Rollercoaster (Episode 10: A Lincoln Legend)

This month’s been a perfect example of football. Highs and lows all rolled into one.

After our win over Forest Green, the Lincolnshire Live publishes a double page spread dedicated to the performances of the squad since I took the reins. And if I do say so myself, it’s flattering yet accurate reading.

“You’re gonna love this one Kev: ‘ Connor Shep and Kevin Bates had cooperatively orchestrated masterclass after masterclass in front of record crowds at Sincil Bank. And while the players are deservedly having their praises sung, it’s these two, hand-in-hand, welcoming a whole new era to Lincoln City under their rule. And for the sake of everyone involved, long may it prosper.” Kev jokingly jumps to his feet and salutes before inching back down holding his back with a regretful expression on his face. The interesting part, something I hadn’t paid that much attention too, is the statistical side of our team.

Eardley and Freckles are the closest things to everpresents in our starting eleven with both holding 24 appearances since the start of pre-season. There’s a only a few players actually over 20 appearances and considering we’re playing three competitions, that’s a compliment to our strength in depth.

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Our goal scoring has been mainly split between 5 or 6 players with Harrison and Palmer leading the charge as our two strikers. Despite signing Harrison to score goals in the league, he’s chipped in at a much higher rate in the cup. Somewhat ironically, he has made up for his lack of goals in the league by assisting other players. Ollie Palmer however defines prolific as he’s scored 5 in 6 league games while directly contributing to 13 in 15 games over the course of the season. He’s currently sat in 3rd place for top goal scorer but he’s tied with 12 other players. Alessandra from Notts County has scored 8, one of those being the first goal in our meeting earlier this season. I’m confident that a few good games could see Ollie catch up.

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Josh Vickers is definitely in line for the golden glove with a 7 clean sheets in 7 starts. He also has the most clean sheets in the cup with another 100% record (3 out of 3). He has a section dedicated to him entirely which tips him to be a Championship quality keeper before long. Hopefully that’s not an omen for what could happen in the transfer window but we’ll have to see.

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In terms of the cup, Harrison is tied 2nd in the top scorers behind Antonsson of Blackburn who has notched up 4. As Blackburn aren’t in the competition, Ellis has a decent chance of catching up and grabbing the golden boot which would be an amazing feat. Ollie Palmer is top of the assist chart, setting up 3 goals so far. After processing all of these stats and seeing the progression from a majority of my players, it’s truly astounding to see how this first third of the season is presented to outsiders. I leave the office that day with a spring in my step and the spread ripped from the paper, ready to be framed.

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There will not be many times in my career where I pursue personal accolades but winning October Manager of the Month with a perfect record would be amazing. The final game before the end of the month and a much appreciated week and a half break is hosting Crawley Town. They are doing pretty well, sitting around the playoff spots but a win is what I want. Nothing less today.

Scott Wharton gets a start at the back while I give Elliott Whitehouse his debut under my management next to Woody. Pett plays on the left as Stewart picked up an injury in training midweek. It’s not a major one but the medical staff advised I rest him to avoid aggravating anything. Ollie Palmer starts with Woody holding the captain’s armband.

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We’ve had a knack for early chances and goals in recent weeks and this game is no different. Palmer is beaten in the air for an Eardley cross but the loose ball finds Woody. He runs into space on the right before dinking inside for Palmer. It bounces awkwardly right under him and he can only hit his half volley a yard over the bar. Crawley take a page out of our book though as they create a chance themselves within the first 10. Smith has the time and space to thread a ball into the box for Ahearne-Grant who fakes back and lays off for Josh Payne. He runs in and hits a powerful low shot which curls away from Vickers into the bottom right. It’s a great finish to be fair, a finish worthy of taking away Vickers’ 100% record inbetween the posts. As seen from our own performances, 1-0 in the opening act of a game can help spearhead a great result. We go attacking to try to stop momentum from building.

