Separation (Episode 12: A Lincoln Legend)

What a bloody turnaround. We’re not even fucking half an hour in.

Over my short spell as a full-time football manager, there’s not been much space to breath. In between pushing for promotion and a cup run, I’ve had no time to myself. Our run in for the next month is a perfect example of that and sometimes, you just want to sit back with a Chinese and re-watch a sitcom you’ve already seen each episode of three times. Just as I finish my food and put my recliner to use, there’s a unwelcome knock on the door. 9:27pm on a weeknight. I’m hoping it’s the Chinese with my free prawn crackers they forgot but no. It’s an even more surprising sight (if you could believe that) as it’s Michael Antkowiak. He came all the way here just to ask me to start in the next game. The poor lad is obviously freezing and quite damp. I invite him in and offer him a drink from my concerningly large array of whiskeys, bourbons and other high volume spirits. He reluctantly accepts, I’m guessing he thought it was some sort of fucked up test. We sit and drink and talk. It’s worrying that most of my man management is with a crystal glass in my hand but if it gets my players playing like they do, surely I’m doing something right.

By the time game day rolls around, Michael is buzzing to see his name on the team sheet. He starts in goal against an Accrington Stanley who having a distinctly average season so far. Esposito starts over Rowe on the right with Harrison remaining up front after brace last week.

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First chance of the game is an Accrington one as 7 minutes in, Billy Kee is played in with just Vasil to beat. He twists and turns to lose him before blasting wide from 8 yards. We were let off there so I tell the lads to constantly press in an attempt to get a foothold in the game. It’s pretty much in the midfield for the next 25 minutes until Valerio receives a pass from Harrison with only the wing back to beat. He isn’t closed down so he continues to push up before slotting it back to Ellis. Donacien comes to close him down, leaving Pett open in behind. He controls and knocks it round the keeper into the bottom right. 1-0.

A couple minutes before half time, Woody tries to play a through ball but it is cut out. Ellis revives the move by muscling the ball back to him and giving it to Pett. He plays further to Stewart who hits a shot from inside the D but a quick reaction save pushes it out for a corner. Freckles puts it back post for Vasil but he heads it over the pack in the middle. Harrison is on the touchline to stop a goal kick and nods it back over the bunch for Vasil to power a header off the keeper’s thigh and into the goal. His first goal for the club isn’t the prettiest but not every defender can score bullet headers for fun like Wilson, can they?

The second half takes a while to get going with the first chance of this half also falling to Accrington Stanley in the 66th minute. Tilney pings a 30 yard low driven pass into the box for Jackson who has to hit it first time. He can’t control the speed and get enough of a connection however and it goes well wide. Rowe replaces Esposito immediately after.

Four minutes later, Pett runs down the left with Stewart’s dummy run fooling the defense. He cuts back and passes to Freckles who plays it into Harrison’s feet. After a quick turn, his sweet strike flies into the top right. It’s a brilliant goal to put the game to bed as Knott comes on for Stewart. In the 77th minute, Knott picks up the loose ball after Freckles is hit with a hard tackle and runs at the back line. He gets to within 20 yards of the goal before forcing a good save to the keepers right. Freckles is hobbling slightly as he gets to his feet so I bring Chapman on in his place.

The game is quiet from then on and the game comes to a close with Wilson putting in a proper tackle to stop a break and a chance to take our clean sheet away. We win 3-0 and it’s a positive performance after Stanley started and defended well in the first half hour. Vasil is awarded Man of the Match despite Harrison having a goal and 2 assists but he’s quite happy to see Vasil claim the award.

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With Notts County losing 3-2 at home to Grimsby, our win puts us 5 points clear and Luton 7 points. We’re really making the gap between us and the rest of the table a big one. Our next trip is a long one, all the way down to Wales in fact to play guest to Newport. From this point onwards, we only have a week gap between two of our next 9 fixtures until the end of January.

Balancing fitness is gonna be a vital part of maintaining form across the next month so Wharton and Long come in to rest Eardley and Wilson. Chapman plays next to Freckles and Rowe doesn’t travel with Anderson starting and Esposito on the bench. Ollie Palmer is the main man up front.

