Malcolm Dawson writes…..the past few days have been a hectic time for our star reporter, Pete Sixsmith. Having been at the Shildon v Stranraer pre-season friendly, endured a soaking at Bishop Auckland, sunned himself at cricket in Scarborough, taken in a grand tour of Yorkshire mill towns by rail and then on to Carlisle for the first of back to back warm up games, last night’s visit to Hartlepool has left him exhausted.
This bright sunny Thursday morning sees him lying supine on the red velvet chaise longue at Sixsmith Towers with his copy of The Kenneth Horne Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and a DVD of The Hundred Greatest Moments from the North Dorset and South Wiltshire Combination Alliance League – Reserves Division to get him through the day. That and ever attentive butler Pardew, who keeps our sage’s glass of Dent Brewery “Owd Tup” topped up and regularly supplies him with morsels of Taylor’s pork pie.
So it falls to me to give the eye-witness view of events at Victoria Park last night and very interesting it was too ..
These games can be relatively meaningless. The need for the manager to get his team fit and the machinations of the transfer window means that the side put out will probably bear little resemblance to the first choice team we can expect to see come the beginning of September. For fans it is a chance to see new faces and fringe players and to have a look at the systems that are likely to be employed in the forthcoming campaign.
Costel Pantilimon, a goalkeeper so tall as to make Mart Poom seem normal sized, was the only one of the three summer signings to get any play time during this game and he was in action straight away. Whilst the stragglers who had failed to find their seats before kick off obscured the views of those of us who had, he had sliced a back pass high into corner of the home stand and saved at the near post, turning an early Hartlepool effort round the post with his legs. But things soon settled down and there was plenty of opportunity to debate the position of the Hartlepool strip in the all time list of most horrible football kits. Pink shirts with black side panels and sleeves gave it the air of ten men in training bibs and eventually it was ranked at number four, just failing to rise above the Newcastle United custard cream effort, the yellow and brown Huddersfield Town check and the infamous Coventry City brown jobbie but squeezing ahead of Carlisle United’s deck chair shirts.
So onto the game. The boys quickly settled down and took control. Cattermole sat just in front of the back 4 and could be heard shouting instructions to those around him. He did what he does with great aplomb but Lee wouldn’t be Cattermole if he didn’t give the ball away at least once in the game and he didn’t let us down, finding a pass to an opponent about 25 yards in front of goal. The danger was easily cleared however and Pools rarely threatened the Romanian giant.
I won’t bother with a blow by blow match report which you can find elsewhere but share the things I took from the game.
Well obviously this was a game of two asymmetrical halves, one lasting 60 minutes and the other only 30. During the first hour what struck me, in no particular order was:
1. Another game which suggests that Poyet will be using a 4-1-3-1-1 (or 4-1-4-1 if you prefer) formation with a defensive midfielder and a second forward playing just off the shoulders of the centre forward.
2. Valentin Roberge looks like a footballer. He has good positional sense, is comfortable on the ball and uses it well in possession. But Darlington and Hartlepool are a different kettle of fish to Arsenal and Man City. He’s played well at times against Premier League sides but equally has had a ‘mare.
3. Max Clayton (on trial from Crewe) is a lively forward with a good turn of pace. Just what Gus is looking for and he did himself no harm last night. We have made worse signings than he but we’ll wait and see.
4. Watmore and El Hadji Ba also impressed against League 2 opposition. Watmore, who considers himself to be a winger, was again asked to stand in at full back. It was no surprise to see him pushing forward at every opportunity and he linked up well with Ba, Fletcher and Johnson. We didn’t see a lot of his defensive qualities as the Pool’s narrow style of play rarely pressurised him down the wing. Ba did well breaking up moves in midfield, passing well and also getting forward whenever he could. He started on the left but switched with Johnson part way through the first half and looked comfortable in both roles.
5. Stephen Fletcher looks to be fully recovered. He was full of running and put himself about. He had a couple of chances to score but at this stage, just getting match time into his legs is more important.
6. There was some flexibility in the midfield with Larsson, Ba, Johnson and Clayton interchanging well.
7. Last season Gus said that he thought there was something fundamentally wrong at the club. Maybe this has nothing to do with it, but is his inclusion of the development squad in these two friendlies a statement of intent that he wants unity within and throughout the club? He is showing interest in the young lads and my have they responded!
It was comfortable stuff. We never looked like conceding, had a few chances to score and according to Sobs, showed more enterprise in the first few minutes than the 11 who had started at Carlisle had done in a whole 60 at Brunton Park. The best moment came early in the second half. John O’Shea, who along with Roberge and Cattermole had bossed the Hartlepool forwards, collected the ball in the left back position, sold the Pool forward a dummy to rapturous response from the Sunderland fans who were right next to him. As he played the ball forward he turned and looked at us and gestured as if to say “you’ll go a long way to see better skills than that,” earning himself a second cheer.
So nil all when the announcement came over the tannoy “Leaving the pitch for Sunderland – the entire team and coming on – multiple substitutions!” For the first time I can recall since squad numbers were introduced (it may have happened at Carlisle but I wasn’t there) we began the game with players wearing numbers 1 to 11. On came numbers 12-22 with, for some reason, the goalkeeper in the 13 jersey. I should have thought that if superstition came into it then the goalkeeper is the last person who should wear that number.
Immediately the young lads tore into the home side. They lined up in exactly the same formation as the seniors had done with number 17 Liam Agnew taking up Cattermole’s position. It was a bit unfair on Hartlepool who having been made to work hard against players used to playing at international level for an hour, then found themselves up against 22 fresh young legs propelling players who knew they only had 30 minutes of activity ahead of them. And how that told. The kids were organised and the goals were all top drawer. The possession, passing and interchanging which created the openings for the first two goals and the superb finishing would have graced any game. It took them 10 minutes to score twice. Organised at the back, fluid in midfield and up front, they charged forward en masse at every opportunity and ran the tiring Pools’ players ragged.
The third took a bit of a deflection, converting a cross into a goal but the movement before hand and full back Cartwright’s marauding run down the right, a la Duncan Watmore, deserved an end product.
We can’t read too much into last night with regard to our Premiership prospects but it was an enjoyable evening with more evidence of Poyet’s intentions. My main concern at the moment, which will mirror the manager’s, is that we obviously need more signings but as time ticks on there is less opportunity for any we do get to start to gel before the season kicks off, except perhaps in the cases of Borini, Alonso and Vergini. Whether we end up with any of them remains to be seen. I’m sure Lee Congerton is more pro active than JFK was up the road, and we don’t need to repeat the errors of Di Fanti but it would be nice to get some positive news soon.
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