On the 16th minute, a great Palmer ball over the top catches the defense out. Pett whips it back post but the Rowe header is well over. It’s only a few minutes later when the scorer of the goal Payne sends Whitehouse to the shops on the far corner of the box. He crosses a ball into the middle for Ahearne-Grant who beats Wilson in the air and loops a header past Vickers. This is surely our worst start in a game all season. We need to show grit and steel, qualities that in all honesty we haven’t had to show that much until now.

Another twenty minutes pass as the game dies down a bit. Eardley pulls out one of his signature switches to Rowe who climbs high to nod it down to Palmer on the edge. He sets himself before hitting a strike straight at the keeper. As the 2 minutes of added time are shown on the fourth assistant’s board, Rowe cuts inside as he crosses into their half and plays a perfect ball behind a complacent Crawley back line. Pett nods it forward before crossing to the edge of the six yard box. Ollie Palmer beats Connolly due to his running leap and powers it right over the keeper’s shoulder to get us back in the game. He picks up the ball and runs back to the centre spot to get the game started again. As soon as Crawley pass back from kick off, the whistle blows regardless and considering the start we had, 2-1 isn’t a bad half time result. Danny Rowe asks to be taken off as he’s already shattered due to the string of successive games. I wholly understand and tell Anderson he’ll start the second half.

The first chance of the second half is a Crawley one as Palmer hooks a free kick away over his head. Woody heads his clearance into his man and Ahearne-Grant is inches away from his brace with a first time volley 20 yards out. In the 61st minute, Ahearne-Grant is played in behind and Wharton comes in with an outstanding last ditch challenge to prevent a 1 on 1. Only a few seconds letter, Gergo tries to replicate it himself but mis-times it and picks up a yellow. We haven’t carried on from the first half at all and I decide to try something completely new. I take off Pett and change to a 5-2-3 with full backs encouraged to push up. Woody ticks another box in his positional checklist with him playing as a sweeper in front of the centre backs. Knott comes into the middle with Green coming off. Harrison goes onto the left hand side. This a bold, bold move. If it comes off, I’m a tactical mastermind but if it doesn’t, I’m a rookie manager who panicked.

My new formation slows down Crawley’s game but in turn, slows down the whole game as there’s no chances until the 83rd minute when I tell the lads to go all out attack. Evina has a low shot saved well by Vickers who pushes it round his post for a corner. Roberts takes it and Vickers comes to claim the cross but completely misreads it. It goes over his hands onto the head of Verheydt who luckily rattles the crossbar. It’s cleared by Gergo to Harrison but the move collapses.

And so does the game as it finishes 2-1. We try to break through in the final minutes but to no avail. It’s a frankly disappointing loss when taking our chances into consideration. Vickers had a questionable game as he let the only two on target efforts into his net which is uncharacteristic to say the least.

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In better news however, Gergo and Ellis Harrison get called up to their national teams, Hungary and Wales. Gergo is slowly becoming a regular in that Hungary side but this is Ellis’ first call up to the senior team. He’s in with the likes of Bale, Ramsey and Vokes and even if he doesn’t get any game time, they should get him trained well and their quality could rub off on him.

Our sweep of the Player of the Month awards is foiled when Lewis Alessandra is given the award for November. I finish 2nd in the voting for Manager of the Month behind Kevin Nolan as Notts County take both awards home. I’m not too disheartened however as I’m too focused on rebounding against Fleetwood away from home in the Checkatrade trophy. I train the lads hard over the next 9 days to make sure we’re ready.  Matt Green starts as the lone striker after he scored two in the first game of the competition. Knott plays behind him with loanee Williams coming back for the competition. Sam Ham is back in the team, Wharton keeps his place after being a light in the dark against Crawley. Allsop comes back in goals with a chance to impress me following a poor performance from Vickers.

 

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We start on the front foot with a fair bit of intensity to our game. Unfortunately, it’s cruelly punished when Matt Green wins a header with a powerful leap but lands awkwardly and stays down. He’s stretchered off and Ollie Palmer replaces. Another injury isn’t ideal but with Knott, Pett and even Stewart able to play behind the striker, it’s one I can cope with.

