue to do so. It was a lonely walk; my dad is still recovering from his cancer operation, so he wasn’t at the game. I rang him on the way back if only to tell him what a great game he’d missed. One that was as refreshing as the chilly January wind as it blew into my face before kick-off. The game was as refreshing as the first cool beer on a Friday evening after work in the summer. As refreshing as a swipe right after a thousand girls have swiped left (that’s a reference I don’t really experience, on more than one level).

Credit Graham Burrell

We’ve been promised change by three managers now. I’ll die on the hill defending Michael Appleton, who provided us with the greatest Imps side you never saw (in the flesh) in 2020/21. Since then, we’ve done away with wingers and flair. 21/22 was stodgy, awkward and a disappointment. Michael left, and Mark Kennedy came in with bold promises of attacking football, but we never excited. Functional? Yes. Edge-of-the-seat entertainment? Rarely. Michael Skubala has made similar promises, and after Blackpool on New Year’s Day, some fans thought we were being sold a line once again.

Today, for the first time at Sincil Bank, we saw what Skubala’s side wants to do. We saw what he meant about people being brave on the ball. We saw chances, and commitment and got value for money. I won’t be a hypocrite – I can live with stodgy football if we’re top ten, and if we’re consolidated, but we all want to see the beauty in our art. It’s like painting a house – doing it one colour in render serves the purpose, but painting a huge mural of Sir Isaac Newton (looking like the lead singer from the 90s indie band Cornershop) is completely different. That’s an expression in function, and sometimes, even functional football needs some expression and beauty.

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Firstly, a word on the ground staff. There wasn’t a game of football to be played within a 50-mile radius, I was told. Countless clubs, including teams like Notts County with setups you’d expect to be like ours, didn’t get a game on. Throughout Friday and Saturday morning, the club kept fans informed of the pitch’s state and the likelihood of the game being on. I understand it was a huge effort involving lots of people to get the game on, and that should be applauded.

Secondly, team selection. Michael Skubala is messing with our heads because he plays two formations. 4-4-2 in possession, 3-5-2 out of it. Nobody can say we play one way because we have this fluidity about us right now that, over time, will get slicker. Also, we have selection issues, and that’s so refreshing from a few weeks ago. Bear in mind Danny Mandroiu and Paudie were suspended today, but it felt like we were at full strength. TJ had to sit out, TJ, who has been excellent in recent weeks, missed out because we actually have players playing in their proper positions. Ted Bishop through the middle (can I get a hallelujah!), Reeco on the wing, Lasse wherever the hell he wants on the right. We didn’t pick a team to stop Derby today (see December 21st); we picked a team to win a game of football.

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Then there’s the duo up front. They have a combined age that is lower than mine, and yet there wasn’t much naivety about them. Freddie Draper has, in my opinion, already proven those who thought he wasn’t the answer wrong, and Joe Taylor proved everybody who thought the first 30 minutes were an indication he was just another Luke Plange/Dan N’Lundulu/Liam Cullen wrong. Okay, I’m waxing lyrical a little and getting ahead of myself.

Derby County, former Football League champions and regulars in Europe in the 70s. A team big enough for Premier League football, a team we haven’t faced in successive league seasons since the eighties. Like Sunderland, Sheff Weds, and Ipswich, they’re a team just passing through the Imps fixture list, destined to go back to where they belong, the top two tiers of English football. They’re laden with players who shouldn’t be gracing the likes of Sincil Bank – Mendez-Laing, Barkhuizen, and Hourihane, to name but three. They’re finding their feet under Paul Warne and play lovely football, with grit and ambition clearly fuelling everything they do. These games are ones we need to cherish, and if you’re an Imp in his or her 40s, you will. Some of the younger pups won’t remember season after season of Rochdale, Halifax, Aldershot, Chester, Grimsby, and all other dour journeys to the same perennial strugglers. Make no mistake, these are halcyon days in the history of Lincoln City, and Derby coming round to play is reflective of how well our club is doing right now.

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Okay, 900 words in, and I haven’t actually mentioned the football. Well, to be honest, Derby started brighter, but the game had a real fizz to it, a bubbling heat like a volcano about to explode. It warmed those of us in the stands a bit susceptible to the cold, but it was nervous and joyous in equal measure. Derby had a threat every time they went forward, but we had a threat of our own. It wasn’t quite end-to-end, but it was entertaining enough for me to think that any neutral among the 9,700 crowd would go away thinking they’d seen two good teams. It’s not often we’ve been able to say that this season, is it?

I always go on about Mendez-Laing, and he could have put Derby 1-0 up, firing wide of Jensen’s post. They got a few corners, all delivered right under Jensen’s crossbar, and it felt like their scoring was only a matter of time. Early doors, the back two (or three, depending on whether we had the ball or not) earned their corn – one Alex Mitchell challenge, in particular, stood out for me after a rare moment where Jacko got a little exposed. Our punditry on here has said Mitchell is very much like Jackson and O’Connor, but on that occasion, he showed a turn of pace that suggested he might be a little different.

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What felt truly unique was our attacking intent. The two boys up top had clearly got more of an understanding than a week ago, with Freddie Draper catching my eye from the off. He bullied Eiran Cashin, the same player who, if I recall correctly, gave the penalty away here last season. Freddie was a monster, fighting for everything, holding players off, winning aerial duels and making an utter nonsense of those who feared a boy might be coming back from his loan spell. Oh no, me old mate, not on your nelly.

There were chances I’ll skip because of the 29 efforts the two teams shared, and too many were worth talking about. Reeco had a good shot saved by Josh Vickers, but it was Hamilton’s free-kick that brought the big save. A full-stretch Vickers is a sight to behold, and he had to extend to push away the vicious effort. Ted had one saved, but the big chances have to be those that fell to Joe Taylor.

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This might be controversial, but I thought Joe looked a little lost for the first 25 minutes or so. He sometimes came short when the ball went long, and he went for the header when he should have dropped off the flick-on, but he’s still settling in. He seems a confidence player, and one chance brought him his confidence. He picked up the ball inside his own half and just went, powering through the Derby defence like a chainsaw through the rotting carcass of a sheep. The run, and ultimately missed chance, reminded me a lot of Brooke Norton-Cuffy just before half time of another home draw that had me purring against Wycombe in early 2022.

If that wasn’t enough, he did it again not long after. He got away from Cashin like a brand new Lamborghini overtaking a lorry but, again, missed the target. I don’t have an issue with chances being missed, not when, for (at worst) two-and-a-half seasons, we’ve had a problem with chances being created.

Credit Graham Burrell

Referee Ollie Yates, curiously in charge of the draw with Wycombe where Norton-Cuffy made his run, had a big decision to make just before half time. As we pushed for an opener, a couple of tasty challenges were exchanged, nothing over the top before Kane Wilson seemingly did Ethan Erhahon. In real-time, I confess I got carried away by the crowd. I didn’t really see it; I followed the ball (with Erhahon played) but not Erhahon (who Wilson played). For a few moments, it looked like we might see a red card, but Yates drew a yellow. It wasn’t the last controversial yellow we’d see.

Conclusion? 50% of referees handle it exactly as Yates did. The other 50% reduce Derby to ten men. I’m not sure we can complain either way.

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