Malcolm Dawson writes……….for the owners of a EFL football club hoping to persuade a consortium of hyper rich American businessmen to invest in its future, then yesterday could hardly have gone any better at the Stadium of Light. The sun shone, the fans turned out in numbers and impressed with the volume and level of support, the team turned in their best display of the season so far and came away with a deserved three points.
The visitors’ start to the season would suggest that they aren’t going to be one of the front runners in this division and the lone Wimbledon supporter I spoke to, having a pre-match tab by the aquatic centre, didn’t hold out much hope for their chances that afternoon, but we can only play against the opposition we face on the day and looked by far the better side, had the bulk of possession, created more chances and came away worthy winners.
Shortly after Stewart Donald took control of the club, we were already destined to finish bottom but managed to beat a Wolverhampton Wanderers side who had been crowned champions even before kick off. Since then we have only seen one league defeat on Wearside and unlike the impression of negativity I have (fair or not) of those commenting on social media, the supporters in the ground no longer seemed to get fazed when we concede, as despite our home record this past 13 months or so, clean sheets are still something of a rarity.
Had our American visitors wondered whether or not the passion shown by Sunderland supporters in the Netflix series was overstated, then the response of the crowd yesterday, including the rapturous applause given to the three substituted players can only have helped to convince them that what they saw on screen was no flash in the pan.
Twenty nine thousand plus home fans went home happy, one of whom was Pete Sixsmith. How happy? Let’s see.
SUNDERLAND 3 AFC WIMBLEDON 1 24/08/19
THE GOOD AMERICANS – WE HOPE.
Messrs Donald and Methven couldn’t have hoped for a better day to show Sunderland off to the new investors.
They must have had a direct line to the weather gods and those deities in charge of the fixture list because our new majority shareholders arrived on Wearside on the warmest day of the season to see us play the weakest team in Division One – if you don’t include Bury and Bolton Wanderers and we may not be able to after Tuesday of next week.
All three of them were in the Executive area, looking casual in their suits and open necked shirts (you can’t imagine Syd Collings dressed in such a way) and smiling as they looked at their potential new purchase, basking in glorious sunshine, with an excited buzz all around the Stadium. If they can be as successful as the finest half back line that my generation has ever seen in a red and white strip, that of Harvey, Hurley, McNab, they will go down a storm with the support.
That they saw their new investment ease to a comfortable win over a very limited AFC Wimbledon side can only be for the good. A hat trick from Chris Maguire, the first one at The Stadium since Darren B££t rattled one in against Bolton in 2010 and a highly competent performance against admittedly weak opposition, would give them food for thought as they slept in their beds last night.
Jack Ross would have been pleased too. He was immaculately dressed in suit and tie as he patrolled his technical area, looking more like a man attending an interview for a job with an investment bank, possibly Goldman Sachs. The contrast between him and AFC boss Wally Downes, who looked as if he was the stand in manager for The Dog and Duck FC in his shirt, loosely tucked into his trousers and in permanent danger of flapping over the waistband, was immense.
Of course, Ross has far more resources to work with than Downes. There are still a fair number of Sunderland supporters who remain to be convinced that he knows how to use them, but there were clear signs in this performance that the team is settling down. He left out Connor McLaughlin for Denver Hume and that worked, partly due to Hume’s energy and partly due to the fact that Wimbledon left him more space than a warehouse full of Dell computers in which to get forward. The youngster took advantage of the absence of a right winger and right defensive midfield player and pushed forward remorselessly in the first half, combining well with McGeady, less so whenever Gooch moved across.
The solidity of the two central defenders had also improved the mood. Both have the physicality that previous combinations appeared to lack. Willis is the more able footballer of the two and almost scored for the second home game running with a clever backheel flick that was well saved by the Wimbledon keeper.
