First things first, says Monsieur Salut. Laurie Kilpatrick, an excellent interviewee for our Coventry City Who are You?, was not among those in the sky blues section who decided a grand way of celebrating beating us 5-4 was to shower people below the away end with bottles and other missiles. From what I have seen in response to my pal Kevin Maguire’s tweets, proper City fans – Laurie included, as you shall see – are disgusted at the behaviour of the lowlife minority responsible (I was not there but imagine it will have been a minority and, sadly, every football team attracts its share of slugs).
But Laurie naturally enjoyed his day out as much as our supporters present (and listening or watching from near or far) detested theirs. Losing at home by a single goal when you score four seems, for all the obvious reasons, a lot worse than going down to the ‘disappointment, but it happens’ of a 0-1.
We rightly treasure the post-match accounts of our own Pete Sixsmith and Malcolm Dawson, so for those who can stomach it. let us for once take a look a gifted writer approaching a game from the opposing side.
Laurie’s match reports appear at his blog, A Lonely Season. Here, he wonders at his team’s attacking football, our defensive failings and what he found the quietness of the Stadium of Light. Leaving aside our unhappiness, it’s a fine piece of writing …
It was the first fixture we all scanned the list for – probably the fixture most fans in League One looked for. The ruby in the smoke of a mundane list containing all the familiar old slop: Walsall away, London Road, Rochdale – blah blah blah.
We’d have to wait until April. Our season could be well over by then. The more optimistic sky blues probably envisaged it as a playoff showdown.
In reality, the travelling army of Cov meandered its way north knowing that even a repeating roster of E-coli ridden lasagnes from the Donny canteen wouldn’t be enough to shoehorn us into a playoff berth we simply don’t deserve. What we were about to witness would only serve to brighten the infuriatingly technicolour patchwork of performances across our season.
Determined from the off, in spite of price and logic, to fly to this game, I roused myself at 5am – fresh from four hours’ sleep – and stumbled out into the vomit strewn streets of Seven Sisters, pretty sure that I was the only one in the ends heading for Sunderland away.
Sometimes when I get up disgustingly early, I spend the first hour of consciousness warding off urges to vomit. I spent the brief flight passing in and out of consciousness and clenching my stomach to try and mute the disturbing tectonic activity from my bowels. My first gift to the county of Northumberland was a nasty one.
Heavenly plane legroom
Newcastle is a beautiful city – and those accents … I found myself asking for directions just to hear some more: bliss. Ever a slave to nostalgia, I got off the Metro at Jesmond and had breakfast at the same cafe I’d visited nine years previous during a visit to a student friend. Students look weird these days. It’s all loose trousers, weird massive trainers and curtains. I thought we’d all agreed at the end of the 90s that that had been a big mistake?
After another Metro and a trundling rail replacement service which skimmed me pleasantly across the Tyne with great view back over the various bridges, I arrived in Sunderland. Apparently the sea is somewhere out there just beyond the Stadium of Light, but it seems much more remote than that, locked as you are in a sea of concrete, white steel stanchions and retail park chains.
The ground is largely identical to St James’ Park, though the stairs (perhaps because my legs are twice as long as they were when we last played Newcastle away) felt less onerous. Despite being a third empty – Sunderland have closed the top tier that runs alongside the pitch – the stadium still somehow felt full. The sun was breaking through as kick off approached, not that that warmed the majority of the ground. Whoever named in the Stadium of Light was presumably in a metaphorical mood that day.
The players emerged as the cute flag performance from the Sunderland kop came to a conclusion, and the roar of 32 thousand people made me feel like I was back at a real football game for once. The flag dance (a coordinated club event I subsequently discovered) gave the impression that we were about to witness a stirring 90 minutes of passionate fandom. We weren’t.
I couldn’t help but feel intimidated by the whole occasion. The gigantic stadium towering around me, the enormity of the crowd, the supposed aptitude of the opposition, the immaculate green of the enormous playing surface, the roar that a legitimately large crowd can summon – they all combined to make me shudder in the chilly attic of the stadium.
