Malcolm Dawson writes………with Peter Sixsmith huffing and puffing his way around Weardale at this time of year, telling anyone who’ll listen (and a few who don’t want to) as he dishes out the Christmas cheer, just why it is that Santa wears red and white, his seat at the Stadium was going spare and so it fell to me to fill it and to subsequently step up onto his soapbox with my take on yesterday’s events.
OK I thought on my way to the ground, only two weeks ago new boss Chris Coleman was turning on the Christmas lights in Newport but the win over Burton last Saturday and his animated reaction at the final whistle had surely gone some way to reducing the negativity surrounding the football club. I hoped he could engineer an upturn in optimism around the Stadium of Light in a way that Big Sam seemed to and Moyes and Grayson had failed to do. I hoped that those who turned up would get behind the team and our pre-Christmas wassail cups would appear half full, rather than half empty on the journey home.
Last time I set off for a Saturday home game with Reading I had just gone through Houghton Cut when the news came that the match was off, just in time for me to make a left turn through Newbottle and to head off to Consett, where a Northern League club, high up in the Durham hills could get their pitch playable, when a Premier League side at sea level could not.
No such luck yesterday and I sat through a game which could just about be classed as a microcosm of Sunderland’s season so far.
It’s fair to say a succession of managers have had little luck on the injury front in recent times and the hoodoo struck again in the pre-match warm up, when Paddy McNair managed to tweak something, requiring nominated sub Darron Gibson to unexpectedly make the starting line up. Of course nothing was announced over the tannoy leaving those around wondering why the Irishman had taken the field in a comedy bald wig.
I actually thought we settled better and bossed the opening period. Playing a 4-2-3-1 shape with Cattermole and Gibson sitting in front of the back four and McGeady and McManaman we had a lot of possession and were passing the ball well. That said we weren’t really creating any clear cut chances. Honeyman had tried his luck and Oviedo had a decent shot just off target, but the best opportunity fell to The Biscuitmen, when after 20 minutes or so Yann Kermogant found himself free on the right of the penalty area and played a good ball into David Edwards, who six yards out met the ball with a powerful sidefoot. Fortunately for Robbin Ruiter and the rest of the Black Cats’ defence he leaned back as he did so and spooned the ball over the bar high into the seats of the North Stand. Kermogant himself had previously missed a good chance which our keeper was able to watch fly harmlessly high of the target
Cattermole and Gibson looked assured in their roles, though it was no surprise when Cattermole got himself a yellow card for a clumsy, rather than dirty challenge, joining McManaman for what had been another clumsy challenge and former Black Cat Paul McShane, who took one for the team, scything down Oviedo who was breaking free down the left wing, in the referee’s book. Then three minutes later, a stroke of luck or poor refereeing (take your pick) as Cattermole got away with another poor challenge which was worthy of a yellow card but went unpunished. Sighs of relief in the East Stand.
With the half coming to a close Oviedo made what looked like a good challenge on Aluko, on the goal line near the edge of the penalty area. From where I was sitting Aluko appeared to grab Oviedo’s throat and push the Costa Rican but after speaking to his assistant referee Keith Stroud decided to book both players before awarding a free kick to Sunderland. A torrent of boos followed this decision and more were to come a few minutes later deep in stoppage time.
Adam Matthews, who had been overlapping well on the right fired in a good cross. From my seat it looked as if it might have been going in anyway, but there was a tangle of players attacking the ball and it was bundled into the net. McManaman celebrated, the crowd around me was on its collective feet and the cheers rang out for a split second until a flagging linesman indicated all was not well. The cheers rapidly turned to a cacophony of boos as Stroud not only disallowed the goal but sent off McManaman for what we assumed was handball. Was it deliberate? Was he nudged into the ball by a defender as he jumped? Was he trying to avoid a heavy collision with the post? If you’ve seen the replays you’ll have your own opinion but to the man who matters it was enough to show the winger a second yellow and find out if the ground staff had remembered to turn on the immersion.
And so with the half drawing to a close the game was turned on its head and a team that struggles for wins with a full complement of players would have a whole half to survive a man down. Could we do it? Well not when we continue to make needless mistakes and leak goals through sloppy play. Just seven minutes into the half, McGeady, who shows some neat skills at times lost possession cheaply and from the counter attack, poor marking allowed Edwards to slide in for the opening goal as Aluko squared the ball across the six yard box.
Oviedo who had looked lively all afternoon and constituted our main attacking threat took a knock and on came Galloway who had only made the bench because of McNair’s late withdrawal. Then with just over 20 minutes to go the crowd were uplifted as Asoro came on to replace McGeady. It seems to be a common feeling amongst many of the Stadium of Light faithful, that inexperienced young players will provide the boost and the spark that more worldly wise seasoned professionals cannot. It happened with Duncan Watmore and now it is Asoro who is being heralded as the new saviour. But before he even had a minute to assert himself we were two down.
Kelly’s cross from the Reading right found Barrow unmarked at the back post to volley past a stranded Ruiter as Browning stood and watched. Then two minutes later it was all over as Barrow was again left without a marker and steered home Kermogant’s clever flick.
I suppose one advantage of having a smaller crowd, only 27,000 yesterday, means that the mass walk out isn’t quite so dramatic. Certainly the first wave of leavers had cleared the aisles and gangways by the time the third goal went in, but the second exodus was more obvious.
As if to prove a point Asoro was getting involved and trying to make a difference, making some mazy runs, getting in a good shot and taking long throws into the box. Indeed it was Asoro who engineered the goal. He chased down a typical Vito Mannone parry from his own good shot but was tripped when doing so. Grabban confidently dispatched the penalty but we all knew it was only ever going to be a consolation.
Pete Sixsmith gets to many more football matches than I do. Before the game I was hoping that I would have been able to tell him that I had witnessed something that he hadn’t. I was hoping I could tell him I had seen Sunderland win at home in 2017. No chance yesterday after we were reduced to 10 men.
Can I grab any positives from yesterday? It’s a sad state of affairs when I can say that I didn’t think that three high earners in Kone, Ndong and Rodwell were missed yesterday. At least Honeyman, Asoro and Gooch, in his cameo appearance, showed enthusiasm and didn’t look out of their depth at this level. With the possiblity that Grabban might be recalled to the south coast, either to play for The Cherries or to allow his sale in the January window, we could well need Asoro and Josh Maja to show what they can do.
The crowd gave Manonne, who obviously has personal worries, a warm and supportive welcome back, which was good. The fact that so many inside the Stadium transmit their frustrations to the team by booing and walking out early, I find less acceptable, though understandable.
Finally, by the time my dodgy knees had allowed me to negotiate the steep steps from Sixer’s seat, high up in Row 32, with no handrail for support, the loos were empty, there was no crowd to fight my way through to the car, the burger vans were devoid of customers with masses of unsold bread buns (shame I’m on a diet!) and I was able to get some shopping in at the Neville’s Cross branch of Sainsbury’s Extra by 6.00 pm and still be home for 6.30.
Chris Coleman, can have no illusions about the size of the task he faces. Remember Big Sam took his time to get the team sorted and needed a trio of decent signings in January to avoid relegation a couple of years back. Let’s hope the Welshman can do the same.