The proverbial ‘all’s well that ends well’ – as it very nearly ended very badly. Whether or not the ref should have been adding on all that time, he did. And before his whistle blew Lincoln’s final attempt to salvage a point ended up shaving the post. If that had gone in it would have been very hard to take. Less because of the overall balance of play – undoubtedly we merited the victory but it was far from one-sided as Lincoln were on top in the first and the last 20 minutes, with us dominant in between once we’d gone ahead – but more because we so badly needed back-to-back wins and to build on the positive display at Portsmouth (which I’d spent trying to follow on the live stream on a mobile travelling back to Lyon from Nimes, which is what happens when you stupidly allow your partner to sort out new year plans).
In the end we took the points, but Holden was I think right to be grounded in his post-match assessment. On another day Lincoln’s bright start to the game would have seen them take the lead. Only a desperate block by Inniss prevented one and there were other such openings in that opening spell, even if the stats at half-time showed no shots on target for Lincoln. Once we took the lead and not long after that doubled it, all we needed was a third and Holden could have rung the changes, to give some a breather ahead of Old Trafford – and Barnsley next Saturday. We didn’t manage that; instead in classic 2-0 style we conceded and the game changed, with Lincoln having nothing to lose. From that moment we just wanted the final whistle – and it was a long time coming.
Not surprisingly the team and formation was pretty much the same as against Portsmouth, the only change being forced by Maynard-Brewer getting concussed in training. Although there was still no sign of Aneke on the bench, there was the welcome news that O’Connell was fit enough to take a place, which meant Lavelle out of the squad, with Ness having overtaken him in the pecking order (and no sign of Inniss being charged/suspended for the Oxford lapse). With us keeping to the 4-3-3 set-up, the question ahead of the game was whether Lincoln would, like others before them, park the bus and deny us the space needed to get that to work.
Perhaps surprisingly, Lincoln really took the game to us from the off. In the first minute from a long throw headed on a goalbound shot was blocked, the first of a few, as they moved the ball well in our final third. However, we managed to avoid conceding during this time and as the game progressed began to take over. We were starting to create openings – Blackett-Taylor and Fraser down the left and a low cross which just needed a touch, then Rak-Sakyi played in and his shot-come-cross almost turned in by Fraser. So although Lincoln had had the better of the opening spell by the time we scored, on 34 minutes, it came as no real surprise.
Morgan played in Leaburn down the right. He looked up and saw Fraser moving towards the far post, then delivered the perfect cross for him to meet. The header took a deflection off a defender and their keeper got a glove to it, For the rest of the first half it was all us. And after a couple more chances had gone begging we doubled the lead. Dobson turned in a tight spot and made space to go forward, passed to Fraser, who played a delightful ball between their defenders for CBT to run on to. No-one was going to catch him and after his touch to the left his powerful shot went into the roof of the net, with their keeper curiously almost turned around by the force of it.
At the break there was nothing for us to complain about, just the feeling that if we could get a third the game was over. And we very nearly did, on several occasions, the best of which came shortly after the restart. Dobson’s crossfield ball found Rak-Sakyi, who was allowed to cut inside. His curler to the far post was saved but it looked as though Leaburn would put home the rebound, only for a desperate challenge to seemingly put him off and prevent him from making a clean contact. Rak-Sakyi and Blackett-Taylor continued to get in shots, but not surprisingly we did start to seem to settle back a little with around 20 minutes left.
Payne came on for Morgan and on 75 minutes Lincoln were back in it. Their guy won an arial contest with Clare, who was injured in the process, and played it across our box, where Lincoln had a couple waiting. The first effort was poor but only knocked back to their guy; the second had much more sting but was blocked well; the third sat up for him and he connected well to leave MacGillivray with no chance.
For us it was a deflating moment as all the fun went out of the game and we were contemplating not winning a game in which we could have been out of sight. More changes were made, with Kirk for Rak-Sakyi then late in the day O’Connell and Stockley for CBT and Leaburn, while we started to accumulate yellow cards: Payne for two fouls in short order, Sessegnon for time-wasting, Dobson for a rash challenge. And then, after seven minutes of stoppage time had been indicated and we were into the ninth extra one, that ball dropped in our box and, mercifully, the shot went wide. We could finally relax.
After the Oxford game if anyone had said we’d win the next two – and play well in the process – we’d have said they were hoping for miracles from Santa. So some credit is due to Holden and the players for turning things around, ending the run of winless games, and reminding everyone that we are capable of more than competing in this league, when we are at our best. Signs of confidence returning and of the players being more comfortable not having to find a pass every time they get the ball in whatever circumstances. Grounds for optimism.
In an ideal world I think we’d park the Man Utd game and play it in a month’s time. It comes at a time when we have no idea if we are being taken over, if there will be money for new players in the window (and if some more are going to follow Forster-Caskey – who leaves with all our best wishes), and when we can’t easily put out the reserves to give some a rest. Can all of Sessegnon, Inniss, Blackett-Taylor, Rak-Sakyi etc now put in a big shift on Tuesday night and still be available for Barnsley on Saturday? I guess it’s not our problem, we just have to enjoy the night out and remember that a Leaburn always scores for us at Old Trafford in the cup.