10-man City secured three points for the first time since November against a physical Burton Albion side on Saturday.
Michael Skubala named a singular change to the side that faced Peterborough at Sincil Bank. Lukas Jensen started in goal behind a back three of Sean Roughan, Adam Jackson, Alex Mitchell and Lasse Sorensen. Ethan Erhahon and Ethan Hamilton were joined in midfield by Ted Bishop, who was a doubt in the buildup to the fixture. Dylan Duffy returned to the starting XI, while Freddie Draper and Reeco Hackett looked to provide the attacking threat.
Joe Taylor dropped to the bench, ending his run of starts since his loan move from Luton Town, while Danny Mandroiu had to wait for his first start since his return from suspension. Paudie O’Connor returned to the matchday squad for the first time in 2024, while there was also a place for deadline day signing Conor McGrandles. The big news though was Ben House’s return to the side after a long term injury that has kept him out since our trip to Sheffield United in August.
Burton were going to give us a tough test, which would’ve been completely different to the one they gave us at Sincil Bank. Since Mark Kennedy’s last game in charge of City, there has been lots of change at Burton. They relieved Dino Maamria of his duties, and replaced him with Northern Irish head coach Martin Paterson. He’s done some shrewd business in January, adding lots of physicality to his side. In attack he’s added young prospect Ademola Ola-Adebomi on loan from Crystal Palace and 6”9 striker Kyle Hudlin on loan from Huddersfield. On top of that, he’s also brought in former Arsenal youngster Tolaji Bola from Rotherham. Those signings are smart pieces of business, especially when they are complimented with the likes of Joe Powell and Mark Helm. They have been struggling of late though, and sit just four points ahead of Reading after Saturday’s result.
Paterson has done a decent enough job in terms of results since coming in at the Pirelli Stadium, a tight defeat at Derby County but a win against fellow strugglers Charlton Athletic and a hard earned point with ten men at a much improved Cambridge United side. We came into the game with no wins in ten and although we knew there was light at the end of the tunnel, it always felt like the pressure was on to get the win. For the last few years, we’ve struggled to dispatch of teams that ‘we should be beating’ but putting in really good performances against the top teams in the division. It’s something that Skubala will want to change, and I think Saturday was the first part of that.
I thought we were poor in the opening 45 minutes, although I think lots of the factors contributing to that were out of our control. We had to rely on winning the second balls because of the presence of Hudlin in attack, and that it scrappy in the middle of the park and didn’t really allow us to get the ball on the floor. The pitch made it hard to get the ball on the floor and play out from the back throughout the half, which certainly suited Burton’s style of play but the main factor that made things difficult for us were the officials.
I don’t like to critique referees, I think it’s done too easily when a result doesn’t go your way because you look for a reason you’ve lost or not performed but what I saw on Saturday from the referee, I really didn’t like. I’ll get to his overall performance, but the one decision that changed the game was sending Mitchell off for two yellow cards, and I disagree with the both decisions. The first booking isn’t even a foul in my opinion, and I’m pretty sure no one on the pitch or in stands actually knew what the referee was booking him. If anything, it’s a foul against Mitchell but the referee gives him a yellow for his first ‘foul’ in the game. That’s the first mistake – a good referee doesn’t book a player in a physical game for his first foul.
His second mistake is even worse though. Mitchell tussles with Ola-Adebomi just a few minutes after his first booking, and gets shown his second yellow of the afternoon. I’m not even sure this is a foul either, I think they are just both pulling away at each other but even if it is a foul, there is no way it’s a yellow card. Once again a good referee doesn’t make this decision. When we played MK Dons during the 2020/21 season, Brennan Johnson got booked for kicking the ball away. Just a few minutes later, he fouled someone and potentially could’ve seen red for it. The referee that day was Bobby Madley – an experienced official that I’m a big fan of whenever he’s been in charge of a City game. Madley took Johnson aside and just calmed him down and warned him that the next time he’d have no choice but to send him off. That is what a good referee does, he controls the game, aims to keep 22 players on the pitch and not look for any opportunity to put himself in the spotlight. What Simpson needed to do was just have a word with Mitchell and warn him what would happen the next time he did something similar, not potentially ruin the game as a contest and make it all about himself.