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Quarter of an hour has passed when Stewart is fouled and wins a free kick in a good position. He takes the free kick and it’s a decent one that forces a good save. It takes another fifteen minutes for another opportunity, this time for the hosts. They work the ball forward well until Nouble has half a yard of space to shoot. Vickers pulls out a truly world class save to push it away from the very top right corner. It’s a dull half from then on with no real chances for us. I ask the lads to attack in the second half to try a nick a win here.

It doesn’t take long for us to show our intent when Palmer is playing in behind. He’s never outpacing the defenders so he runs as far as he can before holding it up to play a give and go with Pett. Ollie’s low shot is parried out for a corner which Wharton almost gives us the lead from with a decent header just wide. In the 53rd minute, Chapman finds Anderson in space just outside the box but he can’t get the ball out of his feet properly so his effort is a poor one.

10 minutes later, another Palmer shot is saved but it’s worked back into the box by Chapman. Pett wins the header but it’s blocked for a corner that comes to nothing. We finally get a clear cut chance when Anderson hits a hard driven pass to Palmer. His touch is awful but as the defender collects, Pett steals it back and finds himself 1-on-1 with the keeper. He can’t keep his cool as he blasts his shot both wide and over. He really should be putting that home. Esposito replaces Stewart to try and rescue us another 1-0 win.

With 15 minutes of the 90 left, Labadie receives it in the centre and Vasil is dragged in. He takes it round him and passes to Nouble who shoots towards the far post. Vickers dives to save but Anderson runs in and deflects it towards the near post. It’s a tense moment as it slowly rolls off the post and out for a corner. After I gather my breath, I signal for Pett to come off and Knott to come on. In the 88th minute, Freckles wins a 50/50 and picks out Palmer. He runs it up the pitch and gives it to Knott in the box. His touch takes it behind him and he tries a strange chipped, slightly curling shot with his back to goal that is only inches wide. Harrison comes on for Anderson but there isn’t another chance for him to find us a goal as the match ends as a bore draw. Luckily, both Luton and Notts County drew their fixtures so we haven’t dropped any points in that sense. A draw was definitely the fair result today.

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We have a training session on Christmas Eve which I cut short to surprise the lads with an early Christmas Dinner. They’re all very appreciative and even have a present or two for me. A decent bottle of red and a printed T-shirt that reads “I should have been a player but I’m stuck managing these” with a squad picture below. It stings slightly but it’s all light hearted fun. I send the lads all home to their families before I start making the drive back up North to see my own family. I don’t know why I pick the hottest day of the year and Christmas Eve as the days to make long distance drives but hey ho.

Stevenage are the first team we play for the second time in the league in our Boxing Day fixture and also, our first chance to take six points from one team. Harrison is back up front with Rowe, Knott and Esposito completing a fresh attacking four. Woody returns with Allsop starting in net.

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7 minutes in, a poor cross from Valerio is headed back out to him. He finds Woody 35 yards out who decides against a shot and passes to Freckles. He lays it off to Knott who also chooses to pass, this time inside to Danny Rowe who touches forward and whilst running across/away from goal, hits a shot into the top right. Lovely finish from someone who’s slowly becoming my second favourite player in this team. 1-0.

Only three minutes later, Rowe starts another move by stealing the ball and giving it back to Woody. It’s played into Knott who’s just inside the opposition half. He plays quick 1-2 to knock it round his man and darts into the box. He stops and sinks a ball over to the back post where Harrison sets himself for an outstanding overhead kick towards the bottom left. An unreal save by the keeper is the only thing that denies Harrison the best goal of his career.

We have a couple amazing sweeping tackles from Valerio and Wilson to stop goal scoring chances between the 20th and 25th minute, something both the fans and I love dearly. In the 31st minute, we’re growing in confidence as quick passing leaves Harrison free to cut in and try to find the bottom left but it’s too central and easily caught. There’s one last chance before half-time when Esposito and Knott play head tennis in the middle. Valerio brings it down after the fourth pass and slots an inch perfect pass through for Ellis with a left footed toe punt. He’s got all the time and space he needs to find the back of the net but he bottles it and places it 2-3 yards wide. He really lost his composure there, a chance you’d expect your “star” striker to put away with ease.