His partner, Alim Ozturk, does the basics well. He clears his lines. He wins headers. He barges forwards out of the way. Last week he neutralised John Marquis. On Tuesday, he kept the prolific and dangerous Ian Henderson quiet. Yesterday, neither Kwasi Appiah nor Michael Folvi caused him any serious problems. The crowd have taken to him and see another Paul Butler or Gary Caldwell there – a strong defender who does his job and who is effective at this level of football.
We are not quite firing in midfield. Max Power had a disappointing game – busy but not particularly effective. He was needlessly booked and when he was replaced by Dylan McGeouch, we looked tighter and more compact. McGeouch nurses the ball and carries it, Power is stronger and links well with Leadbitter. Not a bad conundrum for a manager to have.
The big disappointment was Lynden Gooch, whose game has not really moved on. Here he was hesitant, lost the ball instead of moving it on and never convinced against poor opponents. With his pace and trickery, he should be going past opponents and setting up the forward players, but too often he cuts back in and tries to beat the man again. He should have scored just before he was taken off to be replaced by Grigg. He wasn’t best suited and there was no handshake between him and the division’s best dressed manager as he went to sit down.
McGeady was McGeady. He hit the post after a splendid dribble and contributed well. Leadbitter was effective and industrious, Wyke battled away well and could, nay should, have scored before and after the interval.
But Maguire was the difference.
There was a piece about him on the BBC Scotland website, trying to work out why things had not quite worked out for him after an impressive start at Aberdeen. He did well at Sheffield Wednesday and Oxford United, less so at Rotherham United (I saw him play for their reserves against Hartlepool at Billingham Town where he looked less than interested) and Bury, which was an absolute disaster for him. Messrs Donald, Methven and Ross salvaged his career by bringing him to Sunderland and he has proved to be a wonderfully enigmatic signing, impressive and frustrating in equal measures.
This hat trick (his first since he notched one against the mighty Pinxton in a Derbyshire Senior Cup tie during his spell at Pride Park) showed his talents off to a tee.
Number one was a delightful chip over Nathan Trott after Jon McLaughlin’s long punt upfield had been missed by the Dons’ central defenders.
Number two came after a fine corner by Leadbitter was cleared to him as he lurked on the edge of the box. He drove it in and although there may have been a deflection, it was certainly his goal.
The clincher came when he deftly headed in a lovely chipped centre from Luke O’Nien to claim the ball for his trophy cabinet, where it will go alongside his two Scottish caps and (presumably) his Derbyshire Senior Cup winner’s medal.
The League’s best dressed manager sensibly withdrew him after 82 minutes and he did a half lap of honour as he left the pitch in sharp contrast to Gooch 25 minutes earlier.
We could have had more. Wyke, missed two, Grigg did well to get into position and then put it wide and I have already mentioned the ones from Gooch, Willis and McGeady that could have settled the game comfortably. We could also have defended Kwesi Appiah’s equaliser better. It was a well worked and well taken goal but he was given too much room and some think that McLaughlin(J) should have come for the ball. A clean sheet is but a mere fantasy for us at the moment. (It looked to me as O’Nien failed to track Appiah leaving him unchallenged – MD)
And what of AFC Wimbledon? They are a club that I and I suspect many other football supporters have a lot of time for. They did well to get away from the bottom last season but on this showing, only another two clubs doing a Bury/Bolton may be enough to save them. Their manager is a likeable old rogue who I saw get sent off on a rainy night in Darlington in the early eighties and I wish him and his club all the best. He’s certainly a better man than that sour faced Kenny Jackett who was in Wally’s seat a week ago.
The investors saw a Step 3 game attract a crowd of just under 30,000. They are shrewd men and must realise that if they can play a part in getting this right, there is big money to be made. Supporters won’t see any of that but we will be able to hold our heads up just a bit more. We love our club and we are proud to be Sunderland supporters and all we want is a tiny smidgeon of success. It’s not much to ask for is it, guys?
Oh and the Mags to go down – but that goes without saying.
Ha’way the Lads