Malcolm Dawson writes……whilst not mathematically denying us one of the two automatic promotion spots, yesterday’s result finally extinguished any realistic hope of avoiding the lottery that is the play-offs. At the start of the season I don’t suppose there are many supporters who would have said that only losing a total of three games out of 44, two by the odd goal and one after having a man sent off early doors, would be considered a failure but there are plenty of brickbats being thrown around in the wake of our 19th draw of the season.
A draw was really of no use to either side (although Portsmouth might still get an automatic promotion spot if they can win their last two games and either Barnsley or Luton fail to get maximum points next Saturday) so I was surprised that Pompey weren’t more adventurous in their play and that they were prepared to indulge in a lot of the time wasting tactics that seem prevalent in this division and having succeeded in getting Glenn Loovens sent off at Fratton Park, seemed to be trying the same trick, this time with Aiden McGeady one of their prime targets.
Some pundit or other was saying on the radio how successful Tottenham’s season has been so far and this is a side that has lost 12 times from 36 games. The ease with which social media allows instant reaction will no doubt be rife with those quick to point out how dreadful this result was towards the end of what to them has been a dreadful season. But those taking a more thoughtful and objective view will be of the opinion that our disappointment stems from hope and expectation. Some of us hoped we might go straight back up whilst others expected us to run away with the division. Games we might have expected to have won have seen us drop points and while our record might have seen us finishing in the top two most seasons, this year the form of Barnsley, Luton and Portsmouth have meant it hasn’t. That Spurs record shows 12 defeats but only 1 draw and dropping points at home to the likes of Shrewsbury, Wycombe, Accrington Stanley, Oxford and Fleetwood as well as a failure to hold on to leads at Wycombe, Oxford and Scunthorpe have ultimately cost us a top spot.
What I haven’t been disappointed with this season, is the effort and commitment to the club that team have shown, even if they haven’t often been dominant in games and haven’t always been able to get all three points. Unlike some I can’t fault the attitude. But the big success for me, whether we go up or not is the efforts the club has gone to reconnect with the supporters and after years of being treated like a customer with my support less valued by the club than by my local supermarkets, I once again feel a part of the SAFC community. The parade of miners’ banners, one of which was from Eppleton where my dad worked most of his life and which dominated the view from my bedroom window when I was growing up, yet another example of how the ownership is trying to re-engage with fans and whilst there will be sound economic reasons for them doing so, I am pleased to see it.
Anyway, my introduction seems to be almost as long as Pete Sixsmith’s match report. He was less than complimentary about our opponents on the way home last night. Has he tempered his views after a night’s kip? Let’s find out.
It may well be that we have seen the last of Portsmouth for a while. The point they took on Saturday and the subsequent home game with Peterborough should be enough to see them finish in third place and then face two winnable legs against a stuttering Doncaster Rovers or a Coventry City side that they defeated at Easter.
We are more likely that to be facing Charlton Athletic, a side who have been in and around the play offs for much of the season and who have timed their run perfectly. They have momentum and could conceivably finish above us if we fail to win one of our last two games, leading to a first leg at home and a second leg at The Valley on a Saturday evening. Of course, Barnsley could implode at Bristol Rovers next Saturday and we could wallop both Fleetwood and Southend United. Couple that with a win for Accrington Stanley in front of the flare throwing, all singing, all dancing Portsmouth hordes and we would be promoted automatically.
It ain’t gonna happen, folks. Too many draws have left us in the situation that all of us feared – the dreaded play offs.
For all that they add excitement to the end of the season (and without them our season would already be at an end) we have a dismal record in this type of football. Twice we have got through to the final game and have lost. Twice we have lost in the semi-finals and have suffered. The mood amongst the support is that there will be no improvement on this.
Our strengths and weaknesses were there for all to see in this game.
The weather was bright and sunny, the stadium hosted another huge crowd (41,129), there was a crackling atmosphere with 3,500 housed in the Upper North Stand and we went at it from the start. Before some had taken their seats, Lewis Morgan hit the bar with an overhead kick and then seven minutes later was fouled by a complaining Nathan Thompson (of whom more later) and Max Power’s accurate free kick was headed home by the returning Tom Flanagan.