He’s desperate to make up for it in the second half when he turns the right back and plays a delightful ball over for Knott. He should put his laces through it and volley home but he tries to square it past the keeper for Valerio to tap in. I see the idea but Esposito doesn’t continue his run for some reason and it’s cleared. There’s a couple efforts blocked after poor clearances for the next minute but no other big chances like that. In the 64th minute, Harrison and Woody link up with Ellis smashing over on the half volley.

The 70th minute is introduced with a late tackle from Sam Ham earning him a yellow card and earning Stevenage a free kick out wide. An Anderson and Chapman double sub is made before it’s put into the box and Vickers is called into action to stop a Sam Ham own goal from tying the scoreline up. A few minutes later, Rowe and Bowditch have a great battle for a good 60 yards on the left hand side with Rowe losing him enough to cross into Harrison. He tries to loop it over the keeper but he doesn’t have to back-peddle to far to claim it.

In the 78th minute, a Harrison ball over for Anderson leaves him to cross it in. The first attempt is blocked but the second time of asking is a deep one to the back post where Rowe runs in and twats a volley across the goal. The keeper somehow gets a hand to it to flick it onto the post before it’s hoofed out for a throw. Long comes on for Sam Ham to try and see this game out.

In the 86th minute, Martin plays a perfect cross for the waiting Goddard who leaps and heads goalwards at the far post. A good save from Allsop shows his reactions but I think it was going just wide anyways. In the last minute of normal time, a Woody cross finds Rowe but he headers it down into the ground and the ball loses it’s momentum and goes out for a goal kick that turns out to be the last kick of the game. It’s a solid win but we really could have scored more and finished it earlier.

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The card Sam Ham picked up was the 5th time he’s been cautioned in the league this season so he has to miss our final game of December against Forest Green. It’s kind of a blessing is disguise however as it means he’ll be fully fit for the Luton game on New Year’s Day. Some even better news is Gergo rejoining training the day before the Forest game. The medical staff say it’ll be another fortnight before he’s 100% but hopefully, he’ll be fit for the first leg of the Tottenham tie.

The Forest game falls on ‘New Years Eve’ eve with only one day rest before we travel to Luton. Forest have slightly dropped since our cup tie a couple months back, currently sitting in 11th, but it’s still a massive game that we need to win to put pressure on Luton before our game with them. Palmer is leading the line with Anderson replacing Rowe from last time out. Wharton and Long take up the right side of our back four with Eardley playing on the left due to the absence of suspended Habergham.

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The first goal comes just 4 minutes in when we fail to clear a corner and Forest knock it around the edge on the box. Marsh-Brown takes it onto his left and hits a perfect upper 90 strike through Freckles legs. It’s truly an unsaveable shot despite the slight lack of power due to how accurate it is. As we are 1-0 down early doors, I ask them to attack from kick off and get back into the game ASAP.

It’s only takes three minutes for us to come back with a strong response. Valerio and Knott push forward, constantly switching who has the ball. Knott finally passes to Palmer who does well to control, drag the ball from behind him and hit from underneath his body into the top right. He grabs the ball from inside the net and gestures to everybody to calm down with his spare hand. Even stevens. In the 12th minute, Woody bullies Clements off the ball about 25 yards out and passes in to Palmer. He times a ball roll to perfection as he rounds the committed challenge of his man, knocks it onto his left and finesses it into the back of the net. In the space of five minutes, Ollie Palmer had single-handedly turned this game around. Unbelievable Geoff.

We don’t let up the pressure however as Woody receives a ball over the top from Wilson in the 18th minute and carries it into their half. He sees Palmer making the run down the right wing and threads the ball in for him. He gets past Rawson and runs into the box. He cleverly changes direction just as Collins commits and their knees collide sending Palmer to the ground. The penalty decision is a quick and easy one and gives Palmer a chance not only for a hat-trick and the match ball, but also to gain some big ground on the golden boot pursuit. We haven’t been lucky when it comes to penalties this season but Ollie hits an emphatic penalty into the joining of the net and sends Sincil Bank into raptures as it ripples into the top right. What a bloody turnaround. We’re not even fucking half an hour in.