The away end was in fine form from the off, stretching the vocal chords with Jimmy Hill love ins, taunts about the Sunderland fans crying on Netflix, and eventually some peak nihilism: urging us to f*** Wasps, the council and Sisu in one sweaty (and, I imagine, prickly) corporate orgy – with Aston Villa just watching.
Scarcely enough time had elapsed for Mason to be shown up by a clever inside pass, and for Luke Thomas to pass up the first of six opportunities to shoot inside the box, when Bright opened the scoring. Sunderland approached the game with a swagger and arrogance they soon came to regret. Our press was good, theirs was largely absent. Sweet diamonds of green were visible in the centre of midfield, and it was via one of these that Bright kicked off proceedings.
After a few delightful jinks on the edge of the box to free himself of the defenders’ lukewarm pursuit, Bright created an angle and curled a shot past the keeper – though it didn’t even need to be close to the corner, so poor was the keeper’s angle-closing. A flare went off right next to me and I couldn’t see or breathe for a while. I can imagine that’s pretty rank to be around if you have children – but my love of all things pyrotechnic blinds me to this reasonableness most of the time.
Sunderland quickly demonstrated why shooting has proved so popular in the history of football. We were competently defending a gradual Sunderland attack, when a hopeful effort took a comprehensive defection and rendered Burge irrelevant. When you spend so much time watching football in front of small crowds, it really takes you by surprise to hear the deep churning explosion 30 thousand fans are capable of. There’s something awfully lonely about it.
Seated in the tier below us was the family stand. Putting aside their deep and unwavering love for children and rainbows and skipping through meadows for a moment, they turned around to swear at us. Sort of like family at 9pm on Christmas Day.
The passage of play following their equaliser was certainly the best football I have seen us play this season. What I’m debating is whether it’s the best football I’ve ever seen us play. Sunderland had no interest in restricting our time on the ball in the centre of the park, and one man, Bright, took particular advantage of this.
Sunderland’s right back will spend most of today crying. Him and his mate were routinely assassinated time after time after time, with Bright, Mason and Hiwula combining to such devastating effect it was like they were playing in some kind of cheat mode. They seemed genuinely unable to tackle Bright. It was like when you try and swat a fly and then realise they are seeing your hand move towards them in slow motion.
The defenders knew what Bright was going to do. He wasn’t balancing the ball on his nose or putting it up his shirt and running past them: it was just the combination of impeccable close control, poise, dummies and Cruyff turns which they failed to learn from, diving in over and over again.
On top of Bright’s brilliance, they had simply given up on defending. Thomas propelled us back into the lead with a through ball of ludicrous simplicity. Bakayoko found himself in what should be an impossible position: behind both centre backs – and yet wildly onside – slap bang in the middle of the pitch.
Baka loped goalwards and tucked it below the keeper. Undeterred by the 6 year old flipping him the bird, Baka screamed up at the gods and felt our delirium wash down over him.
With almost 3,000 away fans – plenty of whom were decked out in their best Aquascrotum and goggled face-obscuring gear – the wrong un’-ometer was through the roof. Somehow I found myself in the epicentre. A flare was chucked down onto the home fans this time, an act which then ok’ed the lobbing of all kinds of missiles down at the family stand. Not our finest hour lads.
I sat under this bombardment in the North Stand during second half and saw a woman hit by a bottle. Coventry morons chucking stuff deserve criminal records and football bans. Our lot are hugely critical of stewards and cops for not stopping it https://t.co/rNC8OcyGOI
— Kevin Maguire (@Kevin_Maguire) April 14, 2019
Back on the pitch the game was insanely open. The pitch seemed 20 per cent bigger than normal, with both sides playing football on the ground and carving open terrifying spaces. Bright continued to weave his way to the by-line at will, sliding past defenders like vapour.