A second goal a la Donny Rovers would have been great but Portsmouth are a resilient bunch (other words will be used to describe them later, oh yes!!!) and they came back at us. In the 24th minute, we failed to clear a corner and the ball eventually fell to Jamal Lowe (more on him later as well, oh yes!!!) and he turned the ball into the net to equalise.
This was followed by a five minute delay as a Portsmouth supporter decided to celebrate by throwing a flare into the home crowd sitting below. Stupid, dangerous, potentially life threatening – but what one has come to expect from supporters who think that watching football is all about ringing bells, singing and clapping permanently and sneering at folk who have paid to watch a football match rather than join a love in. Along with Coventry City, they have been the most obnoxious bunch to visit Sunderland this season and their behaviour is reflected in the antics of their team – of which more later. Oh yes!!!
After that, we had the better chances. The keeper pulled off a fine save from Charlie Wyke just before the break, saved well from Max Power towards the end and saw a Will Grigg poke hit the post and go out for a goal kick.
We dominated the second half as Portsmouth defended effectively. The centre half, Matt Clarke was outstanding – tall, craggy but surprisingly mobile, he looked everything you would expect from a player at this level in a team striving to get out of it.
His colleague, Christian Burgess, was a of a different ilk. Pony tailed and tanned, he could well have passed the audition for one of those North American wrestling channels as he pulled, tugged and grappled with Wyke at every opportunity.
And that showed up one of our major weaknesses. We are not a nasty side. Portsmouth are – or were on this showing. They came for a point as the bare minimum and made sure that they got it by a combination of heavy challenges, feigning injury and disputing every decision made by Craig Pawson, who was another example of a Premier League referee parachuted in to take a big game and to no great effect. Stick to the 10,000 at Bournemouth or the 17,000 at Watford Craig.
We also lack a little bit of cunning on the ball. Every player worked hard. The spirit and the commitment are a million times better than the last two seasons but the quality is not there when we need it. A midfield player who can control a game and use the ball is vital in the last few games. We desperately need Dylan McGeouch back to give us some calmness in that role. And we need a second forward to play either with or behind Wyke. He did well enough on his own and gave as much as he got from Burgess in particular. He was desperately unlucky not to score and he may well have had claims for a penalty although it is often difficult for a referee to see who is wrestling who in the box.
Lee Cattermole was disciplined and highly effective, Max Power looks a good player again and George Honeyman works his socks off but does not have the quality to run a midfield. The two centre halves with Flanagan replacing Dunne did well, although marking James Vaughan is the footballing equivalent of making jokes about Chris Grayling.
Alim Ozturk has not put a foot wrong since his recall, and with hindsight (the greatest gift of all for the likes of me) he might have been a better bet earlier in the year. I don’t think that Sinclair would have brushed him aside at Oxford when he equalised at the end.
Aiden McGeady did all that he could to influence the game and Portsmouth knew that he was the key to Sunderland’s success. Enter Lowe and Thompson who had clearly been told to kick him and kick him often, particularly in the vicinity of his broken left foot.
This they did and when not kicking McGeady, they fell down at every tackle, feigned injury, dived in the box and thoroughly spoilt the positive impression that both had created at Wembley. Both are better than this, but both left the field branded as cheats by the majority of the crowd. Thompson incurred the wrath of Flanagan and it may well have been that which inspired the unpleasant spat after the final whistle. It wasn’t just those two. Brett Pittman (who should know better at his age) quibbled over every decision as did Tom Naylor who did his best to break the game up and drag Sunderland down to the level that he thought acceptable.
I was really disappointed and unhappy with their approach to the game. I rarely describe a side as “nasty” but that is a perfect description of Portsmouth on this showing. I’m sure that they can justify it by saying that they got a point from the game but I would not like to think that the team I watch would resort to the underhand tactics that Kenny Jackett and his coaching staff adopted for this game. Prior to this game, I had a lot of time for Jackett and know that he has achieved against the odds at Watford and Millwall. But not anymore.
Pompey fans of the non-flare throwing type will say that this is a classic example of sour grapes and they may well be right.
Our season has faded away with only one win out of the last five games while our rivals have been racking up the points. We go into the play offs on a bit of a downer and it will take a lot of work to get us through them successfully. Wins at Fleetwood and Southend may put us in better frame of mind but I have my doubts.
And I would not enjoy another Wembley clash with Portsmouth – team or support.