Looking Back: Chris Sutton Appointed

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A player who lacked the bottle for international football and lacked the bottle for League Two management

I originally wrote this piece for the now defunct Lincoln City Mad Website back in September 2009. I think it’s interesting to note the tone of apprehension in the piece.

The Imps board of directors today made a choice to gamble on the clubs future by appointing former Celtic and England striker Chris Sutton as the new manager at Sincil Bank. Sutton formed part of the ‘SaS’ partnership with Alan Shearer at Blackburn in the mid nineties but has so far shown no coaching or managerial credentials. He comes coupled with another ex Blackburn player, Ian Pearce who will take the role of assistant manager and player. 

The news has been labelled a ‘shock’ at the very least, although LCM did bring you news of Chris Sutton before anybody else last week. Other favourites included John Pemberton and Gary Brabin, but Brabin didn’t make the second round of interviews, and the playing experience of Sutton and Pearce has been preferred to the coaching experience of Pemberton. 

It is known that Chris Sutton applied for the Inverness Caldeonian Thistle job, but was beaten to that by Terry Butcher. Sutton is perhaps more of a household name north of the border despite his 1 England cap as a scoring legend for Celtic. He won’t take the role immediately, and Simon Clark will be in charge for his fifth and final game tomorrow against Notts County. 

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If only Ian Pearce had recaptured his West Ham form for City

Chris Sutton featured as a player for Norwich first of all, where he scored his way to a contract with Blackburn Rovers. His final season at Norwich City saw him play in a Norwich side that struggled to perform for a certain Mr John Deehan. However his name by then was already being mentioned as a potential England player after hitting 25 goals for Mike Walkers Norwich side that finished third in the Premier League. 

A 1994 transfer to moneybags Blackburn Rovers for £5m saw him arrive as a household name. Forming his formidable partnership with Alan Shearer he managed to hit 15 goals in the sides Premiership winning side. In November 1997 he managed to win his only England cap, but famously fell out with Glenn Hoddle and was excluded from the 1998 world cup squad. He never played for England again. 

Blackburns 1999 relegation saw the new Imps boss move to Chelsea for a whopping £10m, however a miserable season at Chelsea saw him net just once before a £6m move to Celtic. However he distinguished himself at Celtic winning 2 Scottish Premier League titles, 2 Scottish Cup titles and making a UEFA Cup final appearance. Following his spell at Celtic he made appearances for both Birmingham and Aston Villa, but finally retired in 2007 after suffering from blurred vision. 

His assistant manager Ian Pearce played for Blackburn, West Ham and Fulham and won the Premier League with Rovers. Recently he has been playing for Kingstonian following his release from Fulham. 

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With the gift of hindsight I think Gary Brabin would have been a very good choice.

 

So what does all this mean for City? Well Sutton certainly impressed as a player, and his first press conference made Radio Lincolnshire Michael Hortin commenting that Sutton had a ‘Aura’. When questions were put to Ian Pearce he made it clear he will be having a say but that this day was ‘Chris Suttons day’. Pearce as a player never played outside the top two divisions bar his stay at Kingstonian, but he intends to pull on his boots to give the side a leader on the field. It remains to be seen if Sutton can bring his top level experience to League Two players though. Can he do it on a wet and windy night at Rochdale is the question?

Sutton certainly fits some of the criteria laid out by the Imps board. He is hungry for success and could be described as ‘young and up and coming’. Sadly he doesn’t fit the final word of the criteria which is ‘manager’. As things stand he is the least experienced of the candidates, with Brabin the most experienced at one season, surprisingly Simon Clark second with 5 games and John Pemberton having 2. To LCM’s knowledge Sutton hasn’t taken a single training session in his career. 

However if Simon Clark remains on board then the coaching won’ be an issue, so then Sutton will be judged on his transfer market prowess and his tactical prowess. There has already been talk of him exploiting several contacts he’s made in the game, and it could lead to a possible move for some Celtic youngsters and maybe even a visit from the Scottish giants in pre season. Steff Wright calls it a calculated risk, I call it playing with fire. However as always I wish Chris well and hope his say is a fruitful one.

Perhaps it’s interesting to note that some of the predictions did come true, we did see Celtic here and we did end up with one of their youngsters, namely Ben Hutchinson. That went well.

Chris did bring a lot of very good footballers to the Bank, albeit on short loan deals. Chris Herd, Eric Lichaj, Nathan Baker, Davide Somma and Matt Saunders all spring to mind as well as a pre injury Adam Watts. However his erratic personality and a failure to find a vein of form really cost him quite dearly. As I mentioned yesterday I don’t think Sutton was taking us up or down, he could call on enough quality players from his contacts to keep us up, but never found the cutting edge to push us on. Would it have happened had he no fallen out with Bob and the crew? Maybe. I personally don’t think he has the right attitude to be a football manager and his barbed comments on TV recently has shown perhaps he’s more suited to throwing criticism out rather than dealing with it coming in.

I really hope I can’t find anything I wrote when Tilly was appointed because I got that spectacularly wrong!!

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Looking back at: August 2010

 

I’ve found a few folders of old blogs going back several years, and thought I’d drop the occasional blast from the past in (when I haven’t got the time to write anything new). First up, a blog I originally wrote for Sky Sports back in 2010 a few months before Chris Sutton walked out on the club.

Predictably with a week into the season The Imps were already out of one cup and sitting pretty in the league with no points. A week after that the situation hadn’t changed. Cue the rumbles of discontent.

Sincil Bank can be an unforgiving place for Imps players and fans. One misplaced kick or slip and a players reputation is in ruins. Take poor Joe Anderson, a young left back brought in from Fulham who has simply never managed to break through the barrier put up by a small majority of the home faithful. After one game his suspect tackling and distribution saw a ‘fans’ facebook site called ‘I Blame Joe Anderson’ spring up. What chance does a 20 year old player stand with that sort of backing from the home supporters? The same fans barely seem to notice the same inadequacies in Cian Hughton when he plays at full back, but then they will miss it in him won’t they? He scored a goal and has a famous Dad, which makes him off limits.

Then they move onto Delroy Facey. Two games after our less than auspicious start and we have collected 4 points, with a fine win at Gillingham and a hard fought draw at home with Crewe. Mr Facey has been ploughing himself down the left wing, a role unfamiliar to him. In this writers opinion he has been doing a fine job when called upon, and deserves credit for that. However a money paying supporter behind me on Saturday chose to suggest that perhaps Facey should ‘apply at Burger King’, a crude reference to his size and physique.

There are a few things wrong with this. Surely someone who actually works at Burger King doesn’t gorge themselves all day on burgers? If Facey had been a spotty teen barely able to string a sentence together then I’d maybe see the humour. Secondly at the time Facey had beaten the right back and played a neat cross field pass to Albert Jarrett. Are we so fickle now that even good play is rewarded with poorly thought out abuse? The answer for some City fans is yes.

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Joe Anderson, now at Bromley. In fairness I don’t think he was to blame.

