Colin Randall writes: Malcolm Dawson has been my trusted deputy editor throughout the best years of Salut! Sunderland. He explains below how we came together for site duty and I am deeply grateful that Joan, his sister, suggested he’d be an ideal right hand man. Malcolm is a demanding editor, demanding of himself and of others. He is as fussy as I can be on questions of grammar and taste. And he also happens to write like a dream, as anyone who has seen his reports from games, and his more general thoughts, can testify.
It has been a privilege to work with him and, sadly only occasionally because of geographical distance, enjoy his company before, at or after matches. Thanks, Malcolm, The site could not be in such good order to hand on to new ownership and editorship without all you have done …
It will soon be a quarter of a century since Bob Murray’s vision for the future of SAFC took the club from Roker Park to the Stadium of Light. My sister was living in London at the time and involved in the editing of the London Branch’s newsletter 5/5/73 which was later to be renamed Wear Down South. It was through that involvement that she met Colin Randall and his mate Pete Sixsmith and was asked by Colin to help with his new website when it was up and running some years later.
Who’d have thought not long ago that we would be feeling happy with another one all draw? It may not be ideal but at least it represents an improvement on recent results. Pete Sixsmith was off on Santa duties but Malcolm Dawson was in his usual seat. How did he see things? Read on…..
SUNDERLAND 1 BLACKPOOL 1
The weather first thing seemed promising yesterday but I’ve lived in the North East long enough to know that’s no guarantee that it’ll stay that way. Accuweather may have been telling me it was 10° and I may have gone to school with no coat whatever the weather, but it was on with the thermals before I set off and what a good decision that turned out to be. It was freezing and despite my layers I was never that cold last February when I was in Norway, high above the Arctic circle being taken for a trip on a Reindeer sleigh by members of the Sami community who had decided that cashing in on tourism was probably a more preferable lifestyle than following their herds across the tundra in 22 hours of darkness.
Twelve months ago Blackpool was a club in turmoil and many of their supporters were only going to away games. They’re going back to Bloomfield Road again but still had a good turn out yesterday, who out sang the mostly quiet home support for much of the game. The impression I was getting from those of a red and white persuasion, on the Park and Ride and in and around the ground was subdued but not overtly negative. There wasn’t an overwhelming feeling of confidence, but nor was there an air of despondency before kick off. More of a “here we are again, what’s today going to bring?” sort of feeling.
Phil Parkinson decided to stick with five at the back with Flanagan Ozturk and de Bock forming the central three. With O’Nien and Hume as wing backs there was potentially more pace on the flanks than there had been at Gillingham. Power and Dobson were the midfield two with Watmore and Maguire playing off Charlie Wyke, starting for the first time in ages. Wyke is a big, physical hard as nails character who might well have linked up well with Roy Race at Melchester Rovers. Marco Gabbiadini did the half time draw and how we could do with someone who can stick it away like he used to do at the moment.
Blackpool had a big tall, soft as clarts centre forward in the Cotes d’Ivoire, Frenchman Armand Gnanduillet who was to make significant contributions in contrasting ways throughout the game.
We started off as we so often do, attacking the Roker End and within the first two minutes had won two corners and seen Charlie Wyke head just off target. But as seems to happen quite often having failed to convert an early chance we end up on the back foot when the visitors take the lead immediately afterwards.
From the resultant goal kick Blackpool keeper Jak Alnwick pumped the ball forward to their right wing where de Bock brought down the aforementioned clarty bloke. It was probably a foul (though from where I sit it looked as if de Bock might have actually played the ball around the legs) the linesman flagged and a foul was given. The subsequent rolling around, clutching his ankle was unwarranted, but obviously something the man whose surname reminds me of a particularly unsavoury French sausage, considers a legitimate tactic. We’ll return to that later.
But free kick it was and the ball was sent high into the box, past the outstretched leg of Alim Ozturk beyond the far post. A player in a blue stripy shirt hooked it back in front of goal, clarty French bloke headed towards goal and this time Ozturk headed it out to the edge of the box. From there it was played back out to the Blackpool right, swung back in, cleared by de Bock but only to Matthew Virtue-Thick who curled a lovely shot into the top corner from outside the box. McLaughlin, preferred to Burge for this one had no chance but once again our failure to clear our lines quickly had cost us a goal.
