I suspect for most of us it was with mixed emotions that we logged on this evening for the penultimate game of the regular season, after two points from three games almost certainly our penultimate game period. There was no telling what frame of mind we might be in, perhaps even how up for the game Lincoln might prove with their play-off place already secured, while it went without question that nothing but a win would do. And anyone hoping for a prettier spectacle than Saturday’s horror show might not have been taking into account the fact that it was blowing a gale outside.
The team showed four changes from Saturday and what looked like a change in formation, back to the 4-5-1/4-3-3 which had previously been deployed. In front of Amos there would be a back four of Matthews, Inniss, Famewo and Purrington. Watson returned as the defence’s protector, with Forster-Caskey and Gilbey alongside him. Millar was back in at the start and Maatsen on the right side, both either side of Stockley as the lone forward. From the bench Gunter and Pearce provided the defensive options, Pratley and Morgan for midfield, and Washington and Aneke up front. It wasn’t exactly reassuring to see Adkins’ pre-match comment that “I’m taking a gamble on a few players tonight because we have to”.
The first-half was something of a non-event. We didn’t manage a shot on target (and only two shots in total), although Millar should have done better than hitting it well over the bar late on having cut inside. In general we struggled to get the two wide men really into the game and Stockley was isolated, our lack of threat emphasised by Stockley putting a cross into a deserted box. Lincoln were dangerous early on and came very close to taking the lead after 10 minutes, a ball played through our defence which was claiming offside but Maatsen on the far side was clearly playing them on. Their guy hit it hard but too close to Amos, who blocked well. Otherwise Purrington was caught out and picked up a yellow for the foul that followed, Forster-Caskey picked up an injury and had to depart, replaced by Morgan, as did the referee.
Lincoln did seem to fade as an attacking force through the half and at the break there was the impression that two teams were playing as if there wasn’t a lot riding on the result. Certainly it was hard to square our efforts with the need for a win, although we were in the game and it was still there to be won.
And there was a clear statement of intent at the start of the second half, as Aneke came on. Purrington was sacrificed, perhaps because of the yellow, but as we switched to a 4-4-2 Maatsen moved to left-back and Gilbey took a wider position on the right. The game changed.
Within a minute of the restart we were ahead. Lincoln must have wondered what hit them. A good attack saw Stockley move it on to Millar. His cross was blocked but Watson moved it forward again to Gilbey. He turned and clipped in a cross to the far post, where Aneke nodded it down into the path of Stockley, who hit a crisp half-volley into the roof of the net. Lincoln immediately went up the other end and almost equalised, Watson being caught out, but minutes later we came close to making it two as Chuks just couldn’t quite get his shot away, then Morgan intercepted and moved it on to Chuks again only for his shot to be saved. Then a Millar cross was only just too high for Stockley.
We did double our lead not long after. Maatsen went on a galloping overlap and his cross was blocked for a corner. Whatever happened as far as movement and players being blocked off, Morgan curled it to the far post and Inniss was all on his own. The header from close range didn’t need to be too powerful to beat a despairing keeper. And shortly after that it was effectively game over. Millar took it down the left, fed it into Aneke. His shot seemed to be covered by the keeper but a defender waved a leg at it and ensured it cleared him and went into the net.
All that was left to do was play out the final twenty minutes or so. Not surprisingly we eased up and Lincoln did have a few moments, but as the clock ran down we were looking comfortable. With less than 10 minutes left Aneke picked up a yellow and crazily a few minutes later needlessly put in a rash challenge from behind, felling their guy. It should have been a second yellow and red, perhaps we have the injury to the ref in the first half to thank as the replacement was lenient in the extreme. And with a couple of minutes of normal time left Lincoln did get one back with a decent shot, then in six added minutes Amos was required to make another save, while Pratley, who had come on to replace Aneke to ensure he would be available for Sunday, still managed to get a yellow himself. But we had done the damage and took the points.
We know it still probably won’t be enough, the permutations for Sunday are pretty straightforward. We need help from Burton, Accrington Stanley and Hull. That’s bound to put the focus between now and then on what might have been, the obvious points dropped (even the possible implications of Lincoln’s goal and goal difference if we were to draw at Hull and the other two lose). But at least tonight we did what we had to do. Man of the match? Aneke changed the game and would have been a shoo-in but for almost getting himself sent off.