After the ‘latest’ nadir against Gateshead, tonight’s 3-0 win was a refreshing and long overdue good performance.
Trying a new combination of players in a 4-2-3-1 formation, after about half an hour the players started to click, and once Dave Martin’s sweetly struck shot snuck in off the post, a weight was lifted off their shoulders and suddenly the team have a bit more confidence and thus freedom to start playing more cohesively as a unit. The outcome was a well-deserved 3-0, which could easily have been 4-0 or 5-0.
Well done to Lincoln to start with even less of an idea than we did, nice to play a team struggling even more than we were to find its feet. Good time to play them. Mind you we could have said that about Gateshead. The difference was, where previously Lincoln’s handful of early breaks proved fruitless tonight, in previous games this year they would have snuck a goal and put us on the back foot from the off. Not tonight. There were no clues to the eventual complete control of the game in the first half an hour, other than perhaps Martin’s disallowed (but excellent) offside goal from a gorgeous cross from the effervescent Gray. In fact I remember remarking that it was the longest half an hour of football for a long time, such hard work it was to watch. We did take a while to get going. There was too much in the air, and too many poor passes and woeful control. For a little while it looked as if it would once again be one of those nights’. But a couple of bits of quality made the incisive difference. In a way that has been wholly lacking this year, and to be fair in the past 3, we took some half chances and turned them into goals. We were wasteful early on, peppering the scoreboard and Mrs Patel’s back garden with shots, but it clicked and we looked sharper than for a while.
Brill remained in goal, Mark Tyler has a dicky back. For some reason he got a bad press from the people around me, but I thought that was unfair. Apart from a couple of wayward kicks (hey, this is non league) his kicking was longer and as accurate as Tylers, whilst also showing a propensity to roll the ball out where he could. He made a couple of good saves, which were key. I thought he had a good game.
Returning at right back was Mr Henry returning after his spell on the sidelines. He had a solid, untroubled game and got in a number of handy crosses. He was, to be fair, largely untroubled by Lincoln, but was very sound. He gave his shirt away at the end, I wasn’t sure why he did that (with so many games to go, and presumably with him staying…) but someone pointed out that he is having an op next week and so it was his last game this year.
Simon Ainge moved to the middle. After a big wobble in the first ten minutes when presented with the opportunity to deal with a ball over the top of him, which he was running back to he had the opportunity to knock it back to Brill or stick it out for a throw. Both were sound options, but instead dear Simon chose to fanny about with it, and lost possession, which he won back and then lost again. Not good and you could see what little confidence he had melt out of his boots and it took a while and some decisive headers and clearances before it came back. He looked better by the end of the first half.
Alongside was our old friend Steve McNulty. A most unlikely looking footballer and indeed captain (even with Ronnie on the pitch) he played well. It was his quick thinking and glorious, incisive through ball at a free kick, which saw Andre Gray through, in space and racing towards the byline, he cut it back and we had 2 (two) players running in on the end of it. Dave Martin was the lucky recipient for his second.
At left back making his full debut was Scott Griffiths who looked tidy, efficient and untroubled. A couple of good crosses too and he linked up well with Dave Martin at times.
In front of the back four sat the excellent Matt Robinson and Jonathan Smith. Smith looked a bit leggy I thought, though made one or two good challenges and runs and broke up the play well. I’m not entirely sure, but I think it was Smith who put Gray through for the second it was a good through ball showing great vision.
Robinson looked increasingly at home. Well done Mr Buckle for spotting him and bringing him in. He looks like a half decent footballer, and will some more experience and a bit more confidence, we might have a cracking player on our hands.
In front of those two we had a wider attacking midfield three Gray wide on the right, though he did swap and drift a couple of times, Martin wide on the left and Alex Lawless behind Jon Shaw.
Gray looked sharp, eager and confident, and it didn’t need the first Luton goal for him to have confidence, as he was brimming with it from the start. He was tormenting the poor Lincoln defenders. And what a pain in the arse he proved. He showed great composure (not something he has always had this year) in rounding the keeper and slotting the ball home. Let’s hope that is the first of many like that.
