Pete Sixsmith’s festive commitments means he has only one more game to miss before he returns to these pages after the Boxing Day fixture against Bradford City so once again Malcolm Dawson takes to the soapbox to report on yesterday’s game against a Bristol Rovers side looking to turn their season around.
This game had banana skin written all over it and though I tried to avoid using hackneyed prose, I can’t think of a better way to describe my feelings pre-match. This was a Bristol Rovers side which hadn’t won for ages, had disposed of the services of their manager only two days before who was immediately followed out of the door by his assistant and a team who even their own fans expected to get beat comfortably. Banana skin.
At the start of the campaign, despite the club’s stated ambition being automatic promotion, there was I felt a sense of realism amongst our support, acknowledging that we would not always have things our own way and that it would be a tough, if achievable accomplishment. Contributors to our WAY series also suggested that no matter how well things appeared to be going we should not be surprised if we suffered a home defeat to a lowly club. This is a tough league and we will need to scrap to get out of it.
Had this been earlier in the season I think that yesterday’s result would have been seen as progress after the tribulations of recent years but I sense that some of our fans have the attitude that “we are a big club and we should be thrashing everyone in this division” which is somewhat disrespectful to our opponents, none of whom will simply roll over and allow us an easy victory. In fact only in the 3-0 win over Scunthorpe did I sense that we were on top for most of the game.
In his post match comments Jack Ross mentioned the apprehension in the ground which was apparent yesterday. On Tuesday, despite the fact that one quick goal would have led to extra time and possibly penalties, muttering supporters started walking out on 80 minutes, disgruntled that we were behind. There were only 8,000 for the cup replay but let’s hope we are not going to see a return to mass walk outs when we are behind in the second half.
Yesterday, once having conceded, I too could sense a pervading pessimism. But one of the many changes in the club that has happened since the summer is that we now have a group of players who don’t let their heads drop and will continue to look for ways to win the game. Yesterday was no exception.
It was cold and windy and I was grateful for the thermal layers I had put on, even if it does make going to the loo a long drawn out process. Not easy conditions to play in but we’ve all done it if we’ve played the game at any level.
We lined up in a sort of 4-5-1 formation but JR is flexible in the way he sets up his teams and it was Lee Cattermole who was the deep-lying midfield player, with Power playing higher up the pitch than in previous games, Honeyman all over the place, McGeady and Gooch, nominally left and right wingers and Maja in front of goal, but Gooch and Maja in particular were constantly moving around, dropping deep, going wide, taking up central positions. Loovens had come in for Flanagan at the back, Oviedo took the place of James who had been due to start and Matthews returned at right back to play alongside Baldwin.
We started brightly, but the opposition hadn’t come here just to defend and should have opened the scoring when a free kick was whipped in from the Rovers’ right and centre half Tony Craig found himself unmarked at the near post and inexplicably headed wide from four yards with the goal gaping. It was an easy chance and a warning shot from The Pirates.
Not long after they did go in front. Neat work down the right wing led to the ball being pulled back from the goal line into Liam Sercombe in front of goal. His first touch wasn’t great which allowed a lunging Adam Matthews to get a foot in an attempt to clear the ball, but it fell nicely for Alex Rodman who side footed home from 12 yards.
But this Sunderland side is resilient and stays true to the Jack Ross way of playing. Jack Ross knows a hell of a lot more about managing and coaching a football team than me, so I’m not going to criticise but as an observer it seems that sometimes the emphasis on possession and a patient build up can become over-complicated.
There was a moment in the second half when George Honeyman had possession on the left wing, Rovers had been left short at the back and Gooch was running into acres of space, but the skipper checked, looked around, the defence reorganised and the chance had gone. Baldwin, as he has done quite a bit recently, has conceded possession looking for a pinpoint pass and on one occasion, Cattermole looking up to see what was on, took his eye off the ball and was dispossessed a few yard in front of the penalty area. I’m nitpicking maybe and once again the Lads came from behind to register a win, but it took a while and the manager and players are more patient than certain sections of the crowd.
