Malcolm Dawson writes……Following his most recent visits to the O3 Arena, Peter Sixsmith has developed a liking for watching a team in red and white stripes at St James’ Park, so when the Football League fixtures were announced he got Pardew, his faithful manservant, to organise a suite at the Exeter Travelodge and a ticket to see The Grecians play Pompey in what to many of us, is still the old Fourth Division. It was all sorted before SAFC announced their final pre-season arrangements and Pete will be at The Hawthorns next week to bring his unique insight into the first game of the campaign proper, but it fell to me to make the ten minute trip to Heritage Park, home of the “Two Blues”, for the final warm up match…..
Leaving home at 2.15pm, seeing Sunderland win 2-0 and then being home for a cuppa by 5.15 is not something that happens very often. But it happened today as the Lads took on the might of Serie A’s Udinese at Heritage Park Bishop Auckland in their final pre season friendly.
A capacity crowd which, thanks to safety regulations, meant there was still loads of room in the ground, turned out to see if we might have reasons to be cheerful over the coming season. The starting eleven must be pretty close to the one we can expect to see at the Hawthorns next Saturday, with Santiago Vergini at right back in place of the injured Jones, Brown, O’Shea and van Aanholt making up the back line, Cattermole in the holding role, new boys Gomez and Rodwell in central midfield and Fletcher and Wickham up front. I think we can expect Johnson to start against the Baggies rather than “Harry” Mavrias and it must be a toss up who starts between the sticks.
Playing in the recently revamped home kit (which I must admit looks pretty smart) the players wore what I assume will be the squad numbers to be officially announced later in the week. That would see Cattermole back in the 6 shirt but the rest much the same as before. Jordi wore 14 and Jack 8. Whether we can read anything into the fact that Pantilimon’s jersey sported the number 1 is anybody’s guess. Maybe they only have one XXXXXXXXXL size and it already had a 1 on it. Who knows.
The crowd was quiet for much of the game and unusually it was possible to hear the players barking out instructions to one another. No surprise that it was O’Shea and Cattermole who were the most vocal and for the bulk of the first half Gus left it to his assistants to do the shouting from the sidelines. He perked up a bit later on though.
As promised Mavrias was allowed to play in his favoured wide role and nearly put us ahead early in the game. I like Vergini at full back and he linked up well with the Greek winger after only three minutes. Mavrias is obviously keen to impress the Boss and he fired in a cracker from the angle of the penalty box just over the bar. Indeed he was lively throughout the first half and did his share of tracking back. I know it’s early days and this was my first glimpse of Gomez and Rodwell as a midfield pair but on today’s evidence they will give us more flair and running in midfield than we have become accustomed to in the past few seasons.
The flying V formation (Vergini and van Aanholt) giving the fullbacks license to push forward at every opportunity gave us width and will, together with Jones, provide an attacking threat of the sort we grew used to when Mickey Gray and later Julio Arca were regulars, always looking as if they want to be starting something. The Dutchman left the field around the half hour mark after taking a bit of a knock to be replaced by youngster Thomas Robson. I like the way that Poyet is gradually integrating members of the Development squad into the first team set up. They may be a bit raw and off the pace at present, but it must be helping to build a culture of togetherness and a whole club identity by letting them know they have the opportunity to catch the manager’s eye and are not simply on the road to nowhere, in the stiffs.
I am hopeful that Fletcher is back to where he was two years ago and will be leading the line this season. Wickham, seen close up is a big beast. It took him a while to come good but he showed his potential when it was needed. More of the same this year please Connor when in our shirt.
Udinese had a couple of half chances which were easily dealt with but I felt we controlled the first half and my only apprehensions are that we are still prone to giving away the ball when under no pressure. Brown did it today and almost repeated his sea lion trick where he stands on the ball but he got away with it this time.
The second half started with Mannone in the green kit and Liam Agnew on for Rodwell. With no Larsson or Johnson involved it was Connor Wickham who stepped up to take a free kick just outside the angle of the penalty area early in the second half and he hit a cracker jack which the keeper did well to save. Five minutes later a corner from the right was swung into the box and into a crowd of players and the ball somehow found its way into the net. I didn’t have the clearest view but the goal was credited to Vergini.
Almost immediately we were two up as the same player was upended in the box and Wickham got his reward when he confidently slammed the resultant penalty home. His reward and Vergini’s was to be substituted. Score a goal and come off! Altidore and Roberge were their replacements. I’d really like to see those two do well over the next few months. Roberge is a footballer. He has a brain and passes the ball well. I hope he has become robust enough to cover the central defensive positions which was his weakness last season because unless we sign some cover, any injuries to Brown and O’Shea leaves us seriously thin in that department. His appearance at least told us one thing – that Wes Brown is not a natural right back, despite what it says on his CV.
Altidore is certainly robust enough and has a whole hearted attitude which I can’t knock but he is in the squad as a goalscorer, not just a hold up merchant. This year he needs to stand and deliver and the sooner the better.
Forgotten man Danny Graham replaced Norman Stanley on 70 minutes and N’Diaye came on for Gomez. He’s a big lad is Alfie and I understand he has been playing at centre back in the Spanish League. Maybe if he stays he could be used in a more defensive position. He put himself about and when Udinese full back Silva gave Mavrias a whack on the back of his calf, resulting in his leaving the field, it looked like the Senegalese international was planning a bit of retribution. He never got the chance as the Udinese man was also replaced at that point. Watmore came on for Mavrias and made a couple of decent runs but produced no end product.
Agnew on the other hand made a good run into the box and was fouled when about to cross, except the referee didn’t see it that way and waved play on.
It was a decent work out. Neither of our keepers had much to do but did what was needed. Bridcutt said “Are you serious” when Poyet told him to get stripped for action with 4 minutes left and shortly after that the full time whistle went. Back home for tea and biscuits. All in all a lovely day!
PS: Somehow, somewhere, sometime soon, you will be able to read the bard Pete Sixsmith’s “Observer Preview of the Premier League Season.” I have it on good authority that he was less than enamoured by the suggestion that he sum up the club in song titles so in homage to his aversion can you spot the song titles, some obvious and some less so, cunningly concealed in the above? No prizes I’m afraid but hopefully in the season about to start we can “move on up.” For too long now we Sunderland fans have been “long term lovers of pain!”
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