It soon became apparent that we did not have a great official in charge of this game. Both Wyke and Maguire were on the wrong end of some physical manhandling yet nothing was given. Then he would blow for the most innocuous of challenges. Sometimes a push in the back would be penalised then other times an arm around the neck and a judo throw deemed acceptable. If we are going to have poor referees at least let them be consistent please. Add to that linesmen who seemed to lag behind play and then give offside decisions based on guesswork, having failed to spot players getting behind defenders after the ball had been played and even I was getting animated.
We still have a preference for the slow build up and sideways and backward passing, rather than going for the quick attack, but a quick interception from Max Power found Charlie Wyke who tried to backheel it into the path of Watmore on the edge of the box, but it was well defended by an alert Jay Spearing. Watmore had another chance a little later after Hume’s cross made its way to O’Nien on the opposite side. His dink back across goal found Watmore but he was only able to head it over from the edge of the six yard box. McLaughlin made a decent stop from Gnanduillet and the follow up drive across the face of goal pinged harmlessly out to the touchline.
On thirty five minutes we got another corner as Hume again looked for O’Nien. Our first efforts with the dead ball had come to nothing but this time Maguire sent in a hard cross at around knee height and Wyke managed to get ahead of his marker to stick a side foot volley firmly home.
Wyke’s celebration seemed to be more one of relief than ecstasy but at least we were back in the game.
Unlike the Burton game we didn’t immediately concede this time but we nearly did as the ball broke to Husband but with McLaughlin nowhere near his shot hit the big clarty Frenchman on the knee and went wide. He was standing on the goal line and clearly offside but had he been able to get out of the way the goal would probably have been given.
Not long after Watmore and O’Nien linked up. O’Nien was brought down but the referee waved play on, probably correctly, though it was the kind of tackle where despite the player playing the ball, it is often deemed a foul. Anyway it broke to our French friend and George Dobson tried a similar tackle, brought the player down and was rightly penalised and booked. Gnanduillet obviously took exception to this and forgot about falling down and rolling around and grabbed hold of Dobson and gave him a shake. He also got a yellow for that, again probably correctly, though I’ve seen the red card shown for less. Mind you he might have got a second yellow straight away for dissent as he purposefully walked away when the ref was calling him for a talking to. Later he was to get Dobson sent off after our man appeared to win the ball cleanly. The ball bounced into Gnanduillet’s legs and he did his rolling around in agony act. The ref fell for it and produced a second yellow. Dobson couldn’t believe it and several Blackpool players appeared to console him as he made his way to the dugout. This was later in the second half. Wyke had headed against the bar and Grigg only just failed to get a foot on a hard low cross from O’Nien but the stats will show that Blackpool had more shots than us and we only managed two on target all game.
This was a better result but over the entire 90 minutes not a lot better than the Burton game performance wise. It’s easy to let the result cloud one’s judgement but we actually had a decent spell against Burton without making it count. Yesterday there were positive signs but also areas of concern. There seems to be a lack of attacking intent and a passing game that seems more intent on keeping possession than finding ways to threaten the opponent’s goal. There are still too many misplaced passes (Flanagan being especially culpable yesterday) and an inability to clear our defensive areas quickly. No more games until after Christmas and the prospect of a transfer window which may allow Parkinson (or whoever is in charge then) to address some of those issues but at least the home crowd was generally supportive, if subdued yesterday.
The official attendance given out was 30,595. Yeah right! There is a difference between tickets sold and bodies through the gate. To my eyes 23,000 would be nearer the mark as presumably a considerable number of season card holders decided they had better things to do and gave our last match before Christmas a miss. Judging by the atmosphere in the ground yesterday, these might well have been those types who seem to feel that anything other than an easy victory is sufficient to induce acts of aggression – physical and verbal.
