We expect changes for the Checkatrade Trophy and here at Salut! Sunderland, with Pete Sixsmith otherwise engaged at what for him is busy time of year, Malcolm Dawson once again steps off the bench and onto the soapbox with his perspective on a cold night at the Stadium of Light.
Pete and I travelled in together and (as you do) spent part of the journey trying to predict which of the fringe players would start the game and bearing in mind that the competition has strict regulations about the make up of the teams clubs are allowed to put out, which of the more familiar faces would make the team.
The discussion was made somewhat easier by the fact that we knew already that Bali Mumba would start, that the three Dutchmen, Ruiter, Loovens and Ozturk would be given game time and that Duncan Watmore had been cleared to make a long awaited start after his second lengthy spell in the treatment rooms. We got it more or less 100% right as we both expected Jack Bainbridge, who had impressed at Morecambe, Brian Oviedo, Max Power, Luke O’Nien and Jerome Sinclair to run out for kick off. The one we didn’t get was Dylan McGeouch. The David Vaughan lookalike had missed a few of our recent games and had obviously been deemed fit enough to get 90 minutes under his belt for the hectic schedule ahead.
Vaughan incidentally, like McGeouch wearing number 8 got a good reception on his return to his old stomping ground as did substitute Jon Stead in recognition that both had been honest, hardworking performers during their times at the club. I can think of a few of our ex-players who might be considered more talented but who wouldn’t feel any warmth from the home faithful.
A caller to Total Sport as we drove into town suggested we go out and spend £10 million on Robert Huth and someone like the Barnsley centre forward Kieffer Moore. Marco Gabbiadini has more patience than either Pete or myself as he tried to explain that firstly the club doesn’t have that sort of money to spend, secondly that a player like Robert Huth is unlikely to sign anyway but that the club is subjected to restrictions on what they pay out in wages and thirdly that Charlie Wyke will be fit again soon. Marco must get fed up with the number of calls he has to deal with from those who see things in such simplistic terms without actually understanding the complexities of running a football club but then if you can do it on the Playstation or XBox why can’t it be done in real life?
James Fowler had done the pre-match press conference and had been on the sidelines at Morecambe but Jack Ross was much more visible for this game and unlike Morecambe (which had more or less been a dead rubber) this had his stamp all over it.
We lined up in the unbalanced 4-4-2 or if you prefer the asymmetric 3-5-2. Ross obviously likes his players to be versatile and to be able to play in a variety of systems and they all appeared to understand what was expected of them. There was a fluidity in the shape with Oviedo and Ozturk especially, just subtly managing the areas of the pitch they were working. At times we appeared to have a back four, with wide left full back but with the right back tucked in a little more, then when Oviedo pushed higher up the field, Ozturk would drop into a slightly more central position to form a flat back three.
Power and McGeouch were the two midfielders in front of the back line, Mumba mostly played wide right, a role in which we have seen Maguire and Gooch this season, O’Nien linked the play centrally and was busy all night, while Sinclair and Watmore, both players who like to drag opposition defenders all over the place, started as a front two.
Ruiter was part of that disastrous triumvirate last season but has looked more assured when given an opportunity this time round. He had a relatively untroubled night against the Magpies but made a good double save, firstly from a Kristian Davis header which looked goal bound, then getting his body in the way to stop with his feet as County tried to put away the rebound. On his performances this season I wouldn’t be unhappy if Ruiter was kept on as McLaughlin’s back up but with his contract running out in the summer and Max Stryjeck on loan, getting match time and experience I expect the Dutchman to be on his way, possibly in the January window.
There was a lot to like about what was a professional and assured display from our boys last night.
Watmore looks up to speed, literally and he will have benefited from competitive minutes on the pitch. What his team mates, few of whom had played with him before, seemed not to appreciate was his pace and a few times he was forced to check his run when an earlier ball could have seen him burst through the County defence. That said he had a good game, wasn’t afraid to shoot on sight and will give JR alternatives and bring a new dimension to his attacking options. His goal was a bit fortunate. He burst clear on the left and fired in a good hard shot. Ross Fitsimmons made a good save but the unfortunate Daniel Jones, running back into the penalty box was unable to do anything about the rebound which struck him on the body and because of the force of Watmore’s initial shot still had enough momentum to fly into the net.
Sinclair as he always does worked hard and was always looking for the ball. He had a good chance saved in the first half and I said to the bloke next to me that I felt sure if he could bag a couple of goals it would do his confidence a world of good and he could be an important player as the season progresses. He’s not the greatest challenging for high balls and has a propensity to switch the ball to his right foot, when a earlier ball played into the box with his left, or a left footed shot may have been better options but he is a player who shows a good attitude and a desire to do well. I hope those so called supporters who always look for the negative and need a player to whinge about, don’t have an effect on his self belief and get him questioning his own ability. He doesn’t need that. He made sure he took the penalty in the second half and put it away well sending the keeper the wrong way and finding the opposite corner.
Loovens and Ozturk have both suffered from the social media self appointed experts who are quick to tell everyone about perceived failings – a bit like the bloke I talked to in the pub who knew that Loovens was too slow and Ozturk not up to the job, even though he hasn’t been to a game this season. As it happens both had good solid games last night. Loovens assured read the game well, Ozturk solid and always looking for a probing ball to get the attack going. Alongside them Jack Bainbridge didn’t look out of place and with Baldwin and Flanagan, social media favourites, both having shaky moments in recent games despite looking like a settled and effective partnership could find any of those three challenging their places on the team sheet.
Mumba was lively on the right. He has a good head on young shoulders and a lovely touch. He settled into the game well and became more influential as the game went on. Late in the game he found himself in front of goal with a great opportunity to score. His shot was blocked and his disappointment was plain for all to see as he lay on the ground and beat the pitch like Mickey Finn used to beat the congas in the early days of Tyrannosaurus Rex
Power and McGeouch were calm in the centre and both will be pressing for starts even when Honeyman and Cattermole are fit. Power took the armband and directed the troops well, cajoling and encouraging. McGeough was assured and generally chose the simple pass maintaining possession as those around him looked to make space. A bit like the late Butch Wilkins, his first instinct seems to be to play the ball backwards or sideways but it was his pass to Watmore which led to the first goal. He is a quietly effective player who doesn’t always catch the eye but proved his worth again last night. He has been another good signing for us this season.
Oviedo proved a constant threat down the left, though he does like his step overs and there were times when an earlier ball into the box might have been a better option. He had a couple of powerful efforts almost finding the net and one especially which hit the side netting from a tight angle would have knocked the keeper off his feet had it been a foot or so to the right. Power too had some good long range efforts blocked or just off target.
O’Nien buzzed about all night. Physically he looks deceptively lightweight but full of enthusiasm, he hassled and harried all night and supported the front two well. He’ll be another who might not get that many starts but is an important part of the squad and will be trusted to do a good job when required. I’ve every confidence he will.
The subs did well. Kimpioka especially was lively. He has great feet, good speed and linked up well with Bali Mumba. The two of them split the Magpies’ defence apart and as Benji broke into the box was brought down just as he was about to pull the trigger. Whether Sinclair was the appointed penalty taker or not, it was he that was determined to take the kick.
This was a competent proficient dismantling of a team that are struggling to stay in the Football League and have just appointed a new manager. We are seeing a club that at last is being run in a professional manner. Things are looking better on and off the pitch. We should be celebrating this fact.
Ha’way the Lads.