Lincoln City 0-1 U’s: The Sincil Bank Job

By Thomas Ripley

Heading up to Lincolnshire after an impressive start to the new year, the big absence for United was George Williams – the man who had made Newcastle’s Saint-Maximin look more like Saint-Minimum. Okedina moved to right-back with debutant Sherring slotting into centre half. Even better, the yellow shorts returned to unify the all yellow kit which undoubtedly got opposition’s hearts racing.

The home side welcomed back the usually injured Anthony Scully who, like his side’s nickname suggests was every bit the “small, mischievous devil or sprite.” The U’s were right to wince at his inclusion after the 5-1 smiting at the Abbey in September. The Imps, with two impressive wins against promotion-chasing Oxford and Sunderland in their last two, were in great form coming into today’s game. The home side’s confidence provided the start the home crowd wanted, the Imps moving the ball quickly and intently towards the wide areas, particularly their left flank with Scully’s clever play opening up crosses into the United area.

It took 20 minutes to see the first Lincoln effort, with Whittaker firing over the bar. Shortly after, and for the remainder of the half, the home side worked bigger chances that deserved better finishing. The best chance fell to Cullen, whose effort from inside the six-yard box was brilliantly blocked by both Iredale and Dunk before the danger was cleared. Clearly United’s new years resolution of keeping clean sheets was top of their minds, but Lincoln increasingly turned the screw on their visitors, pressing to win the ball back quickly, moving the ball high and wide when they had it, and forcing good chances on goal.

Lincoln should have scored again on 41 minutes, this time going unusually straight through the middle of the spine of the opposition — Fiorini’s through ball gave the racing Maguire a one-on-one chance. Mitov closed the angle quickly, blocked the shot, and the visitors cleared the danger. As if that wasn’t worth his wage alone, and after his heroics on Tyneside, Mitov took another leap forward as this season’s standout performer just three minutes after thwarting the Imps.

Scully again combining with Brammall on the left whose good ball into the area found Cullen, six yards from goal. To say it happened in the blink of an eye is an understatement. Cullen diverted the whipped ball goalward with the keeper seemingly flat-footed. Mitov had absolutely no right to react so quickly, twisting to his right to impossibly push the shot wide of the post. But he did. Every Lincoln player raised their arms to their heads in disbelief. Jack Iredale simply hoisted the floored Mitov to his feet to prepare for the resulting corner. Clearly Lincoln offered more threat in the first half but offered nothing that could beat the fantastic, albeit last-ditch defending from the visitors.

Mark Bonner would have been relieved to go in drawing at half-time—at half-time in the return fixture, United were three goals down. Lincoln offered space at times but came off the better with their own swift transitions turning defense into attack, often too hastily but at times creating space which should have brought the opening goal.

Lincoln came out in the second half with a simple idea: more of the same. What followed was continued untidy play, with passes constantly not finding their men. Lincoln continued pressing high and energetically, winning the ball in dangerous areas but without the attacking guile the home side needed to punish their guests.

Just short of the hour United landed a blow. Worman’s pass was nodded onto Ironside whose emphatic left-footed finish had the United fans celebrating wildly. Despite the goal being disallowed for offside, a notable shift change in the air could be felt. The visitors’ growing belief that they could perhaps take more than a point seemed less hopeful and more possible.

On the hour mark Mark Bonner showed the flexibility of approach Michael Appleton refused to match, Wes Hoolahan replacing the energetic but, for once, less than effective Ben Worman. From that point the game changed in a simple but telling way — United found an out ball through the Lincoln press, Hoolahan’s jinking movement and clever passing opening space for more damaging counter-attacks. The Irishman’s smart feet found angles and space to open doors for possession in dangerous areas that were closed for the first 45 minutes.

Lincoln’s second-half chances were less often and more desperate, most notably through Scully, again, crossing the ball from the touchline whenever possible. Despite periods of the home side camping on the United area looking for overlaps, the net result was a lot of huffing and puffing without blowing down any houses.

As the 90 minutes expired Dunk ran onto a Brophy ball before being clumsily floored. Hoolahan swung the resulting free-kick into May who outjumped his man and headed goalwards. The keeper got a hand to it but Ironside, whose determination to get to the loose ball was greatest, beat everyone to poke the ball over the line. Ironside worked tirelessly without reward from the referee – perhaps Andrew Kitchen is a Newcastle fan? – to produce two moments in the game; one brilliant first-time snapshot, and the second the clawing determination to nod the loose ball home. Despite his 5’11” height, the talismanic forward always seems the most determined to be first to the ball in the box. Not even Lincoln cathedral, considered the tallest building in the world upon its completion, would have beaten Ironside to the rebound.

The Lincoln manager Michael Appleton was left bemoaning his lack of anything to show from his side’s “outstanding performance,” a familiar refrain from his visiting counterpart. United did for once what they’ve failed to do so much this season: take the points over the performance. The U’s remain unbeaten from four games in 12 days using just 18 players, keeping three clean sheets, conceding one goal in the best part of seven hours of football. This was no fluke. It was a big step in the right direction at just the right time and sent a message to the upcoming rivals that it’s not just Premier League teams the Yellows can beat.

Man of the Match: Dimitar Mitov. Again. What more can we say.

Soundtrack: ‘I Am the Fly’ by Wire

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