 

Okay so now I take off my moaning hat and put on my ‘letting Sky Sports readers know what’s going on at the Bank hat’. As I mentioned we have 4 points from 4 games, but we have already played in form Torquay and travelled to Rotherham as well. Those two games formed a tricky opening for City, and despite not gathering any points I took plenty of positives from those displays. The trip to the Don Valley was as pleasant as ever with its superb unimpeded views of the pitch (albeit from a mile away). The stadium may be rubbish but the stewarding was not, and after a couple of bad experiences there in the past I take my hat off to the quality of stewards this season. In truth at 1-1 with 5 minutes to go it looked like City might get a win, but with our defence as sturdy as an over-dunked hob nob the inevitable happened and we conceded.

The hob nob continued its soggy existence a week later with a 2-0 home reverse against Torquay, in a game we could arguably have won. Drewe Broughton put in an excellent example of centre forward play by holding up the ball, creating space for himself and even managing a couple of efforts. The sad thing for him is he couldn’t hit an OAP with a bus, and the goals scored column remained at zero.

Then Sir Chris of Sutton pulled a master stroke. He shut up shop against Gillingham with a 10-0-0 formation, or maybe it was 4-2-3-1 (equally as baffling). However with loanee Ben Hutchinson doing the running and The Imps latest international Albert Jarrett benefiting from the hard work a corner was turned. Three points and even Joe Anderson had a decent game. Wonders will never cease.

As we were surprising Gillingham with a formation straight out of leftfield, Crewe were dismantling the perennial strugglers Barnet by seven goals to nil. The star studded forward line of Joel Grant, Clayton Donaldson and Calvin Zola looked an ominous threat with a visit to Sincil Bank planned.

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The doom and gloom merchants had plenty to get stuck into when this prick rocked up a few months after I wrote this blog.

 

However the doom and gloom merchants didn’t get their way. The Imps managed a 1-1 draw in a game of football that barely troubled the birds in the sky. Slick passing on the turf from both sides served up a game that the neutrals should have been impressed with. Indeed the neutrals were, but sadly the guy behind me with a confused impression of what happens behind the counter at Burger King was not.

Personally I’d happily sit amongst 2,500 fans every week who fully supported the team, rather than amongst 3,000 with a section talking as much garbage as Nick Griffin or the EDL. It’s idiots like them who attach a stigma to the game, abusing someone for their shape, their effort even at times their nationality. They don’t reserve the abuse for away teams, in fact they almost seem to relish doling it out to the players they know and are meant to support. So to Delroy Facey, Joe Anderson and any other Imps player who has had to listen to moronic comments from so called home fans, they are in the extreme minority.

Next up, Rotherham away in the JPT. Probably a second cup exit in a month. I blame Joe Anderson myself.

Of course nothing really went right from this moment on. Any sign of early season promise was lost when Mr Sutton bottled it and headed for the exit. Steve Tilson came in and sadly for everyone concerned proceeded to take us down.I think the worst thing is that whilst Sutton wasn’t going to get us promoted I don’t think we were going down either. That 1-1 draw with Crewe proved we knew a little about defending, but when Tilson took over we suffered humiliating defeats at home against Gillingham, Rotherham and Bury to name just three.

Also I believe the comments aimed at Facey were probably unjustified, he formed quite a partnership with Ashley Grimes and had he not got injured against Macc with a few games to go I suspect we’d have got the point we needed to stay up. Of course history will show he’s been a naughty boy since then, and doubts hang over him and Swaibu and their contribution to our demise but that’s another story altogether.

As for Joe Anderson, it completely passed me by that we’d faced him this season. That’s the size of the impression he made on the club!

TV Nightmares

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The Imps go into their game against Tranmere on Friday with very little left to play for other than pride. However despite the relevance of the game diminishing for us after a couple of bad results, the consequences of it could be felt for a long while afterwards.

Cast your mind back to October 15th 2007. Do you recall it? I remember it well as it was a time of great personal upheaval for me, and the night before I’d sought solace from my troubles in a televised Imps game against MK Dons. I wasn’t saved from my malaise though as we got properly thumped 4-0 in front of the watching nation. October 15th saw John Schofield fired after only signing a three year deal five months earlier.

I’ve already blogged about March 28th 2005, the night we entertained Scunthorpe United live on Sky. It was a blinding game that captured everything great about the Keith Alexander days. Yeo and Taylor Fletcher tore our enemies from Glumford Park apart and pushed us right into the automatic promotion race. It also pushed those players into the spotlight with opposition scouts not even needing to leave the comfort of their armchair. Taylor Fletcher was snapped up by Huddersfield and Yeo went to New Zealand in deals many speculated were linked to their performances on the box.

I can continue if you’d like? Imps v Cambridge on a miserable Friday the 13th in 1998 that ended in a 1-1 draw but did massive damage to City for the direct and aggressive style of play.  John Beck was heavily criticised on screen by Alan Brazil that evening and he was sacked shortly afterwards.

Of course being on the box isn’t always a curse. Back in the early 1990’s an FA Cup tie with Bolton Wanderers led to lots of exposure on Sky TV with Andy Gray even coming down to the Bank for a training session. For a sort while we were the darlings of the box, until another plucky underdog came along of course. We did lose the game 3-1 though, and since then success on TV has been hard to come by.

How about our first National League game against the then unknown quantity of Braintree Town? We didn’t even feel we should be in the league and they handed us a 1-0 defeat and a sharp taste of the reality of our situation.

In fact it is very hard to find any example of Lincoln City performing above expectations in recent years on the idiot box. Aside from the win over Scunthorpe and the televised play off games we’ve always failed to live up to the hype when the cameras come calling. I recall a 3-1 defeat by Fleetwood where the only positive to speak of was the fact Jamie Vardy failed to score. I recall being beaten by Luton 1-0 in the FA Cup, being beaten by Swindon at home at a crucial point in our automatic promotion push under John Schofield…. I can’t bear to go on because it’s bringing up really bad memories. Perhaps most recently and most painful was the wanton destruction of an out of form City by Grimsby this Christmas.

Lincoln last won here in 1950

Lincoln last won here in October 1950

What’s my point? My point is TV and Lincoln City do not go well together, and the signs for Fridays encounter are not good. Chris Moyses spoke this week of having offered contracts to all those that are going to get them, so players are not playing for their deals in this game. We don’t have a chance of the play offs now, but Tranmere do. They have home advantage and a cross to bear as we prevented them from entering the first round proper of the FA Cup for the first time in their history.

It gets worse too Imps fans. The commentators on the show are former Grimsby Town and Tranmere man Ronnie Moore and Paul Hurst. I suppose they could have got an ex Imp in, but why bother when there will be two on the pitch looking to score against their old club in Jeff Hughes and Gary Taylor Fletcher?

I almost forgot to mention that the last time Lincoln won at Prenton Park was October 1950, and the last time we scored more than one goal there was 1977. Just digest that for a moment, we haven’t won at Prenton Park since hanging has been abolished. History isn’t on our side, form isn’t on our side and the entire pundit panel are not on our side. What is on our side?