We were to equalise just before half time when a shot from McGeady was parried by Rovers’ keeper Jack Bonham and the man who I have dubbed the Welsh Pele, Adam Matthews was on hand to nod home. The move typified the Jack Ross approach as the move started when Lee Cattermole back heeled to Honeyman. He in turn found Lynden Gooch who lost his marker and sent the ball out wide to McGeady. The rest as they say is history and it was a great time to score.
The crowd’s frustrations (and presumably the players) came from three or four other decent opportunities we had before the goal. Power fired wide from distance as the ball broke for him following a tackle on Josh Maja inside the box. Then Oviedo and McGeady combined and the Irishman found Power on the edge of the penalty area. His chip was met almost perfectly by Josh Maja but his header went just over. Oviedo marauding down the left sent over a peach of a cross and Lee Cattermole, steaming in at the far post saw his half volley rattle the angle of post and crossbar and rebound to safety. Then Power found Maja, who took the ball into the area, beat his man and fired a left foot shot across the goal from a tight angle. It was admittedly beginning to feel like “one of those days” and it is a mark of how clinical Maja has been this season that there is an overwhelming sense of disappointment when he fails to score from that position.
It was Gooch who perhaps had the best chance before the goal eventually came. Once again Oviedo was proving a threat down the left and he pulled the ball back to the American, in space 20 yards from goal. He would expect to find the target most times but leaned back just a touch as he fired in his shot and it sailed over the bar. But we were asserting our authority and deserved to go in level at the interval.
No changes at half time and there wasn’t long to wait to see us go ahead. McGeady who was on the edge of the centre circle, played a quick ball to Maja. As he does, Maja took the ball into the box and despite there being three yellow shirts around him, beat his man, who ended up on his backside and found the net with a crisp right footer. Cue the celebrations and the hope we would kick on. It was another typical Maja goal and no wonder the 19 year old looked disheartened when he was asked to make way for Chris Maguire later. Let’s hope Jack Ross explains his decision to Maja’s satisfaction and he signs a new deal soon. In the Netflix documentary “Sunderland ‘Til I Die” Louis Grabban states it was Coleman constantly subbing him in the 70th minute that made him decide to go back to Bournemouth as he wanted to play the full 90 minutes. Maja is a sensible young man and must surely realise that at his age he is unlikely to get the game time he is getting here at a bigger club. Hopefully he’ll commit another few years to the club.
Although there were no more goals, we had further chances to score. Power hit a thunderbolt from long range which rebounded off the crossbar to Maguire who struck the ball first time and also hit the woodwork. Then as the Gas pushed forward McGeady found himself in space on the break but fired his shot wide. A goal then would have put the game to bed and I thought we had deserved our victory, though if I had been one of the 1200 fans who had travelled up from Bristol I would have been disappointed to leave without a point. Rovers nearly got one.
I never leave before the final whistle and rarely, when called upon to do the Seven, send it before full time but not long after the board indicating the 5 minutes of stoppage time had gone up I fired one off to John and Colin. I should have known better as there was still time for Rovers to threaten an equaliser.
Ruiter had come on for McLaughlin whose back was giving him gip and the Dutchman came off his line to narrow the angle when Steffan Payne broke free into the front right hand corner of the penalty area. The Dutchman probably did enough to make the target less obvious but a good shot which hit the bar, once again reminded me why it’s dangerous to take anything for granted as I hurriedly sent off a second text, relieved we had hung on for the win.
The walk back to the car was horrendous. It had started hailing – that really small hard hail and a strong wind was whipping it into my eyes and stinging the small amount of exposed skin I had under the hood of my coat. It couldn’t have been easy for either side finishing the match in those conditions but three more points and with Portsmouth starting to slip up, next week’s match becomes all important. Pompey will be top on Christmas Day but we will have two games in hand.
It will be tough next Saturday with the bookies’ favourites for promotion in direct competition. Can we get back on top for New Years Day? Don’t ask me now but I might have a better idea next Sunday.
Ha’way the Lads