Turning Heads (Episode 6: A Lincoln Legend)

Sometimes in football, quality is beaten by confidence. Overridden by faith.

“I don’t know what to do Kev” I exclaim exhaustingly. “Picking Harrison for this game could be a turning point for his confidence but Palmer’s the only one scoring goals. I want to play more defensive but not invite too much pressure. But we’ve been winning games and playing well, should I even bother changing it?”

Batesy looks down at his feet and back up at the whiteboard that looks like its been violently ambushed by the marker pen bandit. We both stare in silence for a minute and as I’m internally debating how to tell the lads in a manner that seems professional and tactical to ‘do whatever you want’, Kev leaps up and wipes the board clean.

“Right the formation we play, 4-2-3-1, was your idea right? I asked for 4-1-4-1 but you wanted to play attacking. Why don’t we just make us both happy and take yours and just rearrange the numbers?” He draws a double-sided arrow from the 2nd number to the 4th number. 4-1-3-2.

“Think about it: We play with the one holding midfielder, sitting in front of the defence. Probably Woody cause he’s happy to do that, you know Woody. We keep the width and pace with wide men but we don’t play with an attacking midfielder, just a box-to-box in the middle. Ellis can’t hack that just yet so Freckles is your man, he can do the running. Then the best part is two strikers: Palmer, the man in form, the strength, the height. And Harrison next to him, knows you still have belief and trust him. We play on the counter, use the pace of Rowe, Harrison, Stewart. If we play this right, we’ll be in with a fair chance.”

Sitting back, eyes flickering between the board and my face, Kev looks like he’s the footballing equivalent of Einstein or Newton when in reality, all he’s done is change two numbers in our formation around. But, on the other hand, it’s absolutely fucking brilliant. I grab the sweat-drenched hand of a panting Kevin Bates and congratulate him. He’s now first team coach/assistant manager.

Game day arrives and the two boys up front seem happy to be playing together, having a strike partner. We play our strongest and most experienced back four. Brighton are playing our usual formation of 4-2-3-1 with Pascal Gross and Davy Propper starting. Glenn Murray, a personal hero of mine, isn’t picked with Sam Baldock leading the line instead. The pre-game team talk I give could rival William Wallace for the most motivational speech given to a group and everybody is fired up. We’re ready, we’re up for it. We’re going the jugular.

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Sometimes in football, quality is beaten by confidence. Overridden by faith. And after the 12th minute, it was as evident as it’ll ever be. Good defensive work from Wilson and Gergo to dispossess Izquierdo begins the move. Woody plays it forward for Rowe who puts it into the space on the right for Palmer to run into. He backheels it and changes his run. Rowe plays another ball over the top which Goldson misreads it and his poor touch allows Palmer to seal him out. He squares it back to Harrison who almost puts a ball shaped hole in the back of the net with a venomous strike. He celebrates with the whole team and the smile on his face suggests this a huge confidence booster. The strikers linked up well there and the counter attack was quick and deadly. 1-0.

5 minutes later, the tables turn and Brighton are on the front foot. Bozhikov intercepts a dangerous low cross which would have left Baldock open from 6 yards with a great last ditch slide. Our counter breaks down after Propper gets a touch on a Rowe pass to re-direct it to Goldson. Propper architects a great passing move through the entirety of our half which finishes with Henrik Bjordal testing Allsop with a stinging strike. He gets a strong hand up and parries it to Izquierdo who can only head into the side netting.

10 minutes of constant Brighton pushing and desperate defending, Eardley clears up to Woody. The relentless pressure has left the Brighton line unusually high, getting sucked towards to action. This leaves Harrison to play on the shoulder and Woody spots the run and pings it forward. Harrison nods it down and takes another touch before smashing a shot round the diving keeper to make it 2-0. He couldn’t score for over 300 minutes and he’s managed to score twice in the space of 15. Hopefully, this can kick-start a turnaround in his league goal scoring too.

It’s only another couple minutes until we’re shot back down to earth when Izquierdo links up with Baldock on the left. The former plays an inch perfect curling pass round Freckles, behind the defence which Propper runs in to hit hard and low in off the post. It’s an amazing finish to make it 2-1 as the composure and ability to keep that down and on target is outstanding. Izquierdo’s ball is just as good and that’s how Premier League quality can punish you.

Harrison almost completes his hat-trick when good build up results in a desperate Palmer swing. The keeper can’t hold it and Harrison slides in to meet the rebound but it’s a yard away. Speaking of being punished however, Wilson drags out of the back line to tackle Baldock who hits a great reverse ball into the gap for Izquierdo. Luckily, he puts his chipped effort well wide. No news for the remainder of the half but I give Wilson a bit of a bollocking at half time for leaving the line that had been disciplined until then. Apart from that, we’ve played well on the counter, put bodies on the line and managed to score twice. Let’s keep it up shall we?

The intensity of the first half doesn’t make a return in the second half as it’s the 67th minute before another effort on goal. A great challenge from Gergo stops a Brighton attack but the loose ball is picked up by Kayal. He whips it in to Propper who side foots a volley too close to Allsop for him to comfortably catch. Four minutes on, Harrison plays a great ball for Rowe on the right hand side. He holds it up and crosses it back post for Harrison who nods wide with a diving header. That’s the last action from Rowe as Anderson comes on. A few minutes later, Pett and Wharton come on for Freckles and Stewart. Pett goes out on the left and Wharton in at centre back. Wilson pushes forward to holding midfield with Woody, who’s been the best player on the pitch by far, finishing the game in the middle of the pitch.

The game ticks over into it’s last five minutes and it’s fair to say that every time Brighton get the ball, my arse clenches more and more. Woody and Anderson play it between them to let the rest of the team organise. Anderson switches the play to Pett who’s free on the left. Palmer is beaten to the far post cross but the clearance isn’t a good one. It falls to Woody who calmly passes on the volley to Anderson. He sets himself and hits an outside the boot half-volley round Goldson which manages to get the curve it needs to squeeze in the right side of the post. Sincil Bank can finally breath and begin the deafening celebrations.  3-1 really puts the game to bed but just in case, we put all 11 men behind the ball and see it out. We advance to third round and Harrison is back in the goals. Woody is MOTM with 2 assists and he contributed all over the pitch. But, Harrison’s beaming grin as he passes me down the tunnel is the best part of the night.

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As with the last round, cup upsets are ripe and in season. Barnet beat Villa 2-1 at Villa Park while Forest Green emerged victorious over Nottingham Forest to be crowned Kings of the Forest by the media. Thank god, it’s not Jungle Green or else there would be a copyright claim. Coventry nick a 1-0 against Everton and Exeter beat Liverpool 4-3 on pens after holding out for a 1-1 draw. Unfortunately, there’s still a lot of big sides in the cup with Man United and Spurs winning tonight.

Some brilliant news off the pitch too as the next day, I receive a phone call to tell me Vasil has been called up for the Bulgaria national squad. As much as I’m happy for him, I’m slightly surprised Freckles hasn’t been picked for the Ireland squad as he’s been on another level. Maybe when we’re in a higher league he’ll get the call-up.

I’ve been so involved in my own business, I haven’t paid attention to the transfer market as much as I normally do and there’s been some big deals as we come into the final week of the window. Wilfried Zaha’s made a move to Southampton for 40 million pounds, a sign of big intent from them. Riyad Mahrez has finally got the move he’s been wanting and he’s moved to Barcelona of all places for a fee just shy of 60 million pounds. With Messi, Suarez, Dembele and Coutinho up front, I don’t know how much game time he’ll get but each to their own. The biggest move of the window so far is Thomas Lemar finally joining Arsenal for a whopping 70 million pounds. The steal of the window for me is Burnley signing Callum Wilson for 12 million. He’s a player I’d love to have one day but him and Chris Wood will link up very well for Sean Dyche.

Our next game is the last before the window closes and I’d like to get this game out the way to focus on bringing one more signing in before deadline day. I ask the chairman about bringing in another loan signing but we already have four which is more than he would like. It’s probably better to bring permanent signings in to avoid needing 4 or 5 players when they return to their parent clubs.

Our final match of August is against Carlisle and we have a lengthy journey up North as we’re away from home. I start Anderson over Rowe after his late Brighton goal impressed enough to get a start today. Vasil has played plenty of games now so I decide to give Wharton a start. I know that Vasil won’t be available for the next game as he’ll be away with Bulgaria but I want Wharton to build some more trust between us with a good performance. It’s a full strength side otherwise.

After just two minutes, the Carlisle defense hasn’t woke up as Woody plays it to Harrison. He uses his instep to knock it round his man with pace and hits a good effort  down low. The keeper saves and Stewart’s rebound cross is too close to the 6 yard box for the keeper to collect. The remainder of the half is pretty quiet until there’s just 3 minutes of normal time left. Gergo overlaps and has a free run towards the box. He opts to cross early into the path of Green who hits a curling volley into the top right. It’s not in the very top right but the technique to curl that round the arm of the keeper with a good amount of power is stunning. We go in 1-0 up with Sincil Bank bouncing.

20 minutes into the second half, Rowe comes on for Stewart and gets underway with a great give and go with Green. It’s whipped in for Green to power a header towards the top left but the keeper does well to save acrobatically and keep hold of it. In the 82nd minute, Pett and Sam Ham come on for Eardley and Green. Carlisle have been timid today but I know a thing or two about undeserved goals so I tell the team to push for another. 3 minutes later, Gergo crosses early again from the right hand side and Harrison meets it with a powerful header. It’s too central but the keeper can’t control the power and parries it. Rowe follows up with a volley from a tight angle but hits the outside of the near post. We keep possession comfortably and collect another three points. It’s not the best game to watch but another win is never a bad thing. It was a moment of brilliance from Gergo and Matt that won us the game and Gergo’s contribution is recognised in the papers as he picks up a 9.5 rating. He was outstanding at both ends today.

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With the last few days of the window to focus on, I call up my scouts and look around at what they’ve found me. Over in Germany, Dylan Hughes has found a few young talents. A couple 19 year olds don’t want to talk as they have only just signed professional contracts with their current club but Dylan recommends someone who is eager to talk. Tarek Chahed: a 21 year old German who can play on either wing or as a number 10. I negotiate F.C Magdeburg, his 3.Liga side, down from 500k to a 375k deal with 15% of any future sell on fee. I fly over to meet Tarek and his agent as I really want to seal this deal. With limited funds however, a day of talks collapses as we couldn’t quite offer his wages with the bonuses he was wanting to receive. It’s frustrating as Dylan really backed him being a strong part of our side.

Once I return to Lincoln, I realise bringing somebody else in who can improve the squad is gonna be a big ask without any real funding. I decide to exercise a recall option in our only outwards loan and bring Billy Knott back from Rochdale. It costs 30k to bring him back but it’s a lot cheaper than a brand new signing. Billy is a 24 year old centre midfielder who can play in an advanced role and standing at 5’8, he’ll play further forward to avoid physical battles.

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Considering I’ve saved a few quid, I use the remainder of our funds to tie up a 3 year contract for Cameron Stewart. We agree on 6.2k a week with a 70k signing on fee. Apart from Stewart, there’s a lot of fringe players out of contract at the end of this year. They’ll have a couple chances to prove themselves over the season in order to be offered a new contract but a couple will probably just free up some more of the wage budget. The day before deadline day, Shrewsbury offer a massive 820k for Woody. It’s big money but I have to reject it as he’s integral to the squad. Bostwick’s injury only makes my decision easier.

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On deadline day, there’s a few big deals that come through. Nathaniel Clyne moves to AC Milan for £26’000’000 while Martin Kelly jumps on the English abroad bandwagon by getting a move to Freiburg. The tiny magician that is Giovinco returns to Europe after a £31’500’000 bid from Leipzig. I would have liked him to join a more respectable side but him and Timo Werner up top is a pace-filled dream. Barca sign yet another winger as Brahimi joins from Porto for £38’000’000. That’s Messi, Coutinho, Dembele, Mahrez and Brahimi all competing for two places now. Well Messi doesn’t have to prove his worth but the other four are gonna have a battle for gametime.

After deadline day passes, George Kelly comes to my office. He tells me about Ethan Lewis, a 15 year old he’s been scouting for the last couple months. He insists I sign him up to the youth squad and his persistance tells me he must be worth it. A 5’8 left footed attacking midfielder who looks very promising. I oblige and he agrees to be a Lincoln player while continuing to play for his current side. I don’t want to rush him to become a first team player as it could just halt his development so I’m happy to let him play and come through at his own pace.

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In a piece of amazing news, Gergo Lovrenscics has won the EFL League 2 Player of the Month. After collecting 3 clean sheets and 1 assist while consistently performing at a high intensity, he is recognised. He’s over the moon and frankly, I am too. I’m happy his ability and work rate has been highlighted and rewarded in the most flattering way. Well in Gergo.

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Personal achievements aside, we have 9 games in the next month starting from the 3rd. As well as the 3rd round of the Carabao Cup against Exeter, we have the first round of the Checkatrade Trophy against Morecambe. Amongst our 7 league games are some big match-ups against the likes of Luton, Notts County and Stevenage who are in and around us in the table. It’s not gonna be an easy month but looking at my squad and the results we’ve already had, we’re more than capable. Onwards and upwards.

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