Lawless in the middle, looked composed and confident. Clearly JohnStill’s favourite boy, he was the playing just behind Shaw in the middle, a position which suited him tonight very well. He was instrumental in the brighter moves throughout and revelled in his attacking role. On the left, Dave Martin had a fantastic game and was unlucky not to get the man of the match award, and even unluckier not to get four. How lovely to have an attacking winger who has an eye for goal. In cricket batsmen (and sometime bowlers) talk about being in the zone’ whatever a bowler bowls at you, you feel in complete control and in charge. Well Dave Martin must have felt like that tonight. He will want to wrap tonight’s memory up and keep it safe forever. Four goals wouldn’t have flattered him. As I said above, he was unlucky with his first one, Gray’s perfect cross finding him offside, apparently. His second one was a goal from the second it left his foot. His third chance, second goal was from a Gray cross again, and his fourth chance, second disallowed one was again when he got on the end of an Andre Gray cross yet again, but the ref blew up for Lawless’s fisticuffs with Boyce on the edge of the box, which was a shame. There’s a theme there isn’t there Gray cross, Martin goal. JohnStill spoke of combinations being key at the end in his press conference, well there’s one there John.
Of course the last piece in tonight’s jigsaw, or jigshaw if you will, was John Shaw, who played as a lone’ striker. He was more lone in the first half, played further forward from the midfield three behind and was acting as an out and out target man, and gave the players the excuse, for perhaps too long, to perhaps play it too long too. If you see what I mean. Whacking it up to the big front man is the last refuge of a scoundrel if it is the only tactic you employ, and it could have gone dangerously wrong. In the second half Shaw drifted deeper, won the ball more on his own terms and accordingly, the Town looked brighter and better because of it. No longer did they have the clumsy option to hit it long, now, they were driven more to finding reasons to play it on the floor and we looked much better for it. Shaw played well without being outstanding, but the formation suited him too I thought.
He was replaced with Alex Wall who looked like an over eager puppy when he came on. He posed more immediate problems than the tiring Shaw.
It was one of those games which you didn’t really want to end, the interplay in the latter part of the second half was entertaining and truly made you wonder where on earth we had been all year and why we couldn’t play like that every week. Even Scott Rendell (as sub for Lawless, and playing in his best position, eg behind the front man) looked much better and linked well with Gray, though he does look a little less hungry at times and his lack of pace is obvious on occasions. There were chances aplenty and I’m confident that another 20 minutes would have brought more goals such was the dominance at the end.
So more tinkering from JohnStill looking to find the right combinations of players and right formation and partnerships. He said he was excited by his continuing challenge of identifying which players to keep and which to let go.
Hot on the heels of tonight’s game is Friday’s against Grimsby. We’ve already seen them score seven against us this year and I have no desire to see them get any more. I know that JohnStill may well tinker and swap some more in his search to find the players he needs, but it would have been lovely to have played Grimsby with the team and formation we had tonight to see how we matched up with a side in the play offs. Oh well early days.
Hopefully the Gateshead debacle was indeed the nadir of our footballing history, our lowest position, the lowest attendance and our worst defeat at this level. Like Alan Partridge we are bouncing back. And, like Alan Partridge Steve McNulty suffers from a fat back.
A while back, I remember half jokingly longing at some point in the future for a boring mid table season, after three successive relegations, followed by three seasons of play off frustration. Little did I suspect that we would get exactly that this year. Be careful what you wish for eh? Four years ago it would have been inconceivable to envisage a mid-table finish in the conference, but that it what our recent form, and constant turmoil has led us to experience. With four games to go we have a chance at least to try to threaten 7th this year. Two games at home to teams going to be in the play offs and two away games to sides struggling against the drop. Then by Saturday week it will all be over for another year. Seems such a rush at the end doesn’t it. On Saturday evening I just wanted the season to end there and then, but after tonight I can’t wait until Friday for the Grimsby game. At least JohnStill has four more games to find out about his existing players and to tinker with formations, partnerships and combinations.