Not only does the referee have an affect on this game, he also has an affect on the next game. As it’s two yellow cards rather than a straight red, we can’t appeal the decision and that means Mitchell misses out against Fleetwood. Simpson could end up affecting Mitchell’s place in the team going forward because if O’Connor or TJ Eyoma come into the side against Fleetwood and do really well, then Mitchell could have a spell on the bench, which probably wouldn’t have happened it the referee made the correct decision. Not only does it affect the game, but it also has an impact further down the line.
I even thought his overall officiating performance was one of the weakest I’ve seen all season. He gave out 8 yellow cards to Burton but I still think they got away with too much. Every single card he gave was deserved, they committed two cynical fouls on Bishop and it felt like every time we looked to run forward, one of their players would pull a shirt or trip over one of our players. I thought the referee had no control and you even saw it at the end when House got booked. I like Joe Powell, I think he’s a top player but he should’ve been given his second yellow for the foul on McGrandles at the end. Instead it’s House that gets booked for a rightful protest.
Despite all the factors against us in the first-half, we could’ve gone into the break two goals ahead. The first chance came quite early in the game, a cross was delivered from the left following some nice play from Hackett. Sorensen beat Bola at the back post, but a superb save from Max Crocombe ensured the scores remained level.
The other chance came in the final few minutes of the half. Following a corner, Bishop delivered the ball back into the box and after it was headed into the danger zone by O’Connor, Jackson found himself in so much space with the whole goal to aim at. He put his header straight at Max Crocombe before the whistle went for half-time. It was a massive chance, but after a half with not much footballing action, it was good for us to get into the break at 0-0.
We changed things at half-time. We looked more composed and our game plan changed to hurt Burton on the counter attack. A few minutes after the break, we had another great chance to take the lead. Another set piece caused issues for the Burton defence and found Hamilton lurking in front of goal. The Scotsman fired his effort well over the bar. He should score, but at least we are getting these chances because we weren’t even getting close to doing that a month ago.
Just a few minutes later we took the lead. It started from Erhahon in midfield. He drove forward before releasing the ball to Hackett on the left. The former Pompey winger cut inside onto his weaker right foot and found the bottom corner to put us into the lead with a man less than the opposition. Hackett was excellent all afternoon. At League One level, he’s frightening for oppositions and Burton just couldn’t contain him on Saturday.
The next big moment was a big one for us. Ben House returned to action for the first time since August, replacing Draper, who I thought was good despite not getting much time on the ball due to being isolated for much of the game. Our dynamic changed completely when Ben came on. He did exactly what we’ve been missing for so many months. Pressing high, getting in the faces of the opposition and having a presence up front. It was almost a dream return to the side for our number 18. Sorensen was released on the right-hand side and his cross found Ben at the back post but his effort went wide from a tight angle.
Ben being back feels like we’ve turned a corner. This is our squad at full fitness (excluding Tyler Walker and Lewis Montsma as they are out for the season) and instead of wondering who’s playing where because we have named 6 defenders, we are wondering who Skubala is going to pick because of the wealth of options. That’s how it should be and now it will be interesting to see how we can perform for the rest of the season.
I always felt comfortable in the game, it didn’t feel like we were under much pressure at all. Apart from a few claims and shots that rolled straight into his arms, I didn’t feel like Jensen had much to do in goal throughout the game, even going into the final few minutes. McGrandles got his first appearance since returning on deadline day, and I was impressed with what I saw. He came on, calmed the game down and helped us get over the line. Skubala wanted experience and McGrandles is exactly that. We wound down the 9 minutes of added time well, and secured the three points despite being a man down. We’ve waited since November for a win, but to do it like that was special, especially in front of a packed out away end.
Like I said further up, I truly feel like we’ve turned a corner. Three clean sheets in a row, and we finally look like a side that is a threat in the final third. Bishop is in the best form of his Lincoln City career, Jackson is continuing his run of form, Roughan is back to his best and our forward line is looking the strongest I’ve seen it in a long time. There’s a massive feeling of positivity at the moment, and if we can take that into Fleetwood next Saturday, we should make it two wins on the bounce.