The omens do not look good despite the rhetoric from the club that the players have rediscovered their fight. Have they really? Was the lure of staying in the play off race not enough to fire that fight? Do we honestly feel that they couldn’t get themselves up for games with a meaning, but are more than ready to show the watching fans what they can do on TV? If they turn on a performance are we concerned that it’s because they’re in the shop window?

Of course I don’t believe our players are as mercenary as that, but lets say Bradley Wood has his usual barnstorming outing putting in tackles and getting about everywhere. Other teams don’t have to spend money sending someone to find it out, he’s right here on the telly doing it while they tuck into a nice korma with their missus and sip on a glass of vino. It’s the easiest scouting mission they’ll ever go on.

So please excuse me but I don’t relish us being on TV and I don’t see how anything mildly positive can come from televising the match on Friday. We know the season has petered out miserably, and now the watching world (I’m not sure on viewing numbers so forgive my terminology) can see it peter out in front of them. However if we turn it on and derail the Tranmere hopes it could mean a couple of our key players become coveted by other clubs. Chris Moyses said contracts have been offered, but as yet we’ve had no firm confirmation on to whom, nor whether they have actually been signed.

Forgive my negativity today, but it is actually born out of hope. I feel this squad are better placed for an assault on promotion than any since we’ve come down. I feel strides have been made in the last twelve months on and off the field to leave the club in stronger shape. The green shoots of recovery are there every time Jack Muldoon scores a goal, every time James Caton beats a player and every time Greg Tempest puts his body in between the ball and the opposition. I just feel we need it to be kept low key and under stated as much as possible.

So come Friday I’m afraid you won’t find me in front of the TV watching the game. I’ll be in a garden centre somewhere with my missus debating on which grasses will make a nice border for my new garden path. It doesn’t make me a bad fan, but I’ve been burned watching City on the box before and I’m damned if it’s going to happen to me again.

Too little, too late Mr Hearn

In the summer the signing of Liam Hearn was perhaps the one thing that really sparked my belief that we could get promoted this season. His goals would be invaluable in any push towards the top spot, or indeed a top five spot. You’d therefore think I would be delighted with news today that he’s turned down a couple of loan moves to fight for his place, instead I’m feeling very indifferent to it.

We can’t argue that his goals weren’t important in the first part of the season. When he played he looked lethal and his partnership with Rhead threatened to see us enjoy at least a two legged semi final at the end of the season. Then came that December afternoon when news broke of his loan to Barrow. I was gutted as many were, but unlike many I also vowed to welcome him back with open arms as those all important goals may be needed post January.

He returned around the same time that our form returned, but once again he found himself out of the side due to injury. This time however we didn’t fail to win a game. This time we started scoring a few goals from elsewhere.

The thing is today’s announcement is just too little, too late. Elsewhere on my blogs I talked about 2005 and the Toner / Richardson incident possibly costing us promotion to League One, and I feel the Liam Hearn incident may have cost us in the same way this season. During our eleven game winless run you have to feel that a fit Liam Hearn might have scored a few goals, maybe won us a few points. Just two wins in that spell would see us tucked in nicely for a play off spot.

Since the reshuffle up front we’ve thrived with ten points from twelve whilst the most natural finisher in our squad sits on the sidelines watching on. It’s March now with the final weeks of the season upon us and for the first time in a long while our match day squad looks quite strong without Liam Hearn. Our chances of the play offs no longer hinge on him firing on all cylinders or scoring a few goals because we’ve got James Caton and Jack Muldoon alongside Rhead. Liam Hearn has become a peripheral figure with no major part to play.

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James Caton represents a new breed of young and hungry players in the City squad

So had he decided in December to spurn a loan move perhaps it would have helped cement his status as a fans favourite. Instead he took another option and derailed our attack on the top of the table. Instead he mooched off to Barrow leaving us without that recognised player to sit next to Rhead. In my opinion that moment cost us a seasons work.

Today is no more than a token gesture, a last gasp chance to repair his relationship with the fans. A couple of goals in January were a good start but when injury reared its head again his chance was pretty much gone. Like a nasty break up we’ve learned to live without Liam, we’ve adapted and become a better team. Now he’s back he is nothing more than a reminder of what could have been.

Should he get on the bench in place of McDaid? Yes, probably. There’s no starting eleven place for him, but a team can always use a good goal scorer. The thing is now he is just somebody that we could utilise, not somebody we need to utilise. Robbie McDaid has fought for his place on the bench and it’d be grossly unfair to lose it now, but football isn’t about fair, it’s about winning games.

Whatever happens now Liam Hearn probably won’t be here next season, but rest assured he’ll find another club willing to pay his wages and try and keep him on track. His decision to turn down loan moves today is probably more of an attempt to shed his ‘troubled player’ tag than a desire to fight for his team. After all a desire to fight for a team is ingrained in you and evident for all to see (if you need an example see Bradley Wood) and despite a few goals Liam simply hasn’t shown it.

Next season I’d much rather see James Caton signed up than I would Liam Hearn. I support a player who I think can add to the squad, hence my stance in January. However I think that Liam has done as much as he can for us and for the rest of this season we should focus on those that are going to be here next season, a season which represents our best chance to get back in the league. A season where we’ll need player we know will fight for the cause and won’t go missing at crucial times. A season where our young squad can write their names into Lincoln City folklore, and a season where the only place you’ll see Liam Hearn is sprawled on the injury table at Barrow.

Liam Hearn

Liam Hearn probably injuring his groin warming up.

 

The last great Lincoln City side

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A great side has to actually achieve something to be called great. You may have a team packed with wonderful ability, but in order to receive recognition from fans as a great side you need something to show for it. The level of success really depends on the club as well, so for instance a great Chelsea side may win the Champions League but if they qualified for the League Two play offs then the side couldn’t be considered as great. However for a success starved team like Lincoln City I think an appearance at a National Stadium qualifies that team to be classed as great.

That’s why I’d like to take a few minutes to discuss the last great Lincoln City side, that of Keith Alexander’s Play Off Finalists in 2005. Arguably the culmination of the hard work that Keith had put in, this season more than any represented a real chance to progress to League One, and to do so with the best Lincoln City squad for over two decades.

I’m not going to talk you through the season, I’m merely going to tell you why I believe this team was a truly magnificent Lincoln City side. I’d like to draw your attention to a particular date, Monday 28th March 2005, almost 11 years ago.

That damp evening we took on our near rivals Scunthorpe United live on Sky Sports. We took The Iron apart with an exquisite opener inside thirty seconds and then we put it to bed ten minutes before the end with a sublime chip that Eric Cantona would have been proud of. There’s no surprise we did though, because the starting eleven was one to really fear.

In the sticks that night was Alan Marriott, as he was for most of the years we competed in League Two’s upper echelons. He was a great servant to the club and despite being small he was also a very good goalkeeper. He first earned the song of England’s Number One from the Stacey West end and he really deserved to pick up the League Two Keeper of the Year award at least twice in his Imps career.