In the 17th minute, Woody wins the ball and gives it to Williams to start the counter. He passes up to Rowe who gives to Palmer first time. He waits and plays a through ball for Rowe on the overlap. He uses a heavy touch to lose Jones before executing a perfectly weighted chip over the keeper into the top left hand corner. Delightful.

As the half hour mark arrives, Fleetwood have their first chance as Grant receives it on the edge with Vasil jockeying. A pass back to Madden who hits first time with some venom. A heroic block from Wharton denies them an equaliser but it’s passed around on the edge of the box until Grant has space. He sidefoots an effort towards the right hand side of the goal but it hits Wharton’s head after Allsop has already committed and dived. It loops up and falls on top of the crossbar before going out for a corner. The corner comes to nothing and we go in 1-0 up at half time.

Fleetwood come out fired up and attack us for the first 10 minutes. This leaves their defence far forward after an attack so Knott can play into acres of spaces for Rowe. He runs to the box and crosses back for Palmer who chests to control and scissor kicks a volley. A good save is pushed out for a corner but we can’t capitalise from it. In the 66th minute, Fleetwood string a good passing move together which leaves Grant open at the back post. Sam Ham comes in and gets his foot in front on the shot to deflect it over the crossbar. Stewart comes on for Williams who is on a yellow as well as seeming quite tired. A couple blocked efforts after the corner come to a close when Grant puts his shot from 20 yards wide of the goal.

With 15 minutes of normal time left, Palmer flicks a goal kick out wide for Rowe. He plays great ball over for Knott on the volley. He controls well but blasts his shot well over. That’s the last action from Rowe as Pett comes on to replace him. Five minutes later, Palmer replicates the header but this time out to other side for Stewart. He plays Palmer through who slots Knott in first time. He hits a low shot across goal but it’s parried away for a defender to clear. Desperate clearances and aerial dominance help us see the game out in the last 10 minutes and we advance into the area semi-finals. Billy Grant was unlucky today as he had a fair few chances for Fleetwood. Danny Rowe picks up Man of the Match which inspires me to have a good word with him. He’s been so consistent this season and is making me debate a move for him permanently after his loan expires.

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I can’t celebrate the result too much as Matt Green has knackered a joint in his knee and is out until end of January/start of February. He should be back a similar time to Bostwick so roll on February.

With Green out the picture, that’s 4 players missing from our return to league fixtures against Crewe due to either international duty or injuries. Notts County have jumped back into second after our loss but they’re only 2 points ahead so don’t write us off just yet. Crewe are sitting in 5th place, 7 points behind ourselves so a win would help push the rest of the pack down. Vickers is back in goal with the Wilson and Vasil partnership also returning. Pett comes in behind Palmer as he seems to play better in that role despite being a winger. He will be even more of a prominent feature after Green’s injury so playing him in his stronger position make sense to me.

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There’s a couple efforts for both side in the first 15 minutes, but nothing too exciting. However, in the 19th minute, Freckles collects a bad pass from the opposition and passes up to Pett. He flicks the ball round his man out wide for Stewart who pings it forward for Palmer down the left. He runs it up to the box before cutting back and trying a little chip forward for Stewart to head home. He’s asking way too much from a 5’6 lad as Raynes headers away. It’s only as far as Palmer who hits a waist height volley (for him at least) round into the bottom right. It’s an exquisite finish and he celebrates by pointing at his thigh in front of the Crewe fans. Ahh, the rustling returns.

5 minutes pass before another chance when Stewart is played down the line by Sam Ham. He crosses first time to Rowe who heads across goal but the keeper catches comfortably. Not long after, Pett lays off Palmer inside the D but he just misses the top right with a finessed effort. First 45 finish with us 1-0 up thanks to another Ollie Palmer finish.

We keep it up in the second half when a Rowe ball over to the top has too much on it for Palmer. Ray doesn’t realise Palmer is right behind him when he passes sideways straight into him. The ball bounces forward at an awkward height for him to volley a few yards over the joining of the post and crossbar. Just a minute later, a sideways passing move gives Stewart space to run into. He whips it front post for Pett to meet with his head but it’s well over.

The quick, fluent passing continues in the 60th minute, this time Rowe is the one with the space to run into and cross. The near post header by Palmer hits the side netting as Long replaces Sam Ham. 12 minutes later, Williams gets his first league showing when he and Anderson replace Stewart and Rowe retrospectively.

Jordan has an instant impact when his cross is punched out to Woody who volleys just wide of an open goal from 25 yards. The last chance of the game comes when Crewe are piling forward for an equaliser. Woody intercepts a pass and it bounces to Williams. He plays it straight over for Palmer who has a free run at goal from the halfway line. He gets to within 12 yards before releasing a shot but a great save from Garrett denies him. Ollie manages to keep it in play and smacks it central for Pett who lays it off to Woody. He gives it back to Pett after he’s moved forward before finding Anderson who flicks it out to Palmer. He changes direction with his first touch inside before rattling the near post with a thunderous strike. Inches away from the very top corner but the keeper may have had it covered. The whistle blows to give us 3 points in a game we dominated. Crewe only had one shot all game for fuck sake.

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There’s some good results for us elsewhere in the league as Luton and Forest Green both lose their fixtures which brings Luton closer and forces Forest further down the table. Notts County don’t drop points however which closes the gap between 1st place Luton and ourselves in 3rd to 4 points. There’s a couple games worth of cushion between us and 4th place too. The table is set up for us to push on and confirm back to back promotions, maybe even titles.

In the two weeks that finish November and start December, we have three cups games in a row with the big fixture against United in the Carabao Cup first. We travel to Scunthorpe in the FA Round 2 fixture and continue our road trip down to the south coast with Portsmouth away in the Checkatrade semi-final. With those cup games taken into account, we have 7 games in the next 3 weeks so rotation is needed. However, all our league games are against lower league opponents with the highest placed team currently being Yeovil sat in 16th.

Our first game in this packed period is against bottom of the table Coventry. Despite their recent cup run alongside us, their league form has dropped heavily. 34 year old Jamie McCombe asks for a game at the back. I’m hesitant at first because he is ridiculously slow but he’s done the rounds in the lower leagues so his knowledge could be useful. Ellis Harrison off the back of scoring his first international goal against South Africa requests to be back in the lineup. After seeing how fired up he is in training, I happily oblige. Allsop comes back to the side with our other international Gergo Lovrenscics also returning. Chapman and Freckles start in the middle.

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As is the story with most of our games, 5 minutes is all it takes for our first chance after Chapman gets in the way of an Eardley switch. He makes up for it as he manages to find Gergo before being tackled. The advantage is played as Gergo passes to Harrison inside with a fast ping. He controls well and hits a fierce shot but the goalkeeper does well to stop ball finding top corner. The resulting corner is met by Harrison but it’s easy for the keeper. 12 minutes in, Coventry have firmly packed themselves behind the ball. We pass around the edge of the box patiently until Pett has space to strike. It is blocked and the deflection takes it Harrison who volleys it into the side netting.

We’re rewarded with a set piece when Chapman and Rowe combine on the right hand side and Rowe kicks the ball off his marker to win us a corner. Freckles puts it to the penalty spot where Vasil flicks it back post for Jamie McCombe to react and tap in from 2 yards out. I look on in disbelief as he runs over the the corner flag before being piled on by his teammates. This is what football is about.

We go looking for a second not long after the restart when a counter attack from a Coventry corner is finished with Pett playing Harrison through. He out paces the defender but blasts over from 8 yards. We keep pushing though as the 30th minute is gifted with a Harrison strike from 25 yards out that moves all over but smacks the crossbar. Clearly some confidence from his Wales debut in that strike.

Coventry try to work their way back into the game when a poor Gergo back-pass goes out for a corner. It’s headed away at the near post by Eardley but only as far as McDonald. He sets up Doyle for a half volley but he laces it well wide. We show them who’s in control when Stewart uses a bit of skill to beat his man before releasing Harrison down the left hand touchline. He finds Rowe with a good cross inside but the header from Rowe is tame and easy for the keeper.

