If the ghost of the English poet and playwright William Congreve will pardon yet another distortion of his most famous line, hell hath little fury like Pete Sixsmith watching Sunderland against lower league opposition in the cup. That was for 75 minutes of Sunderland v MK Dons. Suddenly, imminent humiliation was pushed aside, anger turning to exhilaration as goals flew in according to script. But Pete steels himself to the task in hand and presents his brutally honest appraisal of a night that threatened for so long to end in gloom …
With a quarter of an hour left, the first paragraph was virtually written – “Dons join Bury, Brighton, Boro and Bolton in booting us out of Cup”. And then it all changed.
That the last quarter was a rousing one cannot be denied. A good finish by Altidore, a flowing move rounded off by Wickham followed by a slightly fortunate deflection and a gem from Johnson, saw us home and there was a real buzz around the stadium as the sound system belted out la donna il mobile and Paint Your Wagon (as unusual a pairing as Altidore and Ji). People were smiling and shaking their heads at the same time although I am sure that the 200 Franchise FC fans were scowling instead of smiling. They would certainly be shaking their heads.
We clambered back into the game when Altidore lost his marker, the impressive Tom Williams, for the first time in the game and accepted a great ball from Connor Wickham before slamming it past Ian McLoughlin in the Dons’ goal.
The quietly impressive Celustka combined with Johnson to set up an equaliser from young (and big) Connor and this spectator chuntered under his breath about having to face another 30 minutes of this dross. We were spared extra time as the Dons lost their shape and their ability to mark, and Wickham smashed home what was to be the winning goal. I actually stood up for that one, having remained clamped in my seat for the first two.
Johnson’s cracker in the 6th minute of added time iced the cake nicely, his mazy run being finished in the way that one would expect a player who still harbours international hopes. Cue Paint Your Wagon and a stroll back to the car.
We had produced 15 minutes of high-powered football and swept away a League One side, but only after as miserable and tortuous 75 minutes as I have endured at The Stadium.
Make no mistake, we were outplayed, outclassed and out-thought by a team who may lack big names (we had Moberg Karlsson, they had Kay) but who play football in a most impressive way. Hardly a pass was wasted, hardly a space left unfilled as they followed the instructions of their manager to get the ball and keep it.
On the other hand, the Premier League side doubled back on themselves and gave the ball away with monotony or hammered it up front in the general direction of Altidore. When it reached him, his control was not particularly impressive but he was working on his own.
His partner was the young Korean Ji Dong-Won who has surely played his last game in a Sunderland shirt. I can remember some stinkers in the past (Jamie Lawrence, Brett Angell, Rod Belfitt) but this performance was enough to make grown men weep. (It made Gary Bennett, summarising on BBC Radio Newcastle, call him Ji Gon-Wrong at one point – ed)
A total lack of ball control, an inability to make a pass and a propensity to give the ball away (which could equally well describe his second half performance at Southampton) culminating in him giving the ball straight to Alli, who gave it to Bamford who put it past Mannone. No less than they deserved and it finished Ji off.
That he turned out at all was astounding. That he came out for the second half was unbelievable. He lasted three minutes and two awful touches before he was replaced by Wickham. He left to cheers and jeers and must have wanted a stone to crawl under. Surely the change could have been made at the interval. Poor man management by Di Canio in my book.
Poor team selection as well. I can’t think of any of my acquaintances who rate the South Korean as a Premier League player. Yet Di Canio and his team select him above Wickham and even Mandron. What must they think? When Wickham arrived, he used his considerable bulk to unsettle the smaller visiting defenders and, with assistance from Larsson and Johnson, he and Altidore played a much higher line, which disrupted the serene progress that the Dons appeared to be making to the next round.
By this time, we were two down to a well taken goal by a Izale McLeod, a journeyman if ever there was one, and on our way out.
Some fans left, others sat with their heads down, shaking their heads (me, Pete Horan, George who sits in front of me) while the youngsters behind the goal tried to raise an atmosphere. Credit to them; they have a life of frustration and misery ahead of them.
Three games into the season and we have not yet produced a good 90 minute performance. We have seen most of the new players and, although it is early days, there are some who need time to grow into English football.
Debutants last night were Moberg-Karlsson, who looked lightweight and Mavrias, who replaced the young Swede. He looked quite sharp but the writer reserves judgement.
We still have problems in central midfield, where neither Cabral nor Vaughan impressed. We need some bite in there and maybe Cattermole and Di Canio can become pals and we can have it.
Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King spoke so eloquently of having a dream. I have one where we can actually turn in a series of decent performances and look like a Premier League side; could be another 50 years at this rate.
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