The defence was so ridiculously strong it beggars belief. That’s not to say we didn’t concede goals, but looking at the names on paper that started that evening you’ll find a who’s who of good quality defenders. Kevin Sandwith is perhaps one that won’t stand out, but he was a competent full back with a great free kick in his repertoire. His team mates that day however were of a very high calibre: Jamie McCombe, Gareth McCauley, Ben Futcher and Paul Morgan.

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Jamie McCombe

If you stood McCombe, Futcher and McAuley on each other’s shoulders they’d stand somewhere around nineteen feet high, and two of them went on to prove themselves at a higher level. We know McAuley and McCombe went on to bigger and better things, and although Futcher plied his trade around as many of our rivals as he could he has to be acknowledged as a good player for Lincoln. However at the time I feel captain Paul Morgan was more important than any one of them.

In his prime Paul Morgan was a terrific defender. He had pace and a tough uncompromising style that made up where he lacked in inches. After in excess of 200 appearances for Lincoln he never made the step up to the next level, but at that time in 2005 he was the jewel in the defensive crown. He could read a game like you’re reading this and tackled with the ferocity of an earthquake.

The midfield was made up of Richard Butcher and Peter Gain, a somewhat iconic pairing for connoisseurs of Imps history. With the style the side played they tried to get the full backs forward and often bypass the middle of the park, but whatever went through the midfield tended to be crafted with guile and speed of thought. Much has been said of Richard Butcher since his tragic passing and I think his legendary status with Imps fans now further cements my proposal that this was the last great Lincoln City side. However at the side of him Peter Gain proved himself as one of my all time favourite Imps with some skill and creativity that should have graced the Championship.

Peter Gain, Lincoln City

Possibly the best Lincoln player I’ve seen

He also bagged over two hundred appearances at City, but struggled when he first arrived. Alan Buckley did his best to further his sons career at the expense of Gain on the left. In Buckleys first game Gain played a blinder against Mansfield, but suffered when left sided Adam Buckley came in and pinched his spot. That wasn’t all he pinched though, and soon Gain was able to command a regular place as Buckley trickled into obscurity. When Peter Gain was on song I don’t think there was ever a technically better player in a City shirt than him. He could drift around defenders and beat players with such wonderful grace. If he hit a ball properly then fifteen goalkeepers wouldn’t have kept it out. Like Butcher he was in his prime in 2005.

Up front that evening against the Iron was a certain Francis Green. He’d come in from Peterborough for a fee which pushed us out of the bracket of relegation fodder and cash strapped strugglers and into serious promotion contenders. He’d hit eight goals including winners against the university cities of Oxford and Cambridge away from home. However his strike partners had considerably more success.

Gary Taylor Fletcher was another who played Premier League football in a successful career. He scored the second against Scunthorpe, a sumptuous chip from a tight angle. He set up the opener and generally had been in the sort of form that would later see him play for Leicester, Blackpool and Huddersfield. He’d scored in the first five games but suffered a little through inconsistency during the season. However he ended with 11 goals and despite the erratic form has gone on to prove himself a top footballer.

Leading scorer that season was Simon Yeo who not only opening the scoring on the night but also notched twenty three goals in total. He hit a hat trick away at Grimsby Town to give us county bragging rights, as well as scoring against Boston to ensure we earned the right to be called Pride of Lincolnshire that season.

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A true legend

We defeated Scunthorpe with ease that evening in a performance that epitomised many games that season. We didn’t win every game and it wasn’t always great, but results like that weren’t rare. It wasn’t all plain sailing, but with just two months of the season to go we were touted as potential automatic promotion candidates. The other side around us feared Lincoln City and knew with two years experience in playoff situations we’d be a tough opponent, and that was if we didn’t go up automatically.

Of course history will tell you we didn’t make it, and history will give you an indication as to why. In 1976 the all conquering Division 4 side didn’t go on to greater things because Taylor left with a couple of players. Colin Murphy’s side of the early 1980’s didn’t push on because of Gilbert Blades passion for book balancing. In 2005 I can point to on significant moment that I feel cost us a chance to climb the leagues.

In February of 2005 the Imps had a strong looking squad, as well as the players I’ve mentioned they also had midfielder Ciaran Toner and forward Marcus Richardson. Both were squad players but both knew the league and had plenty to offer the team. Both would have walked into seventy percent of our rivals teams as well, meaning a well balanced and finely tuned squad. However by the time we played Scunthorpe neither were with us, Toner was at Cambridge and Richardson at Rochdale. Something occurred on the training ground in 2005 that resulted in both being farmed out immediately no matter what the cost to the clubs success. Rumours involved vandalism and racism but the facts were guarded very closely. The club simply got rid.

Fast forward to May 2005 and the play off final against Southend. Perhaps with both players in the squad we’d not even be there having potentially won a couple of crucial games in between, but that day the squad needed to be complete. We’d battled hard in Cardiff, but options from the bench were limited. Instead of the cultured Toner or the imposing Richardson we brought on Matt Bloomer, Lee Beevers and Derek Asamoah. Aside perhaps from Asamoah we were never likely to create anything positive with substations like those.

So maybe if Toner and Richardson hadn’t had their coming together then we could have gone up that season. I firmly believe it is one of the best Lincoln City sides I’ve had the pleasure of watching. I also believe had we been promoted Keith Alexander may have got his wish of signing a few new players, with Aaron McClean, Craig Mackail Smith and George Boyd on his radar. Who knows what might have happened?

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Two Lincoln greats cruelly snatched away from us. RIP.

2005 also saw the arrival of Steff Wright as chairman, a man who in 2011 said he appointed John Schofield because “The fans wanted a better quality of football than had been played under Keith Alexander and appointing John was definitely the right thing to do at the time,”

I didn’t. I was perfectly happy with playoff finals and mesmerising players like Taylor Fletcher and Peter Gain. I was perfectly happy with the resurgence the club experienced under Rob Bradleys stewardship. I was perfectly happy in 2005 because deep down I knew I was watching one of the true great Lincoln City sides.

I confidently predict that the next great Lincoln City side will be the one that wins promotion from the Conference and gets back into the football league. I also confidently predict it will happen at some point in the next few years. The club has suffered a massive fall from grace since 2005, with successive toothless play off failures and then successively bad seasons culminating in relegation. It’s been a long hard ride, but when I look back to 2005 I can’t help but think that when the good times do come back, they’re worth every second of suffering in between.

So why not visit YouTube, find the match I’m talking about and watch 6,000 fans witnessing a great Imps side dominating and taking apart their county rivals. Watch the true Pride of Lincolnshire that season score two great goals. Watch it again and again and remember that no matter how bad it has been, something like that may just be around the corner again.

Thing I Learned From Imps v Southport

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I often read a reoccurring article that appears on the Echo website which follows every Lincoln game. It’s usually entitled something like ‘five things we learned from the last game’ and obviously covers five things that we learned. From the last game. It’s well worth a read if you get the chance.

So today I’ve decided to tell you the five things I’ve learned from our home clash with Southport today. Just me though, you guys may already be aware of a couple of these, but bear in mind I can’t come every week.