Twelve months ago we appeared to be a club in a good place. We had a new triumvirate of owners who appreciated the place a football club holds in the lives of those who show their allegiance to it. They had gone out of their way to reconnect with the fans, on social media and in the flesh. Interaction with supporters on Twitter and in the media, regular attendances at supporters’ group meetings, invitations for fans to join them in the boardroom and turning up in local pubs and in the fan zones pre-match were just some of the ways in which they showed they got what football is all about.
They had also taken a firm stand on those players who had shown no desire to be at the club, installed an enthusiastic young manager and brought in a recruitment policy which brought along a whole load of players who, although limited in ability, were players who could do a job at the level we found ourselves, were happy to be paid League 1 wages but who, most importantly, wanted to be at the club. Things were good in the run up to last Christmas. Despite the fact that his team selections had been hampered by injuries, Jack Ross had seemed to find a system that made us favourites to get out of this division at the first attempt.
Then it started to turn sour. After the Burton game I wrote that I wondered if I wanted to endure many more evenings and afternoons at the Stadium if they were going to be like that. What I perhaps didn’t make crystal clear was that it was the toxic atmosphere created by the boo boys and girls and the negativity I was encountering when going to away games. Wrinkly Pete echoed my feelings and I am in no doubt that whilst not directly responsible for team selection, tactics or performances on the pitch, these vociferous and frankly unpleasant types who vent their spleen at any opportunity, are in danger of destroying the very thing they claim to love.
No more Tweets from Stewart Donald, no more Charlie Methven visiting the Branches or popping into the pub before away games. Apparent discord in the dressing room and an already beleaguered manager, who is probably only there because of the impatient minority who cannot see the bigger picture. As a player, manager, coach or owner, how enthusiastic would you feel if, despite your best efforts, people were gesticulating in your direction and telling you to eff off? Add to this a proliferation of websites, presumably run by these types or possibly Mags, who dominate the News Now Sunderland pages with critical headlines drawn from negative social media types and it all gets into the subconscious and inhibits maximum efficiency.
This wasn’t a great performance yesterday but on the whole the crowd stayed behind the team, without getting too carried away. There were a few half hearted boos at the end, but the majority were in the direction of the referee who had not endeared himself to the home support.
I shan’t be at the Bolton game as I will away for the Christmas period but Peter Sixsmith will be to bring you what may well be the last Salut! Sunderland match report. Wishing you all a very merry Christmas and wishing us all good fortune and success for our club in the future.
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I would expect professional football coaches to have a greater insight into the ability and potential of the players they work with on a day to day basis than I do, but when watching the U23s even an amateur like me can get an inkling of which young players might make it in the game.
I don’t get to watch as much football as Pete Sixsmith (few do) but in the past few years I have identified Lynden Gooch, Jordan Pickford, Ethan Robson, Josh Maja, Joel Osoro, Denver Hume and Max Stryjek as those most likely to, from watching them play at U21 or U23 level. There have also been a few that I couldn’t see cutting the mustard, whose blushes I will spare in the unlikely event that they visit the site.
The current crop of Academy players were on show yesterday as the U23s took on Reading at the Eppleton CW ground in what is known as Premier League 2. They haven’t had it easy this season with several of their more experienced players out on loan and there was more disappointment after a 4-0 home defeat. Myself, Peter and the Hetton Irregulars who had turned out in force, all deemed this to be a game of men against boys. Literally in fact, as the visitors appeared to be both physically stronger and at least a couple of years older, player for player.
Bali Mumba, who has been playing at full back recently, started on the right of midfield but was subbed at half time, presumably because he is in line for some sort of involvement in the What’sname Cup tomorrow evening. It’s easy to forget just how young Bali is and he could just as easily have been playing for the U18s against Middlesbrough if they hadn’t been kicking off at the same time.
Ruben Sammut is another who should make the step up to first team action at some point, though he was unusually quiet yesterday. The third player I fancy to make the breakthrough is Williams Kokolo – left back yesterday but also used as a left winger on occasions.