We went 3-1 up with creative muse Bright tossing about metaphorical grapes and luxuriating indolently on his cloud of elegant ease. Throughout the game our one-touch interchanges were a sight to behold. Even Bakayoko was looking like he had control of his feet. And the third goal, while lacking the poetic denouement, probably wins the build-up award. Bright Cruyff-turned himself into trouble before exchanging a furious one-two with Mason, before skipping away into the acre of space he’d created for himself. Jordi peeled off to the left and with little else on, registered an imperfect dig that spooned over the keeper and into the near corner.
This was probably the goal I celebrated the most deliriously. We hadn’t yet revealed quite how porous we were intending to be, and while not insurmountable, even I conceded that losing from this position would a good effort. Fans cascaded over the seats and ended up in boozy and disbelieving aisle piles. It was stupidly fun.
I’m reluctant to give him proper coverage: Thomas fails to shoot again. We kept our spirits up by loudly wondering whether the Sunderland fans were about to cry.
Thomas then set-up another move, breaking through a weak tackle before releasing the ball to the lurking Bright, who should really have continued the momentum and played in the vacant Hiwula, but he was still Bright, and his low shot deflected out for a corner.
More of these incidents followed: us breaking away with gay abandon, Sunderland defenders trailing in our wake. Our decision making was often poor and we could have been four or five to the good.
The almost forgotten reality of things occasionally broke through the mist, Bakayoko’s excellent plonk out of play when he was completely unmarked and free to run through on goal provoked some decent laughter.
With five minutes to go until halftime, we were looking well set. Then Burge came for a cross but hadn’t decided whether to catch it or punch it. Hyam aided Burge by blocking the striker beautifully. Burge ended up sort of air hugging the ball, fumbled it miserably, and then they tucked it away. His mind must be elsewhere because this has become unacceptably frequent of late. Catching an unchallenged ball is basic stuff and it could have really cost us. If he’s not going to concentrate, then let’s not bother playing him.
Sunderland then had us penned in for the remainder of the half. A very similar cross came in, was headed back across goal, and the knockdown was scruffily turned past Burge.
We were silenced. A few chimes of song emerged from the home end but they quickly reverted to their default mute setting. From here, the only possible destination looked like a Sunderland victory. This young side had dazzled for 15 minutes, but throwing away a two-goal lead would surely be a psychological blow too stunning to rise from.
I realised at halftime that once your team stops smashing in worldies, in the deep shade of that giant stand, it gets a whole lot colder. I added my final layer and dug myself into my seat, vaguely aware of a small girl sitting in front of me who’d spent the whole half not just NOT watching the game, but facing the opposite direction while playing on her iPad. If even this game can’t hold your interest, I think we can conclude that four years old is too young for a kid to go to an away game.
I fired off some tweets soggy with superlatives and mild exhaustion. Kelly had been phenomenal, Bayliss wasn’t even PLAYING for Christ sake, Shipley had stepped up, Hyam was a colossus, Bright/Hiwula/Baka/Thomas/Mason were killing it, Sterling and Davies were our only inconspicuous players.
Sunderland had a weak penalty shout just after kick off. Once we had had time to get back into our rhythm, the chances continued to flow.
Hiwula broke menacingly from a corner, a tidy exchange with Shipley prefaced Bright’s refusal to shoot – and marked the start of his gradual decline from nirvana into the infuriating sludge of indecision we know and somewhat like.
It wasn’t all us, however. Hyam made two incredible tackles in quick succession to save us from serious Mackem threat, and the impetus was wavering.
That made the timing of goal number four all the better. After being released down the right-hand side, Baka put his previous dribbling woes behind him and drove towards goal. Seeing the run of a marauding midfielder, his ball was controlled and then dinged into the bottom corner by someone I couldn’t quite believe was Jordan Shipley. He skipped towards the Sunderland fans, slid on his knees and then dusted off his shirt. Bayliss who.
More absolute delirium in the away end – though my celebration was laced with a degree of reserve, so meaningless had goals seemingly become. What does a goal mean when it’s replacement is just a few minutes away.
We could scarcely see what had happened except for the tell tale bulge of the net. Jordan bloody Shipley.