One: Greg Tempest is actually a decent player. I know most of the Imps fans amongst you have been telling me this for a while, but I hadn’t seen it. My most recent game before today was Guiseley at home and in that game Tempest seemed to lose possession quite regularly and distribute poorly. However today I saw the side of him that has impressed other Imps fans and which has clearly impressed the management. Tempest was all over the park and broke up play on numerous occasions. He provides good cover for Power when the Irishman pushes forward, and also got back well whenever the Sandgrounders broke free. It was telling that when Chris Moyses wanted to introduce extra legs in midfield he chose to leave Greg Tempest on and take off Alan Power. To substitute your captain is a bold move and its kudos to Tempest that he remained on the field for the final minutes.

Two: Aside from score goals and irritate opposition, Matt Rhead doesn’t really do a great amount. I have seen Matt play a couple of times this season, and aside from the rich form in front of goal he’s not really one to run through walls for the team. He ambled about the park today barely getting off the ground for headers and never really breaking a sweat. There’s not a lot of running, and it’s his physicality that he tries to use to gain an advantage. He clearly frightens defenders and draws players too him as he is such a natural target man, but I didn’t one actually see him sprint today. This isn’t a dig at the big man though, because I spent 90 minutes telling my Dad what an asset he was. My Old Man doesn’t agree, he basically thinks Rhead is a liability. I’m going to take great pleasure in explaining why he isn’t.

Firstly it’s the 20 odd goals he’s scored this season. He could have had two today as well, one header especially. He may lumber about the pitch but he does have a knack of finding just the right spot at just the right time. His header this afternoon was technically very good, knocked down to the ground with a lot of power. Keepers hate headers like that and Rheady got into the right place and executed the correct technique, and it was unfortunate it bounced down and over the goal. His goal against Eastleigh a fortnight ago was technically superb, the spin and chip were once again executed to perfection. The fact is this boy can play, but he knows that his size and blatant physical approach also brings dividends. Defenders double up on him because if he gets the ball under control he’s incredibly hard to knock off it. While their attention is focused on him our other players are available to get in and around the box in much more. I’d liken him to a fat Matt Le Tissier of sorts.

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You’re wrong Dad – Matt Rhead is a good player.

Three: We don’t need Liam Hearn. I can’t believe I’ve said that out loud, I feel as if I’ve cheated on myself. I’ve been vocal all season about needing a top striker up there with Rhead, and at our level Liam Hearn is just that. When he left for Barrow I defended him and I truly felt he’d be a big player in the final few games as he’s a natural finisher who could have achieved so much in his career. However as he sat in the stands today watching on it must have dawned on him that getting back into this team is going to be incredibly hard. Muldoon looks very competent upfront, combative and quick but not intimidated by the rough and tumble defending. James Caton….. well I’m coming to him. Even the Leeds loanee Robbie McDaid finished stylishly to put himself in contention. It may be a bold call, but I can’t help but feel Liam Hearn has played his last game for the club.

Four: We may struggle to sign James Caton next season. He showed today that he’s a competent football player, and consistent performances may alert a lot of clubs to that fact. I called it wrong a couple of weeks ago when I suggested that Caton may drop inside and partner Rhead, but I was right about him being a missing part of the jigsaw. He delivers exactly what Muldoon did out wide (if not more) and allows Muldoon to take his place in Liam Hearn’s throne next to Matt Rhead. Defenders can’t double up on them both. If Matt Rhead isn’t enough to scare defenders we have an unknown quantity out wide that can beat players, deliver a ball and crucially finish a move off. He was man of the match for many people today, but he was about so much more than the two goals. He teased and taunted his full back all afternoon, and the more his name appears under ‘Lincoln City’ in the results section of the paper, the more league two clubs might think he’s worth a punt on a free next season.

Five: I learned this team is not that far away from being a real contender next season. We have to keep the bulk of the squad together as the more they gel as a unit the better they’ll become. I think we definitely need to bring Caton in on a contract next season if at all possible, and maybe another striker to replace McDaid who I suspect will not be back. Jamie McCombe has changed things dramatically at the back and today he showed a cool head at crucial times to break up Southport attacks. With a choice of defensive partners that many clubs in our league should envy we can only get stronger in defence. Lee Beevers is the only man who may provide a weak link as I think his age is showing and he hasn’t got the big game experience to lean on like McCombe has.

The middle of the park doesn’t look bad either. I’ve covered Tempest in this blog and my admiration for our Captain in another blog and today they really dominated the middle of the park. Alan Power is crucial to this push, but the likes of Craig Stanley are not going to be content with a mere squad place. If the side stays together then there’s competition for places in almost every position, and strong competition at that.

One thing I didn’t learn but already knew: Bradley Wood is a machine. I’ve mentioned him before but once again he was man of the match in my eyes. So many good moves in the first half started with him and Hawkridge linking up, and after he switched to midfield his tenacity and brute strength set up a goal. He is dogged and determined and I’d imagine as hard as a bag of old concrete. He’s a player that automatically endears himself to all Lincoln fans, even my Dad and I agree on the fact he’s nothing short of superb. I’ve likened him to Mark Bailey before, but seeing him properly in the middle of the park for the first time demonstrated he has so much to his game. I know a few Codheads who were gutted he left and were more gutted we’d signed him than Liam Hearn. I think that speaks volumes for a player whom I believe could play league football with Lincoln City.

The other thing I learned is to take my glasses to a match as for the first half I mixed up Caton and Hawkridge. My Dad thought it was great when he pointed out my error, which is why I feel happy in pointing out to him how wrong he is about Matt Rhead. You are wrong Dad, he’s essential to the success of the team, even if he isn’t as good as Percy Freeman (and no I won’t go and ask Peter Shilton like you suggested at half time).

Those eleven games without a win seem a long while ago now with ten points from twelve and a very faint glimpse of fifth place. I think the play offs are a step too far this season, but I have every confidence that if we retain 90% of this squad then we can have a real good go at reclaiming league football next season. The trouble is I’ve been saying ‘next season’ for all 29 years I’ve supported Lincoln City, and in almost every instance it has proven to be incorrect. However this time I might just be right, because this time my Dad actually agrees with me.

Captain Fantastic

This article appeared on my old blog originally on February 10th 2016

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A pre-beard Power

 

A few weeks ago I blogged about Jon Nolan’s move to Blunder Park and how I felt that he could be a massive asset to the Cods. I’ve been wrestling with my sanity ever since that outburst of positivity towards our rivals, and feel I need to redress the balance by talking passionately about a player that secretly Grimsby fans would love to see in a black and white shirt.

Firstly though I’d like you to cast your mind back to March 26th 1998, or if you’re too young then imagine it. Lincoln sign a young midfielder on loan from Nottingham Forest called John Finnigan, and in May move to make his loan deal permanent.

‘Finns’ as he was affectionately known played around 150 times for the Imps before departing for Cheltenham in 2002. He arguably played in the most successful team for a generation as we won automatic promotion to Division Two, and then in arguably one of the poorest sides as we were relegated and struggled back in the basement division. Finns was an accomplished footballer with a keen eye for a pass and a combative style that should have endeared him to Imps fans. However having featured in such a poor side under Westley, Stant and Buckley I feel he often gets overlooked, and had he played for us in the Keith play off days he’d be given the sort of welcome the likes of Yeo and the late Ricky Butcher used to get. Basically Finns should receive much more recognition, but suffered from being surrounded by very poor players in the main.

