Monsieur Salut writes: John McCormick, back from a holiday in Spain, finally made it to a game and made a better choice for his debut (mine having been QPR away). He offers an entertainingly whimsical account of getting up to the North East from his Liverpool exile and struggling to acquaint himself with new faces in red and white stripes, but seeing a decent win and – not fully recognised elsewhere – a good substitute’s shift from Adam Johnson …
Fletch said it was a bit like buses, no goals for ages then two at once. For me, it was a bit like that with tickets. I couldn’t get one for WBA or Burnley and had to turn down the one I could have for Swansea, then I found I could have had two for Stoke.
The only problem was I was in Spain. Not to worry, I was due back before the game and after some hasty rejigging on a Spanish mobile the car was mine for the weekend. A second phone call – to Corfu, as it turns out, though I didn’t know it at the time, and I not only had a bed and a lift from Ed’s to the game but also another ticket if I wanted it.
The plane touched down at Liverpool airport at 1.35 on Friday morning, I got to bed about 3am. About 12 hours later I was dodging a nasty looking crash as I headed out of Liverpool. Half an hour after that I was still heading out of Liverpool, only much more slowly as I inched through road works, but I made the M6 in time to miss the heavy traffic that heads north from Mancland on Friday evenings.
The journey through Lancashire was livened by an overturned vehicle blocking two lanes of the southbound M6, with the resulting tailback stretching across the border and into Cumbria. Sometimes accidents like this affect both directions but not this time. I got past OK and the rest of the journey was unremarkable until I decided to stop in Bowes for a pint, only to find the pub closed and up for sale. So it was on to Barnard Castle and the Cricketer’s Arms, and from there to sunny Birtley.
A couple of pints with Ed and we reflected on the season and the game to come. I reckoned Fletch would start and was optimistic but with Stoke you never know. And so the evening proceeded and closing time came and I went back and slept the sleep of the just.
The last game I saw was vs Crystal Palace. Then, we kept a clean sheet but remained in the bottom three after being unable to score. Fletcher had looked a shadow of his former self and was replaced by Altidore at half time, with Wickham still at Leeds. So how was Fletcher now? Was my optimism justified? After all he’d not made the team only a couple of games earlier and he hadn’t scored all year. We’d just started to keep clean sheets but his, Wickham’s and Jozy’s goal drought was costing us points.
Well, he did all right, although I don’t think he’s back to his best. He was one of only five outfield players I could recognise (the others being O’Shea, Catts, Larsson and McBardlsey) and it wasn’t long before I saw him getting stuck in at the far end, where a couple of corners were complemented by a peachy goal he made in the first minutes, when he trapped the ball on the edge of the box and took it away from two, even three, defenders before crossing for Wickham to head in at the far post. This is the combination we have waited for and now, perhaps, our forwards are waking up.
Waking up is not a phrase to use lightly around the SOL, however. Ten minutes later a quickly taken free kick allowed Stoke to move the ball forwards and 42,723 spectators watched as they took it through our team and planted it beyond Mannone. 42,713 of those spectators (home and away) deserve praise for their support, the other ten deserve a bollocking for being so slack. Mannone was furious, and with good reason.
They’re a funny team, Stoke, they can move the ball around sharpish and cleverly, but they have a thuggish side that breaks play up, not to mention a certain Mr Crouch, who is far more dangerous than many credit, and for a little while I was worried. But we rallied, we worked hard, we got ourselves back into the game. Perhaps more by grunt and effort than pure skill but we did it, whereas this time last season we might not have. We battled for possession and moved the ball forwards, and once again Fletcher got stuck in, this time meeting a cracking Gomez cross with a well-judged header that was never going to miss.
As Ed said, how often do teams score two headers against Stoke? And how often have we taken a lead into the half-time break? This was the first time this season.
I found the second half strange to watch. Maybe I was EasyJet-lagged, perhaps it was all of the new players. I’d spent a good few minutes of the first half thinking Buckley was Jones and trying to identify the strangers around O’Shea, and now I couldn’t anticipate the flow of the game. Then Gus started to make changes, Crouch went off, and things began to improve. I think, once again, Gus got the changes right. Our midfield had been in danger of being overrun as Stoke pressed but first Johnson then Bridcutt and Rodwell came on. Bridcutt steadied the ship, slowing things down and working well with Catts, but for me it was Jonno who made the difference. He took the ball forward, made space, put in some useful balls and looked dangerous in his own right.
He wasn’t the only one, though. I’d thought our dynamic duo had become more anonymous as the game progressed, with Wickham losing battles and Fletch moving into the wrong spaces, but with ten minutes to go Wickham picked up the ball in our half and ran it into the Stoke box, shrugging off tackles and managing to stay upright when others would have fallen. His cross wasn’t brilliant and Rodwell’s attempt to connect with it was even less so but there, in the right space, was Fletcher and he made no mistake.
Three-one, game won, eight points and a positive goal difference. Back to mince and dumplings from Monica, followed by a couple of pints that evening. Lou Reed was right when he sang “Oh such a perfect day”.
Then came the trip home, and I chose the A1M and the M62 over the A66 and the M6, thinking Sunday morning wouldn’t be too bad. I was wrong but, like Catts and O’Shea in those last ten minutes, I stayed aware of danger, did everything sensibly and, like Sunderland, got home safe.
Vote for Salut! Sunderland in the Football Blogging Awards: see https://safc.blog/2014/09/football-blogging-awards-make-your-yes-vote-count-for-salut-sunderland/for details