Pete Sixsmith had almost forgotten what it was like to have to churn out, week after week, doom-laden masterpieces combining gallows humour and sharp footballing analysis. It had been relatively upbeat so far, a tolerable pre-season followed by a decent start in league and cup. The visit of Leeds United changed all that. So were we put in our place, ominously so? Or is it just a case of getting back to the drawing board as things will work out fine? Read on …
The thump as we fell to earth was a resounding one and could be heard all over Wearside. After a good start to our (hopefully short) life in the Championship, we came up against the first really well organised side that we have played this season and ended up distinctly second best.
The unchanged team looked leggy but the bench suggested that we had little in the line of genuine alternatives, particularly up front, where the only forward named was an untried 19-year-old.
Midfield was little better with neither Gibson or Khazri inspiring a great deal of confidence while the veteran O’Shea and the previously anonymous and largely invisible Matthews were not seen as an improvement on what was there.
In O’Shea’s case that was right as Browning and Kone played well and stopped the visitors from attacking us through the middle. As Leeds were without Chris Wood, on his way across the Pennines to Burnley, that job was made much easier but both look good.
However, I fear that the Ivorian will be on his way in the next 10 days with West Brom looking a likely destination as Jonny Evans completes his move to Manchester City.
I am a great admirer of Evans and remember his two spells at Sunderland with great affection. However, paying in excess of £20m for a 29-year-old central defender shows how mad the transfer market is. Still, if it makes West Brom spend 60 per cent of that on a sometimes brilliant, sometimes sulky Kone, we may be able to invest some of it in a creative midfield player.
For that is where our problems lay on Saturday. The midfield two of Ndong and Cattermole did well at Norwich and Sheffield Wednesday where they could sit and move the ball out wide as the home team pushed forward allowing McGeady to weave his magic and Honeyman to run at defenders who were looking to attack.
Here, they had to push forward as Leeds sat back and that is not a role that they are comfortable in.
Cattermole enjoys playing in front of the back four and challenging players as they come at him, a role he played reasonably effectively in the Premier League. His poor passing and heading were covered up by his tenacity and physical endeavour, but here, where he is given more room to be “creative” he cannot do it. Leeds were happy to block off his options leaving him struggling to achieve anything worthwhile.
Ndong is by far the better of the two and it would be a relief if he were still in a Sunderland shirt after the (cliché alert) “window slams shut.” Here he at least tried to bring the ball forward with more success than his partner and he tackled well. He reads a game far better than Cattermole who tends to be pulled out of position far too easily.
One thing they have in common is their complete inability to score. Catts has two (one deflection at Spurs and a belter at West Brom) and Ndong just the one in that strange 4-0 win at Selhurst Park (nice to see them in the relegation zone; long may it continue).
But you need to score goals from central midfield and we just don’t.
Three of our five goals have come from Lewis Grabban and he almost made it six when Vaughan broke quickly and played him in. He created space for himself; picked his spot, beat the keeper – and the ball crashed down from the underside of the bar for Lewis Coper to hack clear.
Apart from that, we rarely had a sniff at goal although Billy Jones should have pulled one back in added time which could have led to an interesting final five minutes – but he didn’t. Vaughan desperately needs a goal and became progressively more ineffective as the game went on while neither McGeady nor Honeyman are prolific scorers (though both have scored this season – Ed).
So, a central midfielder who can chip in with 10 goals a season or a winger who can finish would seem to be priorities for Simon Grayson.
Maybe we can rustle up some cash for Robert Snodgrass or Ross McCormack, although I can see at least one of them ending up at Elland Road as United recycle some of the Wood money.
We have a problem with Brendan Galloway at the moment. His Everton colleague Tyias Browning has settled in well and looks a good player. Unfortunately Galloway has done neither. He was easily beaten for Derby’s goal a couple of weeks ago, but was given a torrid time by Yanic Wildschut last week and was taken apart by a combination of Ezjgan Alioski and Samuel Saiz – fine old Yorkshire names those – that led to the decisive opening goal for United.
He continued to struggle and the injury in the 55th minute was probably more diplomatic than serious. Adam Matthews tightened it up when he came on and the return of Bryan Oviedo may tighten it further. I expect him to play at Carlisle on Tuesday.
I expect a few more to play as well. Jason Steele has done nothing wrong but Robbin Ruiter deserves a game, while Papy Djilobodji may well come in for his first game. Expect to see Jack Rodwell start alongside Darron Gibson and maybe Lynden Gooch partnering Joel Asoro up front.
As for Leeds, I was impressed. Their manager got it right with his tactics, making sure that we had no room and he has clearly learnt a lot from the rugby league boys at Headingley – and before any Leeds-supporting readers explode with anger, I mean that as a compliment.
Like the Rhinos they tackle in groups. Every time we got near their goal, there were two or three players crowded round our forward players. Cooper and Jansson were excellent, winning most headers and tackles and even Vurnon Anita had a good game. They were disciplined and organised and, on this showing, if we finish above them, we will be promoted. Their game may be better suited to playing away from Elland Road as two wins out of two suggest.
For the manager, he now has to think very carefully about the next two games. Losing at Carlisle would be an embarrassment but not a catastrophe. Winning with changes would be a bonus. The Barnsley game is far more important; while not a “must win” one, it is a game that should be won as the Tykes have lost a whole crop of good players in the last few months.
Saturday evening spoiled a good weekend. The trip to Headingley for the St Helens game was emotional as the Rhinos won in front of the South Stand, as evocative to Leeds RLFC fans as the Roker End was to us, and there was a moving parade of former heroes, including my second all-time hero, Lewis Jones (no need to tell you who comes first).
On Saturday lunchtime I was part of a 1,400 crowd at Mariners Park as a Julio-less South Shields made progress in the FA Cup, beating Bridlington Town 3-1. The South Shields story is a remarkable one as they move steadily through the leagues after nearly folding a few years ago. They have an owner who, at the moment, is putting money into the club.
Maybe our owner needs to do the same. He has been bitten too many times by managers who have wasted money on the likes of Prica, Gardner, Graham, Giaccherini, Bridcutt, Lens and Januzaj and he is clearly loth to put much more in.
The debts are horrendous but they will not go away if we are becalmed in the middle/lower regions of the Championship. The arrival of someone like Snodgrass, McCormack or a creative midfielder might just move us up a level. Grayson (still admired by the Leeds support) doesn’t look like the kind of man to waste it on untried Argentinians, useless Americans or sulky Dutchmen.
As the city motto almost says Nil Desperandum Auspice Grayson. Look it up in your Latin primer……..