Fast forward to the present day. We languish in the doldrums having repeatedly failed to make any real inroads towards promotion. We have seen a succession of relatively poor managers wheel out a selection of incredibly poor players. However we also have a modern day John Finnigan who I fear may never get the recognition he deserves as a true Imps legend.

Alan Power is now closing in on 200 club appearances for Lincoln weighing in with almost 30 goals. He has the air of a proper footballer when he’s on the ball, always keen to spread play or pick out a pass, and he’s worn the captains armband for a majority of his stint in the red and white. He’s shown passion and commitment signing new deals and has offered a sort of stability since we’ve been in the non league. However I feel fans don’t fully appreciate his role and contribution to the cause.

I don’t attend as many games as I’d like due to (finally) putting my career ahead of my love of the Imps. However it is inevitable when I do attend a game I will hear at least one person berate Power for a poor pass or a run that ends in him losing the ball. ‘Fecks Sake Power’ is a regular comment that comes from somewhere behind me, and whilst that frustration is understandable at games I worry it may manifest itself into a blind fold, keeping fans from seeing his true worth.

I spoke briefly to a Grimsby fan today and as usual we had a bit of banter. I commented on them relying on Jon Nolan for a couple of goals and he didn’t realise he’d come from us! Once I confirmed he had been an Imp and had promise I likened him to Power as a ‘proper footballer’ but without consistency. As I did my fishy friend remarked ‘now there is a player I’d like Town to sign’ before he went on to tell me how much they’d like our bearded captain in his team. It wasn’t the first time a codhead had told me that, and it struck me that I hear more praise for Power from Grimsby fans than I do Lincoln fans.

Some might point to his occasionally lack of consistency, but the harsh facts are that if he was consistent he wouldn’t still be with us. With his ability and football brain I fear he could play League Two with relative ease, and perhaps the odd lapse in concentration is a reason he hasn’t. Perhaps him settling in Lincoln is a reason he hasn’t. Whatever it is we are incredibly lucky to have him playing for us.

Matt Rhead might get the plaudits up top, and we can talk about McCombes return or Muldoons form in the context of this season, but we must not forget that every manager we’ve had has started building his team using the brick of Alan Power in the middle of the park. For all his running and all his passion he hasn’t been able to single handedly carry us back in the league, but without our captain I fear we could have found ourselves in Stockports position long before now.

Last season he cut a forlorn figure at the end of the campaign, surrounded by a Jon Nolan and a Sean Newton who didn’t seem to have it in them to fight. He looked frustrated and off form, and my interpretation is he was angry. He was angry because he cares and he wants to be the man who captains us back into the league. Being surrounded by players who don’t care affected him badly.

This season whenever I’ve seen us I’ve always noted Power and his energy in the centre of the park. He does a lot of work that people don’t often see, starting moves and spreading the play. Granted he loses the ball on occasion, but more often than not if he plays well then the team as a whole play well.

So next time he misplaces a pass or misses a penalty I think we should all remember that he is still here fighting for the cause, he’s still here being lauded by fans of other clubs and he’s still here adding to those appearances week in and week out. In fact if he is still here when we do finally reach the promise land of the Football League he could well find himself mentioned in the breath as such legends as Richard Butcher, Dennis Booth or Lee Frecklington. My real fear is that he won’t get that chance to write his name in the history books, and fans will simply recall him in the same way they recall Finns; a decent player in several relatively poor City teams.

Who’s on the move in the Premier League?

This article appeared on my old blog originally on 9th February 2016

The English top flight this year has perhaps been the most entertaining for a neutral since the inception of the Premier League. The big story is Leicester City, but as you move down the table all sorts of other sub plots are developing. The question is will it simply be a one off, or are we witnessing the start of a new order amongst England’s Elite?

Let’s start at the top with Leicester City. I won’t talk about what they’ve already achieved this season because anyone reading this should already have a good grasp of where they are. However with the run in they have Leicester City have to now be favourites for the Premier League title. I never thought I’d type that sentence. After their Valentine’s Day crunch match with Arsenal they don’t really face anybody of serious note through to the end of the season. Man Utd and Chelsea are on the list, but given their recent form I think points are there for the taking. Let this sink in: Leicester City are favourites for the Premier League title.

I’ve read lots of condescending articles about how they’ve done it or asking if they can see it out, and before their excellent win in Manchester very few people expected the challenge to last. It doesn’t matter how ‘bad’ Man City supposedly were, the Foxes did them in their own back yard with a degree of style and panache. They don’t play a possession game, they seem content to soak up the pressure and attack at speed on the break. Mahrez has been inspirational and at £400,000 has to be one of the biggest bargains of all time. He is living proof that a £49m transfer fee won’t buy you success, but hard work will go some way to bringing it your way, and his guile has helped them sustain a challenge.

However with the likes of Vardy and Drinkwater also shining there has to be a late selection headache for Roy Hodgson ahead of the Euro’s. Will he go with the old guard, or can he usher in a brave new world with the players currently doing it week in, week out in the top division. Who knows?

For my money the race for the title is a two horse race, and the second horse is the constantly under achieving Tottenham Hotspur. They have two season defining games in the league, namely against Man City this weekend and then Arsenal on March 5th. Both games must yeild something if they’re to keep the pressure on.  They do have a slight psychological advantage in having already beaten Leicester this season but have the big disadvantage of still fighting in the Europa League and FA Cup. I’m fairly sure Pochettino would prefer to win the league than the other two competitions, but with a larger squad at his disposal I think clever management could see them push on at least two fronts. Much rests on them turning up for their two big games and keeping the pressure on.

I suspect that you can write Arsenal and Man City off. City have really scored a massive own goal announcing the arrival of Pep Guardiola and I think that showed in their recent defeat to Leicester. Pellergini can talk all he wants about remaining focused but football is like any business and in my business when a manager is leaving the team take their eye off the ball. I boldly predict a defeat against Spurs and further dropped points against Man Utd and Liverpool will see them too far behind to catch the other two up. A May 5th clash with Arsenal will be more likely to secure a Champions League spot than anything.

Speaking of Arsenal they have seemingly once again shied away from taking advantage of a great position. After bringing in Petr Cech I thought Wenger had finally spotted the weaknesses in his team and was moving to fill them. After securing a world class keeper he now needed a commanding midfield player and another striker, but instead he reverted to type and ignored the glaringly obvious need for two key players. Giroud is doing relatively well, but as a sole striker for a team battling in three competitions I think the load will be a burden later on. Clashes with Arsenal and Man City are vital but I think a step too far with the injuries they have. Sanchez hasn’t looked a sharp since returning and the Gunners look a little shy in front of goal.

So two teams who haven’t broke the bank climb the league with players who arrived with small reputations or emerged from youth ranks. Mahrez and Vardy didn’t cost £1.5m between them, and Dele Ali and Harry Kane look like England internationals for many years to come. The fact that three of those four are England players bodes well for us in the summer.