One player I’d be very surprised to see playing for the big boys any time soon is keeper Ahmed Abdelkader. I’ve seen him a few times in friendlies and cup games and whilst he has made a few reasonable saves has too often appeared indecisive and doesn’t command his area. With Lee Burge injured and James Patterson bench warming for the first XI this was the Algerian’s first start in PL2 and I expect it will live long in his memory, but which was also a performance he will wish to forget.
Whilst we held our own for the first 20 minutes or so, the visitors outplayed our boys in virtually every department and anyone keeping match stats would probably have awarded Reading 80% of possession and plenty of efforts on goal as opposed to Cieran Dunne’s solitary effort for us, which rebounded off the side of the house outside the Bog Row end of the ground and set the dog off barking. It’s been quiet of late so it was just like old times.
The visitors took the lead when 21 year old Irishman Josh Barrett fired home from the edge of the box, whilst Abdelkader stood and watched it go between him and the post. Even though he was only a yard or two in from the post he obviously thought it was going wide, making no effort to reach the shot and looking for all the world like the last kid to be picked in the playground before being told to go between the coats, when what he really wanted to do was play centre forward. I’m sure Pete, who was standing behind whilst I was in the posh seats, was replaying the scene from Kes, where Brian Glover fantasises that he is Bobby Charlton, whilst Billy Casper swings upside down on the cross bar.
Think of Chris Maguire’s goal against Tranmere when the goalkeeper was rooted to the spot and this was nothing like that. It was simply a huge error of judgement from an inexperienced player, who will either learn from his mistake or be consigned to the scrapheap that is French non league football.
It was only 1-0 at half time but the men in black were asserting their dominance and it was no surprise when they doubled the lead shortly into the second half when 22 year old Englishmen Tyler Frost kept his cool after a break down the left to slot home under the body of the diving Abdelkader.
Not long after that the French Algerian must have decide he’d had enough. Reading again broke down the left and he rushed out of his goal to dive at the feet of the onrushing forward to claim the ball. Unfortunately for him when he got his hand to the ball he had slid outside the penalty area and got himself a red card for his efforts. Another example of poor spatial awareness and plenty for our new goalkeeping coach to look at then delegate his improvement programme to someone else.
Despite the fact the infringement took place to the right of the area, about 10 yards from the goal line, referee Mr Swallow allowed the free kick to be taken from the edge of the D giving a much better angle for the visitors. Fortunately the effort was way off target otherwise I might have been telling Mr Swallow where he could migrate to.
Patterson was brought on to face the kick, but the young Biscuitmen pressed home their dominance and he also conceded two goals in the half hour or so he was between the sticks. The first was good header by 18 year old Frenchman Michael Olise after a decent cross from full back Teddy Howe, before Tyler Frost sent more shivers through the home defence, firing home from distance with around 10 minutes left and presumably making Phil Parkinson and his team pray for the continuing health of Jon McLaughlin.
As ever it was a pleasant enough way to spend a couple of hours on a Sunday lunchtime. The majority of the Reading side have first team squad numbers and most of them have played a few times for the senior side, unlike our own boys and the difference in experience was clear. We shall expect the same tomorrow when our mix of experienced professionals and fringe squad members take on the Leicester City U21s.
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Pete Sixsmith, enjoyed his mini break in the country formerly known as the Czech Republic, spending the weekend drinking beer and watching football, but was back in time for last night’s comprehensive victory at the Stadium of Light. He took up his normal seat in the East Stand but we are sharing reporting duties between us this year, with Bob Chapman our third contributor for those games neither of us gets to. So with Pete up and about taking the latest tabloid gossip to the good folk of Shildon before making good use of his bus pass, it is my turn to dust down the old soapbox with thoughts on the 5-0 drubbing of Tranmere Rovers.
Returning visitors to Salut! Sunderland will know that Pete Sixsmith, our regular match correspondent, is a Guardian reading liberal (with a small l) with a well developed sense of decency and fair play but there are a few things that I guarantee will provoke him enough to elicit a barrage of anger and expletives, namely: Crystal Palace, Surrey County Cricket Club, Highways England, Rugby Union, Ant and Dec, raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. Oh and I almost forgot – franchised football.
