Chelsea’s Checkatrade Trophy dream ended in heartbreaking fashion at Lincoln City’s Sincil Bank on Tuesday night, as they fell to defeat on penalties following a 1-1 draw, and were denied a trip to Wembley to play for professional silverware.
Under pressure all night in the face of a fiercely-competitive home team and crowd, the Blues battled bravely, showed character and spirit beyond their tender years, and even managed to recover from going a goal down to Luke Waterfall late on when Daishawn Redan hooked home to set up a tense penalty shootout. They couldn’t quite finish the job, losing 4-2 after five rounds of spot kicks, but they gave it a right old go, and can be proud of their efforts.
A near full-strength Chelsea squad was available to Joe Edwards, with Kyle Scott the sole absentee of note, and the Blues would need the full depth of their arsenal to cope with a strong Imps side in front of a sellout home crowd. Ethan Ampadu anchored a three-man defence, with Trevoh Chalobah deployed in midfield alongside captain Ruben Sammut, whilst Harvey St Clair joined 17 year-olds Callum Hudson-Odoi and Redan in attack.
Lincoln’s approach was straightforward and predictable, yet was far from easy to defend. Danny Cowley’s charges were encouraged to use the ample frame of forward Matt Rhead early and often against a youthful Blues rearguard, and it was a tactic that forced the visitors to spend much of the first half pinned back inside their own penalty area. With every set piece accompanied by the wailing of an old wind-up air siren, Chelsea could have wilted, but they stood tall early on as Marcin Bułka and Trevoh Chalobah defended their lines manfully from a goalmouth scramble.
Bułka was needed for a couple of early stops from open play to frustrate the hosts, and was brave in commanding the length and breadth of his penalty area, but was also fortunate to get away with a poor clearance that Michael Bostwick couldn’t guide back towards an open goal. Neal Eardley drove one over from the edge of the area as the pressure mounted, and although Harry Anderson did find the target, Bułka was able to make what was another fairly routine save.
Ampadu, superbly marshalling a defence that lacked the same experience as the Welshman at this level of football, made a timely intervention to clear before Matt Green could apply a finish to Rhead’s latest knockdown, but Chelsea simply couldn’t get out. Hudson-Odoi was a mere spectator on the left, Redan was ploughing a lone furrow up front, and although St Clair saw bits and pieces of possession, it was nothing that worried Lincoln.
Edwards switched to a 4-2-3-1 midway through the half, and pushed Dujon Sterling further forward to help give his team a more attacking presence, and it helped to settle them down somewhat. Sterling found the overlapping Reece James in a more promising advance, but his pull back was wasted on St Clair, who wasn’t alert to the situation and allowed Elliott Whitehouse to snuff out the danger. Ryan Allsop in the home goal hadn’t been called upon to make a single stop before the half time whistle went.
Perhaps the brief interlude gave both teams some time to think, as they duly exchanged clear-cut opportunities for the first time within ten minutes of the restart. Green shrugged off Chalobah before hitting the side netting from a tight angle before Hudson-Odoi’s goal-bound effort was headed away by Bostwick with Allsop beaten.
Slowly, very slowy, Chelsea began to look more confident, and were presented with the best sight of goal by a significant margin as the clock ticked past the hour mark. Unfortunately for them, it fell to Sammut, not a noted goalscorer whatsoever, and the skipper was only able to scuff wide after Redan had awkwardly deflected Hudson-Odoi’s cross into his path.
It was a big moment, and one they’d regret. With just under twenty minutes remaining, Eardley’s cross was headed home by Waterfall at the far post, bundling it just inside Bułka’s near post to finally take advantage of their aerial superiority. A mistake by Nartey then almost saw them out of sight, but a tremendous double save by the Chelsea goalkeeper from Danny Rowe kept the Blues alive.
That would prove to be crucial, as his team-mates went down the other end and drew level, against all the odds. Hudson-Odoi, growing more confident by the minute, weaved his way down the left again and rolled a ball across the face of goal, where St Clair picked it up. His shot was blocked, but there was Redan to pounce, firing past Allsop from six yards out to make it 1-1.
Ollie Palmer might have won it twice at the death but for a wayward finish and a superb tackle by Ampadu, and hearts were in mouths when Bostwick headed wide with the very final touch of the ninety minutes, but penalties would ultimately decide the contest.
Bułka tipped Habergham’s opening gambit onto the crossbar, but Chelsea couldn’t take full advantage with their next two efforts under the ABBA system, for whilst Kylian Hazard converted, Ampadu cracked the inside of the post with his penalty. Whitehouse and Palmer did the business for the Imps to put the pressure on Chelsea, and substitute Jacob Maddox saw his attempt pushed away by Allsop. St Clair made it 2-2 but Green and Lee Frecklington held their nerve to send Lincoln to Wembley for the first time in their 133-year history.
For Chelsea, this might have been the end of the road in the competition, but it’s just the beginning for a team that came into the game with an average age of 18. They’ve enjoyed a stellar run, in which they only suffered defeat in penalty shootouts, and will have taken more lessons away from their experiences than in a whole season of development football. They showed up, they battled, and they didn’t quite get over the line.
Lincoln City: Allsop, Eardly, Bostwick, Waterfall, Habergham, Whitehouse, Woodyard, Rowe (Frecklington 90), Anderson (Stewart 90), Rhead (Palmer 67), Green
Subs not Used: Farman, Long, Chapman, Horton
Goal: Waterfall ‘73
Chelsea: Bułka, James, Ampadu, Nartey, Sterling (Maddox 59), Chalobah, Sammut © (K.Hazard 90), Castillo, Hudson-Odoi, St Clair, Redan
Subs not Used: Tié, Christie-Davies, Colley, C.Dasilva, Grant
Goal: Redan ‘78