From next season though the riches available to every single club in the Premier League almost sets a level playing field when it comes to player recruitment. . The fact I haven’t mentioned Chelsea up until now gives you an insight into how much this year’s competition has changed from recent years, and once next season dawns the smaller teams with potential can utilise a war chest like never before. I think Stoke have rolled the dice early and invested some cash into ensuring they are there to take their slice, and this transfer window Newcastle United did exactly the same thing.

Moving to Newcastle and it was some surprise they really went for broke in January, especially after Mike Ashley was criticised in previous seasons for not investing. However Ashley knows his apples when it comes to making a buck, and after being sent packing from Rangers he knows Newcastle are his only hope for carrying the Sports Direct brand forward. They have to stay in the Premier League and signing the likes of Townsend and Shelvey shows they have every intention of doing so. It remains to be seen if Ashley cashes out once the big bucks start rolling in though, and my gut feeling is his might just do that.

The bottom of the Premier league poses a real danger this season, far more than ever before. The potential loss of a meal ticket once that money starts rolling in. In 1992 Luton Town and Notts County just missed out on the riches of the Premier League and were relegated from the old First Division, and neither have featured in top flight since. They missed out on Skys millions and plummeted into football wilderness. That lost revenue was crucial, and with no parachute payments they both struggled. The year after Palace, Forest and Middlesbrough all came down and all have tasted Premier League football since thanks to the money they got.

So this season could be a really defining one for the teams slipping out of the top flight, and I fear immensely for Aston Villa. They’ve left themselves a mountain to climb and I can’t see the quality or consistency there to put a run together. Norwich City have encountered a dangerous run of poor form and sloppy football though, and they too will do well to turn things around between now and May.

I think for Bournemouth it is far more crucial than for anyone that they stick around long enough to get some of that cash. As the smallest of the Premier League sides they perhaps need that money much more than most, and to drop out now could be catastrophic for them in the coming years. They’re there on merit and certainly haven’t been shamed but of all the teams in the Premier League I think they have a real capacity to sink down the divisions in the style of Notts County and Luton almost 25 years ago.

I won’t be drawn on whether it will happen though. That third relegation spot can throw up a few surprises and I imagine they’ll have to battle with Sunderland and WBA for it. I’m confident however that Newcastle and Swansea will stay up as I think both have the form and the players to preserve their status and ensure that the big bucks start rolling in.

So come May it may well be that Leicester or Spurs could finally write another name on the list of Premier League winners. I just sincerely hope that when England take to the pitch against Russia on June 11th that the players that put them there are given their chance to shine.

The returning hero and a potential plan B

This article appeared originally on my old blog on February 4th 2016

This weekend just gone I had the delight of attending Sincil Bank as Poacher once again, and as predicted it was a great occasion for me. Believe me whether there’s just over 2,000 or a full house I will never be able to truly replicate that moment when I can turn on the pitch and look up at the Sincil Bank stand (whatever it’s called now) and see the Imps faithful looking back. I’ll never tire of it.

However I haven’t put finger to keyboard in order to wax lyrical about how much I love performing as Poacher. I’ve decided to throw a few thoughts out there regarding the performance and where I see City going from here.

I’ve been quoted in today’s Echo regarding Jamie McCombe returning to the club and I thought I’d expand on why it is now clearly a good thing. I’d been worried perhaps he’d lack pace or the organisational skills required to do the job we need him to do, but my fears were unfounded. When Jamie strode out onto the pitch he carried the aura of a returning hero. Sure we never won anything while he was here but we competed with everyone in our league and he has an air of competition about him. I could see in Jamie’s eyes he isn’t here to wind down, and for us that has to be a good thing. With a young and quick centre half next to him any lack of pace can be compensated.

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Jamie returned and organised things well at the back.

Much was made of his return by the goal scorer Chris Bush, brought in from the cold to great effect. I’m sure for a player such as Bush having Jamie next to him is a big boost and in his post match interview he echoed that sentiment. However I suspect perhaps he needs to make the most of his moment in the limelight.

I think his goal and the following headlines masked what was a good but not spectacular return to the team. I thought he was average at centre half, eager but perhaps a little naive. He let the ball bounce on a couple of occasions and the Guiseley forward Hurst did look like he would have the beating of him on a better day. It was the first recent outing for Bush, but one I fear could be a rarity for him. Both Callum Howe and Luke Waterfall are better players in my eyes, and we only have one centre half spot up for grabs now. Much has been said about the lack of competition up front, but at the back it’s going to be a brutal battle for a spot next to Jamie. Unfortunately one good Conference centre half is going to warm the bench, and a third is barely going to get a sniff. I look forward to seeing the Banter page tear itself apart when Chris selects one player and the fans think another should be there. Whilst competition for places is healthy it can also be destructive for those who don’t make the cut.

One really positive thing I noted was the display of Bradley Wood. I thought he was man of the match by a mile, his energy and desire matched anything I’ve seen in a City shirt in the last thirty years. For a former cod to run through walls for the red and white like Bradley does is both refreshing and a testament to a player that (in my humble opinion) will be the next Tom Miller and soon secure a move to a league club. His performance in what was (let’s be frank) a relatively dire game was reminiscent of Mark Bailey, one of my personal favourites from the last two decades. I think we should prepare ourselves for a summer raid.

Much has been made of the lack of options we have up front, but with Rhead on the bench I think the lads on the field gave Chris some food for thought. Both Hawkridge and Muldoon had energetic if not fruitful games, and young James Caton put in a good shift on his debut. I think the return of Jamie McCombe overshadowed what was a very good debut from the former Shrewsbury man, and he was incredibly unlucky not to open his account. However he has featured as a centre forward in his career and he looked to have the awareness that could make him emerge as a central figure in and around Matt Rhead.

Moving on to Rhead, one Banter poster was met with mass derision when he suggested dropping him recently. It was claimed to drop our leading scorer would be foolish, but I think the win over Guiseley highlighted that it wasn’t such a bad premise. With him missing there was more urgency to have the ball on the deck, and although the three wingers on the pitch looked unfamiliar with their roles I think they did enough to give fans and hopefully the boss some food for thought. In the first half we got a lot of balls into the box but nobody could stick their head on the ball. Matt Rhead would have done, but when he’s on the pitch it travels much more directly to him. Opposition can easily mark a centre forward receiving the ball down the centre, but would it be as easy marking him when the ball is delivered into the box from out wide? If we could get the player behind him in the box as well there would be all sorts of questions to be answered by the opposition defence.

It’s almost a shame we can’t face Altrincham and Southport before Eastleigh visit us because there are some interesting options that the boss could try out ahead of the big test. I do fear for Saturday because Eastleigh are a good side who are likely to give Jamie and whoever he partners a very torrid time. However they might just try and double up on Matt Rhead and not be quite as concerned about James Caton or Jack Muldoon. Perhaps if instead of lumping to the big man we spread the play out wide we’d catch them unaware – they may set up to defend against the predictable Lincoln. If the wide players can keep delivering balls into the box and someone gets up there with Rhead I almost guarantee we’d score a goal or two.