I don’t know how many of you remember, but only a few days after our defeat to Millwall in the 2004 FA Cup semi final at Old Trafford, we had to travel to the National Hockey Stadium to face a club that had been allowed to up sticks and move lock, stock and barrel to a land of concrete cows and ring roads. It was there that my sister and I met up with Sixer and I had my first experience of a volley of Sixsmith invective, aimed at a youth of no more than thirteen years who dared to try and mock we three for supporting a club that had got to within one game of the Millennium Stadium, whilst his team, still known as Wimbledon had been knocked out in Round 4. We won 2-1 that evening with goals from Darren Byfield and Marcus Stewart but would miss out on promotion after losing to a side from South London in the playoffs. See you bright young things, we have seen it all before.
Wimbledon on the other hand, would be relegated from what was then known as the First Division, but was really Division 2 in old money, before changing their name over the summer and sparking Alun Armstrong, a native of the North Durham village of Annfield Plain, to wear an AFC Wimbledon shirt on the newly aired TV series “New Tricks”.
Was that really 15 years ago? It was and Pete still hasn’t forgiven the footballing authorities for allowing a club with a long history to move and change its name, so only a few weeks after we beat the real Dons at the Stadium of Light we agreed between us, that I should bring you the Salut! Sunderland view of a game that brought a welcome three points.
M K DEFEATED
Because of an imminent trip to Venice courtesy of a Thomas Cook package (fortunately our Ryanair flight took off a matter of hours before they went bust) I didn’t get to the Bolton match and followed the Carabao Cup tie at Bramall Lane via the BBC and SAFC text services, whilst cruising the Grand Canal and Venetian lagoon on my way back to the hotel on the islands of Murano.
But I’d made sure that I was going to be back in time for the next home game, although you wouldn’t have thought it on Friday morning when I looked out of my window, what with the amount of water that was running outside my house and the state of my patio around the back. Fortunately, although it was still wet underfoot on Saturday morning, it had actually stopped raining so the Park and Ride option was still viable and in the end it turned out to be a pleasantly sunny afternoon.
I’ve only started to use the P&R this season and one thing it does is to allow me to take a snapshot of the pre and post match feelings of a section of the support. Yesterday the atmosphere on the bus going to the ground was subdued but I detected an air of quiet confidence, whilst on the return journey there was a quiet satisfaction at a job done and the group from Milton Keynes who sat near me had enjoyed their day, were looking forward to an evening in town and weren’t overly disappointed at the result, having had no expectations of a victory before kick off.
As I passed on the copy of La Gazzetta dello Sport which I had brought back for Mr Sixsmith it was good to have a brief word with associate editor John McCormick who I last saw at the rainfest that was Accrington Stanley away last season and who has spent the past few months recovering from a particularly unpleasant form of medical treatment. At least the sun shone for him yesterday and he was to see a home win.
Whilst injuries had obviously limited Jack Ross’s choices, we now have a squad that not only seems well balanced, but contains a number of players who can do a job in a variety of positions. The starting line up reflected this, with a back four comprised of summer signings including Jordan Willis who was handed the captain’s armband. Laurens De Bock and Joel Lynch after getting midweek game time were considered fit enough to start and this not only gave the team a more balanced look, but also provided a bit more height and muscle to the side. Having the Belgian available meant Conor McLaughlin was able to play on his favoured right side and more importantly freed up the energetic Luke O’Nien to play in a much more advanced role. The central midfield was taken up by Power and McGeouch both of whom are more mobile than Grant Leadbitter and more experienced than George Dobson. Charlie Wyke was to lead the line.
No Aiden McGeady meant that Chris Maguire was to start wide right with Lynden Gooch taking up the left hand berth. I suggested in a GTS comment, that I thought sometimes the team plays better without McGeady, which is not to say that I wouldn’t have him in the starting line up, just that when he isn’t there others step up to the mark and can maybe play in their stronger positions. Maguire, as we know can operate in a variety of positions but for me he is most useful when he plays wide right and I prefer to see Gooch on the other flank, where he can twist and turn then cut inside more effectively to set up a shot with his stronger foot.