Coventry push for a goal when Jones gets played down the right hand side. He puts a good ball into the danger area and Chapman slides in to block or clear. He misses it but it rolls through to Gergo who smacks it upfield. Before I can even calm down my breathing, the ref blows his whistle and points to the spot. I look over to Kev who has the same expression of anger and confusion on his face. I calmly walk over to the fourth official and ask why he’s awarded a penalty. He holds his hand to his ear and tells me the goalkeeper rushed out and took him down. The only thing is Allsop sprawled out sideways, not facing the man, to try block the shot and Liam Kelly just ran into him. I manage to turn away and take a step before I begin my rant to the sub bench. The opportunity was dead by the time the impact was made, there was no intent as Allsop didn’t even see the man. You name it, I shout it loud enough to be in the earshot of fans on the far side. I’m absolutely fuming as Kelly steps up to spot. He waits, takes a step back and hits it down to Allsop’s right. He dives the right way and the right height but somehow doesn’t get a hand to it. My evergrowing tab of stationery supplies is extended when I break my clipboard over my knee and lob my pen over the stand behind me. Fuck this game.

Right before half-time, I’ve just about calmed down when Stewart is through on goal. Jones comes in to muscle him off balance and the moment after Cameron pulls the trigger, he swipes his legs to take him down. I jump up with most of the stadium screaming the referee’s name. He jogs back as the effort was saved down low. No penalty. I begin laughing in a manic stuttering manner, my mouth agape. I walk down the tunnel before the half finishes and boos echo round the stadium. Fuck this ref.

We’re very much up for it after my rage-filled half time talk when Chapman wins a header from a clearance. Pett and Harrison link up with Pett pulling a through ball Ozil would be proud of out his arse to give Stewart a clear chance. Of course he hits it directly at the keeper who saves with his leg. The next five minutes emphasise our frustration when both Ellis and Stewart are cautioned. Clarke-Harris chests down a free kick behind him after Chapman also picks up a card. Vasil slides to clear and takes out Beavon with his trailing arm in the process. Now any sane man would see that was incidental, no intent there at all. But oh no, not the man in all black. He blows for a free kick and, wait for it, shows Vasil a red card. At this point, I’m livid. And as I have nothing left to throw, I start screaming at the ref. He comes over and has a stern word with me which I end with “If you knew how to do your job, we wouldn’t have this conversation.” Looking back, I’m surprised he didn’t send me to the stands for that but maybe he knew he was having a shocker. I bring on Wharton for Chapman and play with one holding midfielder. Knott comes on for Pett.

Coventry start pushing and in the 66th minute, Kelly hits a great shot wide from the right hand side of the box. A few minutes later, Sam Ham comes on for goalscorer McCombe. Neither team can break through in the final 20 minutes and the game finishes one a piece. This game is definitely 2 points dropped, not one point gained. A trigger happy referee has truly ruined this game. My complaint to the FA is writing itself at this point.

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*Meta Note: For some reason, after clicking advance after this game, FIFA froze. Music played, the loading symbol continued but I was stuck on a screen of FT results for a good 20 minutes before I gave in. It’s frustrating as this game was one of the more erm, intense games so far but it’s EA what do you expect?  To make up for it, I simulated the game until it finished with as a 1-1 draw. I won’t play Vasil for the next game to simulate his red card. I’m mainly upset that McCombe’s goal doesn’t stand!*

This month’s been a perfect example of football. Highs and lows all rolled into one with the fuck up of a Coventry game tying it together. The lads know how much I beat myself up after a result like that. Almost as if it was a tactic to cheer me up at the training ground, Gergo comes out in press and heaps praise on me. My man management, tactical know how, personality, dress sense, smell. Everything. None of that works until he signs off the conference with one simple sentence.

“The faith he put into me does not compare to the faith I have and the squad has in Shep.”

 

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