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Could James Caton be a secret weapon?

I think that’s where we could have some real success, by introducing a second element and approach to our play. Back under John Schofield the first six months were scintillating, we played football of the highest order. Teams found us out around Christmas and instead of reverting to a plan B we were beaten time and time again, eventually failing in the play offs. If we’d started to go a bit more direct when teams had come expecting us to pass it around the park we may have experienced some joy, but we were one dimensional. We have the same situation now, if Eastleigh didn’t know what to expect perhaps we’d be harder to beat. Even if we got sussed out after twenty minutes and they had to change it, we’d disrupt their play and they’d be concentrating more on what we were doing than on their own game. I suspect that contributed in the Guiseley win. They expected to mark Rhead out the game and hit us on the break with one up front. We didn’t and it wasn’t until they changed that they really had anything to say in the game. They had to worry what we were doing and that detracted from their own plans. By then we were 1-0 up and the match was almost in the bag. The change with Rhead wasn’t intentional but at the same time it may have actually unearthed the golden nugget we’ve been looking for: unpredictability.

So although I have lamented those who say what they feel the line up should be, I am now going to throw it out there. Perhaps with Hawkridge and Muldoon out wide and Caton sat just behind Rhead we could finally get some joy via a plan B. Some of the balls into the box were begging to be hit by the big man, and those that fell away from him could be gobbled up by the nippy frame of James Caton. If Eastleigh go twos up on Matt Rhead it might draw their full backs in a bit, and we could get chances to deliver from out wide. I’m sure that by simply switching for one or two matches we take teams by surprise and sneak a couple of results. Seven points from nine could be achievable and we’d be unbeaten in four with the eleven game monkey firmly off our backs.

Jamie McCombe: A great signing but be aware

This article originally appeared on my old blog on January 28th 2016

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My outstanding memory of Jamie McCombe at Lincoln comes from a 2-2 draw with Boston way back almost a decade ago. He’d scored one for us and we were two one up. My non Imps hero Paul Gascoigne then landed a free kick on Jason Lees head to make it 2-2, and neither McCombe or Futcher were in sight.

I was gutted and like a short sighted fan lamented our two big defenders that day. I should have given him credit for scoring and keeping the big lad shackled for as long as he could, but in my mid twenties I could be a fickle character.

However when I saw rumours of McCombe coming back to City I was overjoyed, purely for the memories it evoked. Play off finals, coveted players throughout our squad and a defence that didn’t often leak stupid goals. McCombe was part of a very good Lincoln side in the mid noughties and to see him in a City shirt could only be a good thing, especially when you consider the goals we’ve been leaking.

There’s no doubt it’s a coup of sorts. He’s played most his football League One or Championship level and he’s tested himself against some very good centre forwards. Indeed it’s only this season he’s dropped into the basement division in league football and he’s made 13 starts for Stevenage. On paper his signing has to be applauded.

Now I have no doubt he’ll be a good influence at City. Stevenage fans had questioned whether he was going through the motions there, but here you’ll be guaranteed to see him fight for the shirt. He had a couple of very good seasons under Big Keith and I imagine he recalls the time fondly. He left Scunthorpe unable to really break into the team, and left us with a big reputation. To a degree Lincoln City were the team that made him, and he’s unlikely to come here for an easy ride.

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Can he change the Imps defensive fortunes?

It’s good to see that almost everybody is happy to see him return, including both sides of the widening Moyses Mafia debate. It’s a bit of a marquee signing really, something Imps fans perhaps wouldn’t have dared speculate. We need a centre half which he is and perhaps even more we need a lift which a signing like him gives us. Where Gary Simpson returned I’m sure we beat Southport in his first game purely on emotion, the atmosphere was so positive. I remember when Richard Butcher came back and made his second Imps debut in a friendly against Ferencvaros. Him merely being back at Sincil Bank made me smile inside. Positivity breeds success, and positivity starts on the terraces.

However as one reader of my blog succinctly put it, I live in the real world and although I’m really pleased at him coming back there are two things I’d like to point out.

At 33 he isn’t going to have the same pace as ten years ago. He may still have that physicality that he always had, and a strength in the air but he is going to be a split second slower. Now I haven’t seen much of him recently, but it could go two ways. He could lack pace in the same way Jamie Forrester did, he could have adapted his game to compensate for it. Forrester couldn’t run far when he signed for us, but he didn’t have to because he’d learned to read the game. He took the first few steps moments in advance of any break, knowing exactly where he needed to be and understanding he needed to be halfway there when it happened. McCombe could of course come back and handled his loss of pace like Kingsley Black. When he signed he’d made no adjustment to his game and because of that he looked lost and broken. I loved Black at Luton as a kid but when he signed for us he looked fat and utterly useless.

The second point is concerned with what we need at the back. We need a leader and an organiser who can direct our young and hungry defenders into their positions. We almost need a defensive leader, not necessarily a team captain but a defensive captain. We need a player with the calmness and vision of Paul Morgan. We all remember him right? Irelands Bobby Moore, arguably the best centre back to play for City in near on 20 years? He could play a bit but he organised his defence like a corporal in the army. He told Simon Weaver when to go and when to hold, he told Ben Futcher which way we were kicking and he told Jamie McCombe to push out at the right time. He was the organiser of our defence, not Jamie McCombe. McCombe was the young Luke Waterfall figure with potential but in need of a teacher. I saw no evidence here of Jamie’s organisational capabilities.

Imps fans are having a tough time right now. Some blame the manager, some blame the chairman and other more reasonable amongst us blame Steve Tilson. We languish in what we consider to be the doldrums of non league football. We yearn for away trips to Northampton and a spot on the football league show. We agonise over big wins and then lament persistent silly defeats. We’re like an hormonal beast waiting to turn on a sixpence with unpredictable anger and vitriol We’re an emotional lot (basically) and this delight at capturing an old hero could turn to dismay in just 90 minutes. One minute he’s the returning hero, the next he’s a has been and has sullied his reputation. I just wanted to point out the potential pitfalls before we all think he’s leading us into the play offs and onto the promised land of a Tuesday night trip to Dagenham.

The thing it this was 10 years ago I really last saw him play any football. If he’d lost his pace then he probably wouldn’t have played 49 times for Doncaster, or even as many as 13 for Stevenage. He also may not have organised our defence back in 2005, but ten years later he has a lot of relatively big game experience and I’m sure his signing will be a good thing.

There is a post script to this that I’m sure many have missed. In signing for one and a half years I think the manager is sending a very strong message out to those who think he might quit. He’s saying very plainly that this project is work in progress and he has every intention of seeing the job out. Most of our managers have signed players for six months for them to either go in the shop window or scurrying out of the back door. Chris is picking up deals that see us well into next season, which barring a miracle will be another in the National League. I don’t think it will be a disaster if we are, we have six months to get in the winning mentality and give the players more time to gel as a unit. We’re not that far away and for a player with McCombes experience and CV to drop to the National League surely proves that.