Despite the suggestions in the headlines of some of the more sensationalist websites, desperate for clicks and increased advertising revenue, it was not shocking to see Jon McLaughlin back between the sticks. Yes Lee Burge had a good game against The Blades but big Jon is first choice and will remain so until he suffers a loss of form, forgets to have his flu jab or needs a lie in on a Saturday morning.
Certainly with this line up we saw eleven players who knew their brief and in the first half especially, retained the shape of the side, with little lateral movement or swapping of positions. The basic shape was 4-2-4 with O’Nien, buzzing about just behind Wyke, but the two wide men were quick to drift back and make it a 4-4-2 when required and as the game progressed, the two full backs got forward more, not in the gung ho attacking style that we sometimes get when O’Nien and Hume take up the Cec Irwin and Len Ashurst mantle, but in a more considered supporting role.
Just as we had against Rotherham we dominated the first period of play. After only three minutes the MKD keeper Lee Nicholls was called into action saving at the feet of Charlie Wyke. Our boys were linking up well and retaining possession and on the odd occasion that the visitors pushed forward the defence looked solid and capable. There was plenty of interplay, short passing and running into space and despite the presence of Wyke, for much of the time we played the ball on the ground. It was this sort of play that produced the first goal.
O’Nien, tracking back in his own half, took possession and played the ball out to Chris Maguire who, surrounded by three yellow shirts did a bit of twisting and turning before sending a ball down the line to big Charlie who had drifted out wide. For a big man Wyke looks comfortable with the ball at his feet but he seemed to have played a poor ball behind O’Nien and into a triangle of opposition players. It was just in front of where I sit and there was a split second’s disappointment as it appeared that a promising attack had broken down, but what the centre forward had seen that we hadn’t, was the run of Max Power, who hit a beautiful curling shot that gave Nicholls no chance and Power his second wonder strike within three days. One – nil and looking comfortable. Deja vu and not for the first time. We all knew that more was needed before we could feel confident that all three points would come our way.
But we kept going and within three minutes we were two aheadwhile Luke O’Nien might have had a hat-trick. Almost straight from the re-start Joel Lynch found Gooch in space on the left wing. As the defence moved across, our favourite American had jinked and twisted his way into the box before playing the ball back to De Bock, who sent a first time peach of a cross into O’Nien who was unlucky to see his header rattle the foot of the post before being put behind for a corner. The coaching staff and players have obviously been working hard on corner routines as there is now much more variety. Instead of simply lumping the ball into the box, there are a number of shorter options being used, as well as those finding players outside of the penalty area, like Wednesday night.
Although that corner came to nothing, from the resultant goal kick, the MKD defence got into a right pickle trying to play it short and a hasty clearance from Nicholls only found a rejuvenated Max Power, who picked up the loose ball and now full of confidence tried another 25 yard pile driver which deflected off a foot for another corner, this time on the right. Maguire curled one in to the near post where a stooping Luke O’Nien got off another great header, which was well saved and prompted the former Wycombe man to go over and congratulate Nicholls for the quality of his diving stop as we set up for another corner.
This too was defended effectively and the Dons broke forward but a fine tackle from Max Power not only stopped the visitors in their tracks but also won us a throw in. At this point one of our opponents decided that his white boots didn’t really go with primrose yellow so hopped off the pitch to swap them for a darker pair. More fool him because from the resultant throw, the ball was returned to McLaughlin C who lobbed the ball forward into the path of Luke O’Nien. Nicholls, unsure whether to come out and close him down or drop back onto his line did neither and O’Nien lobbed him in a way that reminded me of a goal I once almost scored myself in a 5 a side game at The Crowtree Leisure Centre. However, while mine bounced back off the angle of post and bar, O’Nien’s effort hit the post and side netting, with enough of the ball across the line to convince the referee’s assistant that it was a goal. From my seat I couldn’t be 100% sure all the ball was over the line before it was headed out, but hey who are we to argue with the officials when they rule in our favour? Having watched the replay it looks as if VAR could have decided either way and the 450 odd visiting fans might not have been happy but we were and our play up to that point had been worth more than a one goal lead. Luke O’Nien too was overjoyed. It’s not always easy to tell with our Luke as he plays with a permanent grin but his enthusiastic demolition of the corner flag as he went to celebrate with the fans said it all.
