Malcolm Dawson writes……….rather like Chris Maguire and Josh Maja, Pete Sixsmith has had a lot of football this week, yesterday being his third Sunderland match of some sort with games at Shildon and Billingham Town sandwiched between. To give his aging fingers a rest from his constantly clattering keyboard (there was also a rather fine offering from him in yesterday’s programme) I agreed to get up from my sick bed (don’t distress yourself dear reader, ’tis only the dreaded man flu) and step onto today’s Soapbox.
If following Sunderland sometimes seems like going to a pantomime, then Joey Barton would be Abanazer and Jack Ross Aladdin. One did his best to create discord and unease for the majority of those who had come along to see a young hero rub a magic lamp and for a genie to appear and make all our wishes come true in the form of another three points.
We had a couple of genies yesterday in Josh Maja who got his fifth goal of the season and Jon McLaughlin who incredibly became the first ever Sunderland goalkeeper to save a penalty at the Stadium of Light, other than in a penalty shoot out of course, as those of us there on Tuesday had seen Robbin Ruiter save two. A draw wasn’t quite the happy ending we all wished for but it could have been worse.
After the early season highs and the stirring performances of the first few games yesterday’s result brought a degree of disappointment, which when you step back and think about it is a measure of how far expectations have progressed for a team which is unbeaten and lying fourth in the table. This is a competitive league and Fleetwood are a decent side. Barton has them well organised and competitive and this game provided more evidence, if any were needed, that we are not going to walk this division.
Pantomime villain Joey Barton spent the build up to the game attempting to provoke a reaction from the Sunderland faithful and even suggesting that those of a black and white persuasion might boost the ranks of the Cod Army. Thankfully they seemed to ignore this and whilst there was a decent contingent in the North Stand Upper, considerably fewer than Scunthorpe, Oxford and Charlton had brought, but a good number for a team which averages home attendances of around the three and a half thousand mark. There was a brief period of unpleasantness from the South Stand directed at the man in the black crombie but thankfully it lasted seconds rather than minutes. Generally the home support stayed with the team and although there were a few periods when the crowd went silent, there were also some chants of “Ha’way the Lads” the length and volume of which have not been heard at the Stadium of Light for many a year. And once again, for the third time in four home games, the roar of encouragement that came a split second after we conceded the opening goal must have spurred the players on. If this will still be the case should we continue with this worrying trend remains to be seen.
We started well enough. The Jack Ross philosophy is obvious and when left to their own devices his players will look to break down the opposition through a combination of quick, short, inticate passes, subtle runs off the ball, sudden changes of emphasis and direction and clinical finishing. Almost straight from the off, Denver Hume in for Oviedo, found Lynden Gooch who got off a decent enough shot but visiting teams are not all going to lie down and roll over and this bunch from the home of Fisherman’s Friends produced a strong showing in response.
Ashley Hunter and Ched Evans, both looked lively and it was the former who rounded McLaughlin to set up the other but fortunately the Welshman would have been disappointed with his finish and we breathed a collective sigh of relief. But it wasn’t long when our defence failed to clear a corner and left Paddy Madden unmarked to head home and for the third time in four home games we had fallen behind early doors. Loovens and Baldwin may not be the archetypal pantomime horse but there was clearly no one shouting “he’s behind you”. Too easy and something the coaching staff will be looking to sort out on the training ground.
Once again after a brief hiatus of silence, the crowd responded with a roar of encouragement which must be a positive for the players but for a time we still seemed shaky, passes were going astray too often and the visitors could have gone further ahead.
Gradually though we started to get a grip. Maja had a chance which the keeper managed to get a hand to, then the goal machine that is Lee Cattermole headed just over. It would be more encouraging to write that we have a team that having taken the lead is difficult to break down, but I have to write that here is a team that once behind have so far found a way to get back into the game and not long before half time, Maja found the net from Honeyman’s cross and it was the skipper himself who came close with a fierce drive that Cairns failed to hold but there was no-one near enough to latch onto the rebound so one all at the break.
Sunderland were attacking the South Stand in the second half for a change, but the first real action was in front of the North Stand faithful. Adam Matthews made a needless challenge as James Husband went past him. It looked as if McLaughlin would tidy up but the Welshman went to ground with little hope of getting the ball. Penalty. There seemed to be some disagreement about who was going to take the spot kick but eventually it was goalscorer Madden who stepped up and sent the ball to McLaughlin’s left. However our keeper went the right way and got down to save and the ball was scrambled to safety.
Sinclair came on for Maguire who had had a disappointing game (maybe one too many as one of those not rested for the Carabao Cup) and immediately looked lively pulling the Fleetwood defence about just as he had done when he came on against Charlton. Gooch had been buzzing about like an annoying bluebottle in a lampshade but has a tendency to just try and beat his man once too often but we were creating more chances after the penalty save. We might have won it when Baldwin blazed over an open goal, when it looked harder to miss than score. It was unfortunate that ball fell to a centre half and not a natural goalscorer, though Maja missed a similar chance last week.
Wyke replaced Maja but looked ponderous and lacking match fitness but his physical presence does provide another dimension and when fully fit will give the manager options. Flanagan came on for Matthews and added some much needed height to the side and he almost found the net with a drive from close range as somehow Cairns kept the ball out and it was scrambled away, and then a header which hit the foot of the post.
Sinclair had an effort cleared off the line and on another day we might have nicked all three points.
But Fleetwood had chances too and there is work for Jack Ross and his team to do on the training ground but this is a work in progress. We have started against some decent teams but with Burton and Rochdale coming up we will have a better idea of whether we have what it takes to stay in the promotion/title hunt come the end of the season.
Six points would help dispel any doubts that we might just be the Cinderella of this division.