On the stroke of half time, Anderson dinks a ball into the box for Palmer who looks offside but there’s no flag. His header is tame and Forest take it straight up other end. An uncovincing Wilson clearance goes to Doidge who passes in to Marsh-Brown. He does well to get a strong shot off which Vickers parries for a corner. Clements whips it near post for Doidge who flicks it over Vickers in off the far post. It’s awarded as an Eardley own goal as it was going wide at near post until a very close range deflection from Eardley took it in at far post. It’s a harsh decision on both Doidge and Eardley but regardless, the goal stands and we go in 3-2 at half-time. This is a bloody great great game for the neutral fan but it’s too close for me. More goals our way in the second half please.

No letting up in the action as Eardley plays ball over slide of Gray for Anderson in the 48th minute. The advantage is played well by the ref and a great ball in for Palmer to volley flies just over the bar. 10 minutes later, Doidge squares a pass inside for Osbourne who has his first time shot blocked well by the shin of Anderson. Stewart replaces Valerio who has been quiet today.

The next 10 minutes are hectic when Eardley intercepts a pass and the ball falls kindly for Knott. The Forest back line is spread out far too much leaving a huge gap for a ball to be played into and Palmer to run onto. He runs all the way with nobody within 5 yards of him before smashing it into the top left. Another goal for Palmer to take his tally for the season to 12. The assist is the last action from Knott as I bring on Pett straight after the goal.

Forest Green come back five minutes later as Marsh-Brown pushes forward with Woody reluctant to commit. He steps off him ever so slightly allowing him space to play Reece Brown in behind. He nips in front of Wilson to tuck it into the bottom right and make the scoreline 4-3 with 25 minutes to go. A couple minutes later, Palmer can’t quite reach an Anderson cross fully but manages to flick an effort towards goal. It’s well saved down the keepers right but we attack again from the kick upfield as Pett plays in Palmer slightly left of centre. He opens his body and finds the bottom right for his fifth of the day but the assistant ref has his flag held up for offside.

It’s non stop action as in the 75th minute, Palmer backheels a pass to Stewart who plays Pett through first time. Rawson gets a foot in before he can shoot but a few awkward bounces as Rawson falls over with his momentum leaves Pett open to finish from close range. After the 8th goal (not counting disallowed strikes) goes in, Chapman comes on for Eardley and Woody fills in at left back for the remaining 15. There’s no more chances as the game finishes 5-3. Palmer is over the moon as he collects the match ball and walks off to huge applause from both sets of fans. This has to be in contention for game of the season, brilliant end to end stuff throughout.

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As I mentioned, Palmer has 12 goals after that goalfest which puts him in tied 3rd place, 4 goals behind Alessandra. Just need another replay of that game and he’ll be all caught up.

This is probably the first New Years Eve since I was 13 where I don’t touch any alcohol. Tomorrow’s game is too important to even consider it. It’s also the start of the January transfer window and over the last couple months, I’ve had a little checklist of players my scouts have been watching. Seeming as we have a game the next day, most of the squad are invited round Bostwick’s house to see in 2018. Around 10 o’clock, I spot Elliott Whitehouse sneaking out the front door so I chase after him.

“Elliott mate, where you going? It’s only 10 you have to stay for midnight?” He opens his boot and takes off his shirt and throws on a Port Vale jumper. I’d completely forgot.

“Got a game tomorrow gaffer. Notts County and he’s picked me to start so I’m gonna start the drive now. Couple hours, should be 2018 by the time I get to Stoke.”

I walk over to his car and grab his shoulder before he starts to climb in. “Well if you’re not gonna stay to celebrate, can you do me a favour?” He nods intently. “You see that skinhead up front? Take his legs out. Nothing to do with Ollie’s push for top scorer of course, just want Shola to get a few starts.”

After he chuckles, he says with a smirk “If that’s all you have to do to get a game, I would have sent Pett to the hospital a lot earlier.” We have a brief handshake and I wish him well as he starts to roll down the street. I don’t know why he never got a look in to the side. He always trained hard, well disciplined. He’s not lacking in quality either.

But Elliott leaving isn’t the loss of a squad player. It’s confirmation I’m doing a good job. If my reserve players are that dedicated to football, they’ll leave a party early and drive 2 hours to Stoke-on-Trent on New Years Eve, I’m doing something right. 2nd place in the league, cup semi final at Wembley in a couple weeks. Here’s to the new year.

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