We continued to dominate, whilst the visiting defence looked shaky at times and another poor clearance found Gooch who burst forward and was unlucky to see a powerful drive from distance, pass just the wrong side of the far post. There was still time for one more bit of controversy as Max Power was fouled just in front of the technical areas and while the game continued, with the ref playing a good advantage, substitute David Kasamu did something to the prostrate Max Power as he ran past. We assumed it was a kick and there was plenty of shouting at the ref for a red card. After speaking to the 4th official Kasamu only saw yellow and then Max Power also went in the referee’s notebook, presumably for remonstrating as he walked away, although some thought it might have been for making out it was worse that it was. If I’m right and it was for criticising the ref, this is the second Saturday in a row that Power has picked up a stupid booking and while I like to see a bit of feistiness in our players it is no good if it means that player ends up missing games.
Anyone who knows me will confirm that I am rarely relaxed until we have at least a four goal lead and despite being two up at half time, the consensus around me was that we needed at least one more to settle the nerves. And true to form we were to endure a nervy second half as the Dons got into the game more effectively and halved the lead after only ten minutes of the half – although we might have had another goal before that, when a Chris Maguire cross found Lynden Gooch who was unable to shoot first time and in controlling the ball gave the defence time to re-organise and head clear, but only to the feet of Max Power, who tried his luck yet again with a right footed volley from the edge of the box, which scraped the post as Nicholls made sure it stayed out.
Their goal when it came was not great from a defensive point of view. I was explaining to the young lad who sits near me that the high pressing game we had employed earlier on uses up a lot of energy and that with a two goal lead, by defending deeper and allowing our opponents to pass the ball around in their own half, the emphasis was more on reducing passing options and managing the game but I was probably trying to reassure myself as much as him. The Dons had been passing the ball around more in our half and eventually Kasamu, crossed the ball deep to George Williams who had stolen in unnoticed on the far side. McLaughlin moved across to cover the near post but when Williams headed across the face of goal, he was forced to scramble back as Jordan Willis struggled to block the run of Jordan Bowery and somehow the ball ended up in the back of the net. McLaughlin protested he had been impeded but to be honest it wasn’t the finest bit of keeping I have seen from the big man. But there was confusion as first we thought the goal had been given, then disallowed, then given again.
There was some anxiety in the last half hour or so, which Chris Maguire might have alleviated had his effort brushed the underside, rather than the top of the bar as MK Dons continued to press but on the whole the defence coped well. As had happened against Rotherham we allowed our opponents the chance to get back into a game which we had started as the better side but we can’t expect other teams to simply roll over and capitulate. At the end of the day this is another three points and takes Jack Ross’s managerial record in league games as P 56 W 27 D 23 L 6 which takes him close to the two points a game target he sets himself. We have only lost once in the 28 games which he has supervised at the Stadium of Light. I don’t suppose the facts and figures will go any way to silencing those who think that a change of manager will automatically mean we will see a team winning easily each week but I do think constant criticism is not helping. Wins over Lincoln and Fleetwood would help.
Malcolm Dawson writes……..others I know will not share my opinions, but as I’ve got older I believe I have developed a healthy attitude to life and an ability to put into perspective things which seem to send others into paroxysms of rage. So whilst I walked away from the Stadium of Light frustrated at the overall performance of a team which dominated for the first third of the game and disappointed having dropped another two points, it didn’t take me long to get over it.
On the Park and Ride I had a chat with a young lad, not long out of college, who asked how long I had been following the Lads and on hearing that it was getting on for 60 years – 55 since my first visit to Roker Park, followed this up with “does it get any easier?” No prizes for my response.
I also had a bit of a chat with a Rotherham supporter and his son sitting behind me about a) the validity of McNulty’s goal and b) the first half penalty shouts that The Millers had. I had to admit that when I turned to look at McNulty he was already past his man so I immediately looked at the linesman who kept his flag down, whilst he didn’t think either of their shouts in the box were anything other than marginal.
