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