Malcolm Dawson writes….this season sees a new chapter in my Sunderland supporting life. This time last year I was in despair at the way the club was being run. I felt marginalised and no longer part of a club whose teams I had followed since I was six and who I first saw play at Roker Park in 1964.
I had been uplifted and optimistic following the Sam Allardyce-led great escape and expected us to kick on from there. I saw a group of players and a manager who it seemed took pride in being part of the Sunderland AFC family and who were as one with its supporters. But we didn’t kick on. We regressed. While Allardyce had seemed to turn around a club which previous managers suggested had a fundamental flaw, without going into detail, I could sense that he wasn’t getting the backing he had wanted even before the England job was offered.
Under Moyes, we regressed not just as a team but as a club. The football was dire, the entertainment minimal and the enjoyment non-existent. Add that to what was for me becoming an increasingly painful walk from car to ground and I took the decision not to renew my season ticket for 2017-18. To be honest I no longer felt as if I belonged.
But healthy living has taken the pressure off my knees. A change of ownership, a new manager, a virtual 100 per cent change in playing personnel and an ethos that values supporters has restored my confidence and optimism. And so it was I took my new seat – in the West Stand this season – hopeful but also apprehensive. Apprehensive because the danger of too much optimism and expectation is that should success not be immediate there is the possibility of a return to the criticism, complaints and negativity that has infected the stadium over the past two years.
This being Sunderland after a couple of early opportunities to go ahead were squandered, it was almost inevitable that we would go behind. I braced myself for a host of “here we go again – same old Sunderland” boos and jeers but it didn’t happen. Thankfully, as befits the best Sunderland crowds, the roar which followed the briefest of silences after we conceded was loud and encouraging and the support never waned. The team settled, a couple of substitutions and we all know what happened next. But even so we still want to read Pete Sixsmith‘s take on the game and here it is, as knowledgeable and entertaining as always……
The First Win is the Sweetest
The last time we won our first home game was when Bali Mumba was a diminutive five-year-old and Michael Chopra slotted home a last gasp winner against a bemused Tottenham Hotspur side in 2007.
Two years later, we won at Bolton on the opening day and since then, nothing. We have lost to Fulham and Leicester and had a host of draws against the might of Birmingham City, Derby County and West Bromwich Albion, but not a win. Until Saturday.
Granted, it was in a division that is not one that we would wish to be in. Hopefully we will not be in it this time next year and we will be preparing for a Championship game, But it was a win and it sent us home happy, with a spring in our step and with a smile as wide as the Wear at Roker Pier.
It was down to two things that have been rare at the Stadium of Light in recent years: superior fitness and tactical nous. The last few managers have had one without the other on the odd occasion and on more frequent ones, neither. Here, all the hard work from manager, coaching and fitness staff and players came together after a shaky opening half hour, where Charlton ruled the roost and we were distinctly second best.
But even in that period there were things to admire. There was a willingness to get the ball wide and utilise the skills and trickery of Gooch and Maguire. There was a collective spirit that suggested that we were not going to be the pushovers that we have been for the last few years. When we went a goal down to a correctly awarded penalty by Lyle Taylor, we did not buckle. Last season and the one before and probably the one before that, we would have done. This time we dug in and kept on playing.
At times we looked as shaky as a Hartley’s Jelly in an earthquake as Loovens and Ozturk struggled with the pace of Taylor and Grant. Loovens makes up in nous what he doesn’t have in pace while Ozturk eventually settled and looked much more secure in the second half. But the first half of the first half was a bit of a worry…..
Love and Matthews were both mildly tormented by the Charlton wide men with Marshall being particularly active. When Love went off injured, the arrival of World Cup star Bryan Oviedo made a difference- particularly in the 96th minute. Midfield was controlled by Darren Pratley for much of the first half, although The Boy Mumba, Honeyman and O’Nien never stopped toiling and trying to set up a platform for Gooch, Maguire and Maja.
But when Mr Brooks, a reasonably competent referee, blew for half time, we were in familiar territory – one down to a side who seemed more streetwise, more savvy and with more fire power than we had.
The main difference was that the crowd (a magnificent 31,097 which is a record for this league), did not turn. Instead of booing and apathy there was a feeling that we weren’t that far away from getting back into the game. And we did.
Off went O’Nien, who had maybe tried too hard and on came Sinclair, a big physical centre forward, the like of which we have rarely seen these last few years. He scattered the Charlton central defenders and forced them on to the back foot. He had shots – some not very good, but he made them aware that he was there and that he was dangerous. He also took the weight of sole responsibility off the relatively slender shoulders of Josh Maja and the young Londoner responded with a splendid equaliser in the 65th minute.
In the past, we would not have kicked on.
We would have allowed the opposition back into the game (Norwich, Burton, anyone else you care to name) but this time we kept at them and had chances to go ahead. Mumba’s diving header from a sublime Maguire cross would have brought the house down if only he were a few inches taller.
It looked like a draw. Sinclair had limped off, some were leaving for a post-match pint or an appointment with Sports Report when Oviedo produced a cross that could not have been bettered by Nicky Summerbee in his pomp and there was the tireless Lyndon Gooch to wrap up the points for us.
The crowd reaction was rapturous. It was akin to the second coming of the Lord or the roar that used to bounce around the Stadium in the halcyon days of Quinn and Phillips. The place simply erupted in joy and pleasure and in the realisation that we may just have got a particularly uncomfortable monkey off our backs.
All credit to Jack Ross for the changes that he made at half time. Three at the back, two wide midfielders and two up front. Very few, if any, of our recent managers would have done that. All credit to the players for sticking at it.
On this form, Chris Maguire could take this league by storm. He can use both feet, has a clever turn and almost scored with a free kick. What’s not to like (his tackling in the box, says a small voice at the back of my head).
Mumba looked precociously calm and, although knocked about by Pratley and co, was never bullied. He finished the game well and deserved his win bonus of a bottle of Pepsi, a jar of hair gel and a new case for his phone.
The walk back to the car was a heads up stroll rather than the head down trudge that we have become so familiar with. There was a feeling that this may be the start of a revival and that the support has bought into what the owners, the managers and the players have started. There will be tough tests for this squad. We are light on experience. But on a day when we finished with five Academy graduates on the pitch, two of whom had scored, there was a feeling of pride in a job well done.
And it’s a long time since we could last say that.