Monsieur Salut writes: my thanks to Dave Suddick, from our Facebook group, for the shot of SAFC’s marvellous travelling support as seen from his seat with a Charlton friend. I felt for an unexpectedly absent Pete Sixsmith, recuperating after surgery but in remarkably good spirits before and after, as I joined my pal and former colleague Kevin Maguire, and his pals from the Jarrow branch of the SAFCSA, at the Valley. Dave’s photo reminds me of Kevin’s own memories of Roker Park; he was a Fulwell Ender but once went into the Roker End just to see what the Fulwell looked like.
We were in for decent value for our £24 tickets though the entertaining nature of the game could not overcome Sunderland supporters’ disappointment that having weathered a Charlton storm after their fortunate equaliser, we could not take chances that would have lifted us to second place ….
A point many Sunderland fans might have accepted before kickoff felt like two lost at the end of a full-blooded, action-packed game at the Valley.
We started brightly and scored. We ended strongly and squandered opportunities to send the 3,000+ away fans home in ecstasy.
But it would be disingenuous to suggest we were robbed.
Ending the first half comfortably, we then went close to throwing it away. At the interval we were defending an early lead, Reece James’s fine cross after superb work from Lynden Gooch having been volleyed into the net by our star man Luke O’Nien, and we ought to have had more. Gooch hit the bar and Charlie Wyke was twice lacking a clinical finish but we began the second half more hesitantly.
The muscular, ever-dangerous Lyle Taylor inspired the home team’s comeback, shooting from the right – er, seeing it again makes it clear it was a cross – and poor James deflecting it past Jon McLaughlin. This led to a spell of intense pressure and Taylor, disliked in our end because he had refused a move to Sunderland, was one of two players who really ought to have given them the lead.
Old habits returned: retreating too deep, sending passes astray, carelessly conceding free kicks just outside the penalty box. Composure disappeared, the midfield surrendered command and Charlton suddenly looked the better side. Only solid goalkeeping, crucial blocks and Charlton wastefulness kept us in the game.
The substitutions of Duncan Watmore for Gooch and Chris Maguire for Josh Maja, of whom more later, made a significant difference. Watmore was instantly a threat, running at the Charlton defence and making things happen (or almost happen). Maguire provided a little more thrust.
Maja, who – I am delighted to say – received a warm welcome and when subbed, applause from the Sunderland support (which he acknowledged), played well throughout, but mostly with his ball control on the wings and his layoffs. Service to him in and around the box was poor, though a clear tug on him by a Charlton defender in front of goal went unnoticed by the referee Steve Martin, otherwise mostly competent. Wyke did not have a great match, but will improve with game time.
Yet after resisting the Charlton onslaught, Sunderland finished the game on top. Watmore’s runs, sadly, lacked – as I remember them too often doing in the Premier League – that final piece of magic. He too will get better as he adapts once again to the rigours of first-team action, but his body language showed his own disappointment when, from an enticing cross from Max Power in stoppage time, he scooped the ball high over the bar. He knew, as we did, that a good chance of a glorious winner – and second place – had just been wasted.
It was a good game for this level, played with real commitment and occasional bursts of skill by two good sides. A draw was a fair result, even if we allow ourselves to be deluded into thinking the positive finish merited the three points.
And the game was another reminder of how appealing football is at this level. The Valley may lack the romance of its history, so grippingly captured by Pete Sixsmith in his outstanding preview, but it is a neat and attractive stadium.
The home fans are welcoming, though not as welcoming as they might be; the Jarrow lads had directed us to the Bugle Horn, so Kevin and I went two bus stops past the ground to join them.
The pub promised fine real ales and looked impressive from the outside, but the outside was to be all we would see. The polite but unyielding landlady was (wo)manning the door to tell all and sundry “I have my quota and the pub is full up”.
Full is obviously a subjective adjective in these circumstances; a glance through a window at the interior suggested the criterion she used would halve takings if applied at the Colliery Tavern, the Wheatsheaf or the Howard Arms. I considered trying the “don’t you know who he is?” line but suspect she’d have been quite unmoved by the presence of a thirsty political pundit.
So we made do, after trudging back down the hill, with hot drinks from a van outside the away end, where we met Ian Todd, founder of the London branch of the SAFCSA, and our former one-word player ratings man Rob Hutchison, accompanied by his son Olivia and daughter Louis. Some of you will remember Olivia from her parachute jump in aid of the Bradley Lowery appeal.
No sympathy from the Hutchisons – dad is tee-total and Olivia is well into her dry January (Kevin is, too, but my own – a much rarer event – starts on Monday so I could have done with a wetter send-off). I bet the chap in the Durham branch seats made sure he had a stiff drink after taking one heck of a whack on the head from a wayward shot during the SAFC warm-up in front of our end.
All in all, those mishaps aside, an enjoyable awayday. I may be in a tiny minority in caring relatively little about the Mags in the Checkatrade, but that’s only because we are now approaching one of the most important games of the season, second-top Luton at home. I’d like to win twice, of course, but Luton is the big one.
Let’s hope Sixer’s recovery is swift enough to get him along to the SoL on both Tuesday and Saturday as well as keeping the good folk of Shildon supplied with the daily papers he delivers rather than settling for the pipe and slippers of retirement from teaching.
And finally, since I’ve been on about the Jarrow branch and to make up for the loss of the photo from the Portsmouth game Soapbox (Salut! Sunderland crashed that night and lots of content was lost), here again are its celebrated stalwarts: