The Easter programme has traditionally been a time of great importance in the football season as promotion and relegation issues move inexorably towards clarification. Last season saw an incredible Easter in central Lincolnshire as the Imps twice came from a goal down with four minutes remaining to snatch six promotion-winning points from the jaws of none. This season has a familiar ring to it, with a marvellous comeback win on Good Friday against promotion rivals Exeter followed by a long trip north for an awkward game against one of the chasing pack. For Gateshead 2017, read Carlisle 2018.
Bleak wintry scenes and persistent snow flurries greeted the 618 Imps fans as they arrived in Cumbria. Swaddled thickly in warm coats, scarves and hats against the prolonged winter, they were in good voice prior to the kick off to enliven a curiously flat atmosphere inside the ageing and lopsided Brunton Park. The fact that Carlisle could only attract 4,440 home fans to a promotion battle was a surprise, perhaps indicating that their late challenge for the play-offs had not really convinced the locals. City were unchanged, retaining the 4-3-3 formation that saw them realise an excellent eleven points from five games during March.
The Imps dominated the opening ten minutes and created half-chances for Lee Frecklington and Scott Wharton. Carlisle grew steadily into the game, although their habit of playing short passing movements in little triangles caused Lincoln no problems whatsoever. City seemed content to allow them possession, realising from the early stages that there was little incision from the Carlisle midfield and even less danger from a very lightweight forward line. Lacking imagination around the City penalty area, a number of speculative shots from outside the box were repeatedly charged down by a solid City defence.
Carlisle kept the pressure on with a series of corners which always led to nothing. A feeble header from veteran defender Clint Hill which landed gently in Ryan Allsop’s hands represented their only effort on target, although Allsop did push a shot away that appeared to be going wide of target anyway. Two clever turns with the ball to wrong-foot the Carlisle forwards demonstrated again what a good player Scott Wharton is, whilst his central defensive partner Michael Bostwick allowed Carlisle very little in the air.
Lacklustre efforts from Matt Green and Danny Rowe for City, and a poor header wide by Tom Parkes for Carlisle did not threaten to break the deadlock as the game approached half time. Green picked up a yellow card for a challenge on Gary Liddle, the striker mystified by the Carlisle captain’s spectacular tumble to the grass.
An attritional game like this one was always likely to be settled by a single goal, and that goal arrived in the 43rd minute. For Imps fans who could not make it to Carlisle, just think of Matt Green’s goal against Exeter because this was a carbon copy. The outstanding Neal Eardley played a superb low free-kick from inside his own half outside the Carlisle defence, and Green clipped the ball past the onrushing Jack Bonham to effectively win the game for City. It was a surprise to see the ploy work again – perhaps the DVD of the Exeter match got lost in the Easter post on its way to Carlisle. A clumsy foul by Parkes on Matt Rhead a minute later earned the Carlisle man a yellow card as the half petered out.
City controlled the opening stages of the second half and should have doubled their lead when another superb first time cross from Eardley found the head of Rhead, who really should have done better. Pantomime villain Rhead was taken off shortly afterwards to a cacophony of boos from the home fans, replaced by cult hero Ollie Palmer who immediately began to terrorise the Carlisle defence with his direct running. Carlisle created a decent opportunity themselves when former Barrow striker Richie Bennett cut in from the right, but he fluffed his shot harmlessly wide of the far post. The vastly experienced Jamal Campbell-Ryce came on for the home side and helped to open up the left wing for them, but stout defending by City allowed him little opportunity to cause real problems. Harry Anderson joined the fray a little while later and helped to increase the pressure on the home defence with some typical Anderson surges.
Then came the biggest talking point of the match. Referee Robert Lewis, who was having a very poor game by any standard, awarded a penalty to Carlisle for a handball by Elliott Whitehouse. City’s players immediately reacted with anger, surrounding the referee and urging him to consult his linesman. The upshot was a free kick to Lincoln, causing uproar amongst the home support. Footage of the incident reveals the guilty party to be Carlisle defender Mark Ellis, who deliberately handled the ball and immediately appealed for a penalty. Very naughty, Mr Ellis.
There was very little of any note after that. A number of clever runs into the corner by both Anderson and Palmer ensured that the clock ticked down safely, and in truth Carlisle never looked like getting an equaliser despite six minutes of stoppage time. Their misery was complete with a couple of minutes remaining when Mike Jones picked up his second yellow card for a trip on Anderson and was sent to turn on the showers for the others.
By no means was this a great performance by City, but it was a very effective one. Neither side created anything clear-cut except for Green’s goal, and neither goalkeeper had a lot to save. Lincoln won the game comfortably, but that was partly due to a mediocre Carlisle team which created practically nothing from a good deal of possession. They look like the classic League Two side trying to play the game ‘the right way’: slow, laboured and devoid of a cutting edge. Genuine promotion challengers? No.
By contrast, Danny Cowley’s reaction as he celebrated with the fans was very telling. He knew what a big win this was, and what a big Easter his players had delivered again. With results elsewhere going City’s way for the second match day in a row, they can enjoy their Wembley trip in the knowledge that they will remain in the play-off zone next weekend regardless of having the weekend off. With games running out for a number of rivals and games in hand set to build up, a play-off place lies firmly in City’s hands.
Thank you to Graham Burrell and Lincoln City FC for the photographs.
— Vital Lincoln City (@VitalLincoln) April 3, 2018