Gatecrashers: Imps 1-0 Leyton Orient

Credit Graham Burrell

“The truth is our play-off dream is over in reality. That Stevenage side won’t drop the eight points we need them to, and we won’t get the necessary wins to pull them in. I know some will look and say it can still be done, but the Stevenage approach is geared towards protecting the points, not losing matches, and they’ll not be below us in the table after 46 games; I’m afraid that is a fact.” – Me, a month ago.

I love it when I get it right. I love it when I can point to a quote that underlines I know what I’m talking about. It is perhaps only fair to do the same when I am proven utterly wrong. That’s the problem with expressing an opinion on the internet, and not just in the pub – it’s there to be seen when you’re wrong, which we all are at some point.

Yesterday, and I can’t believe I’m writing these words, Lincoln City moved into the top six for the first time in the Skubala era. It’s not the first time this season, we started well, but it’s perhaps the first time since 2020/21 that we’ve been in this position at a point in the season where it matters. The actual point it matters is in one month’s time, of course, but looking at the table as I left the game yesterday, I could have cried. Silly, right?

Credit Graham Burrell

It’s even sillier when you consider that I felt no nerves at all. I met up with a few people before the game, and Chris, for example, was a bag of nerves. I felt nothing like that. When you have nothing, the prospect of it being taken away isn’t worrying. Up until the final whistle yesterday, we had nothing. We weren’t in the top six, we weren’t a serious part of the conversation a month ago. I couldn’t be fearful of losing something we didn’t have. It was a ride, something that might take us somewhere. The unknown excites me.

Now, it’s totally different. Now, we’re in the mix, we’re potentially a contender for a spot in the second tier next season, a level we haven’t managed to achieve since the early sixties. Now, we have something to lose, and now, come Monday, I’m going to be a bag of nerves as well. There’s a lyric I really like from a country song that goes, ‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.’ Yesterday morning, we had nothing to lose. Now we do, and I love it.

Credit Graham Burrell

The truth is, the game wasn’t a classic. I have a few words on the opposition, a team I confess I have a soft spot for. Not in terms of playing us, but just generally. I like Orient; they feel like a proper club grounded in their community. They’ve been through the wringer, but going back over the years, I’ve always admired them – players like Matt Lockwood, Steve Castle and Lee Steele always had me a little jealous. They’re a proper side, and right now, they’re on the up. Richie Wellens is a man I loved as a player (Blackpool and Doncaster, always a beast on Champ Man), and I respect him as a coach. They’ll look at our clashes this season and see them as the difference between play-offs and midtable, and rightly so. We’ve played something like four-and-a-half-hours of football against them this season and led for a single minute of normal time. If the boot is on the other foot, we’re bemoaning small margins, so we should acknowledge that right now. By the way, if we don’t go up this season, I can see Orient being one of the sides that we are battling with for a top-six spot in League One.

It’s funny, for me, our three games against Orient have been defining moments. The first, tragically abandoned and replayed, was the final straw for me in terms of Mark Kennedy. Any lingering belief I had that he was the man to take us forward evaporated on a night we deserved absolutely nothing. I remember watching that game and wondering how we were so blunt – partly it was due to Orient’s setup, but partly due to the head coach seemingly losing grip of his players. The replayed game, Skubala’s first win, might not have sat well in terms of what had gone before, but it reinforced the belief we’d got the right man for the future. Yesterday’s game saw us enter the top six, which was another landmark moment.

Credit Graham Burrell

Isn’t it funny how a game can become a classic without being a classic? Good Friday, 2017 – we huffed and puffed against Torquay (xG 1.98 for us, 2.19 for them), and yet two late goals have made that game one we still savour. If you’d asked me after 80 minutes would we remember it, I’d have said no. Yesterday was even more forgettable – the two sides had xG of 0.53 (us) and 0.93 (them), meaning 0-0 would have been absolutely a fair result. Yet, here we are, praising players on social media and lavishing praise on a team who were, for at least 70 minutes, outmanoeuvred tactically.

The day started well enough – Ben House returned to the side following his spell on the sidelines, which was a huge boost. Obviously, Ethan Erhahon missed out, meaning three central midfielders were unavailable, including all three serious options in the holding role. That meant Jack Moylan, Danny Mandroiu and Ted Bishop played in the middle, a set of three talented players, but not one of them the stereotypical ‘midfielder’. Wellens did his homework, flooded the midfield with four blue shirts, and effectively killed our creative outlets. With two relatively deep full-backs, there was little to no space in behind for Hackett and Sorensen, with Jordan Brown dropping deep to help the defence if they needed it. Spoiler alert – they didn’t.

Credit Graham Burrell

It meant a game that was really tough to watch because despite killing our attacking threat, Orient didn’t have the tools to unpick one of the meanest defences Lincoln City have had in 40 years. In 2017/18, we conceded 17 home goals. In 1987/88, having played just 21 matches, all against part-time teams, we conceded 13. You have to go back to 1980/81, a season where our mean defence broke records, to find a tighter home defence, conceding just 11 in 23 matches. If we keep just two more clean sheets at home, the back three (and Jensen) will be the best defence since Steve Thompson and Trevor Peake were in their Imps heyday.

Indeed, it takes a special team to bag past us at the minute (we’ve conceded once in the 928 minutes of football at home after Northampton’s second on December 29th), and whilst Orient are a side that had us sussed, they could only stop us, not break us down. That meant the game had a quite predictable air to it.

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