Sunderland, having looked and sounded like they meant business, felt this fresh blow keenly. They broke with force and Burge and Hyam were both needed to clear a ball basically off the line. A direct free-kick was wasted by Sunderland and Burge thought about another cock up, over controlling back passes to within an inch of tragedy on numerous occasions.
Thomas: doesn’t shoot.
The art of taking shots first and asking questions later was demonstrated once again by Sunderland, who equalised with yet another miserably village goal. A neat approach move got dropped back to the edge of the box and the tame shot trickled past Burge – once again utterly irrelevant due to the deflection.
Their fans woke up again, as did the Cov missile throwers. I’ve since read reports that, in addition to flares and plastic bottles, a bag of human faeces was thrown onto the family stand. The thought that one of our mindless fans even has the braincells required to plan the logistics of pooing into a bag in a stadium makes me sceptical. Not nice though, is it, bringing little Billy to his first game and having to explain that, “No, little Billy, they don’t normally throw their own poos on us. Come on, let’s go home.”
Speaking of animals, I really want to emphasise the ludicrous performance of Dom Hyam. Seems odd to eulogise a defender when we’ve conceded 4, but he was a man mountain from start to finish.
Robins made some subs. Chaplin and Wakefield replaced the fading Bright and the battered Luke Thomas. Chaplin’s first touch was a round the corner with his back to goal. Six seconds later: his second touch was controlling Wakefield’s cross, his third and fourth beat two defenders, his fifth was a smash into the top corner. Welcome back Conor.
This one, I genuinely struggled to believe. I looked round at the faces of the once again tumbling piles of Cov fans and disbelief was etched on them all. A kind of scratching, raw scream tumbled out, the 3 thousand utterly defeated by the circus unfolding in front of them. In a week where our homelessness has potentially been confirmed, and off the field events have taken yet another bad turn, the contrasting tenor of the game was almost comic.
But it still wasn’t over. At no point did I think a one-goal lead would be enough to win this fixture. No sane person can have thought that.
The chances continued to rack up. Bakayoko was put through on goal but refused to square to Chaplin to make it six. Hiwula broke like greased lightning from their free kick but couldn’t convert. Eight minutes of added time was announced – probably a result of the hours our players spent on the floor, nursing injuries and fatigue (real or imagined).
The announcement of added time brought one short roar and then the Mackems sat down quietly to see what would happen. No rocking, no rolling, no sucking a goal in. Passive observance. It was stultifyingly unintimidating – they had come full circle.
Hyam saved his best for last: a ridiculous sliding tackle on the byline, followed by a perfect bicycle kick from the floor to perfectly clear the danger. He clutched his hamstring in pain to raise the awful possibility of a final five minute without our talisman.
The frankly mental pace of the game was typified by Wakefield (who’d only been on the pitch for 15 minutes) giving up on a ball out of sheer exhaustion. I gave him some dog’s abuse for this but in fairness, he’s probably never been involved in anything remotely close to this in his entire career.
A final free kick was blazed over and the Sunderland fans began to stream out, giving credence to the scarcely fathomable possibility that we were about to win.
The whistle blew. Unbeaten at home for the entire season, and having lost only twice in the league – we had made extremely hard work of annihilating Sunderland.
The players came over and saluted the rocking away end. The queues of Sunderland fans waiting to leave the ground were forced to look over at our jubilation – memories of their recently abandoned losing habit stirring in the April sunshine.
We serenaded Bakayoko and Hiwula and Robins and belted out songs until they reluctantly retreated to the dressing room.
I tried not to think about the essential meaninglessness of this win, and how it demonstratively makes our inability to conquer poor sides at home, and our consequent failure to make the playoffs, even more galling.
Perhaps it’s not meaningless. As I’ve mentioned, it’s been a horrible week at the club, and who knows what the future holds. Surely it’s days like yesterday that will keep our club alive, will keep people coming, and will keep us all believing.
I won’t be giving up any time soon. See you at Pompey.