Perspective! Watching football is something we do to fill in some time and hopefully keep us entertained. It is something we can get passionate about and we can experience a whole range of emotions following our team but at the end of the day it’s not, despite what Bill Shankley once said, more important than life and death and as I write safc.com tells me it’s only 3 days 5 hours and 29 minutes to the next instalment.
Climbing into the car I switched on Spotify, clicked on liked songs and set it off in shuffle mode. Driving towards the A19 the first three songs that came up were “Fire and Rain” by James Taylor, Steely Dan’s “Hey Nineteen” and Leon Russell with “Tightrope”. All appropriate in their own way.
The first a reminder that as we go through life, we all have personal issues to deal with and we will have had a pretty smooth ride if all we have to get worked up about is the failure of our football team to snatch a win. The second reminding me that I was 19 the last time Sunderland actually won a trophy of note and the only one in my 65 years on this planet, and the third with the lyrics “one side’s hate and one is hope” and “I’m up on the high wire, flanked by life and the funeral pyre” which if you were so inclined you might see as my attitude to watching football. But then you might just think I’m a bit of a tosser, who as an ex girlfriend once said is lacking in emotion. I get excited when we score and I enjoy it when we win but though I’m disappointed when we don’t, I’m not going to let it ruin the rest of my week. Oh and in case we forget we didn’t lose.
COULD’VE, SHOULD’VE, MIGHT HAVE
And so to the match.
Here was a game we could have won and the way we started this was a game we should have won. By the end this was a game we might have lost but then we still might have won at the death – although over the course of the 90 minutes it would have been an undeserved victory had we managed to grab a winner.
In his pre-match press conference Jack Ross had mentioned that a couple of players had got through the Accrington Stanley game carrying knocks, so it came as no surprise that there were two changes. That one was Chris Maguire was disappointing. That the other was Grant Leadbitter was less surprising.
What is it with social media and radio phone ins? On Saturday Twitter and Radio Newcastle were awash with the views of those who thought we had put in a poor performance, despite the three points. Last night it was all “stick with the same team” and “never change a winning side” and “what’s Ross doing dropping Chris Maguire?”
Well for a half hour or so it looked like Jack Ross had got it spot on.
For those first thirty minutes, this was as convincing a Sunderland performance as I have seen for a long while. Within seconds of the kick off, which Rotherham took, Ozturk was awarded a free kick for an offence that no-one near me noticed. He took it quickly and by the time I had turned my head to follow the ball, McNulty had got behind the last defender, controlled the dropping ball beautifully and rounded the goalkeeper. It looked for a second as if he might have let the opportunity slip before calmly slotting home. It then took longer to get the game restarted than it had for us to take the lead.
We dominated that opening spell.
Luke O’Nien playing in the number ten role buzzed about, making himself available and was a constant threat. McNulty showed his customary energy and made a nuisance of himself. McGeady was showing his silky skills out on the left, combining well with Hume who was pushing forward whenever he could. This is not the same Denver Hume who looked nervy and unsure against Oxford. This is a young man learning all the time.
Conor McLaughlin was looking assured at the back, much happier on his stronger side and as as we grew into the game he pushed forward more too. Ozturk and Willis are developing a good understanding and Gooch was as industrious as ever. McGeouch initiated some nice passing moves and Dobson was physical. Our lack of height was noticeable but Dobson and O’Nien in particular win a surprising amount of headers.
Big Jon McLaughlin made a couple of routine saves from Freddy Ladapo but wasn’t really troubled during that opening spell. It looked as if JR had instructed the team to be more physical in this game and were well in control, competing for and winning second balls and carving out a number of decent chances.
Some smart movement down the left flank saw McNulty dummy to leave O’Nien with a decent opportunity to increase the lead but he was leaning back as he tried to side foot the ball home and it sailed over the bar. On 17 minutes, McGeady fired a powerful curling shot towards the top right hand corner, after good interplay from Gooch and McNulty. It looked in all the way until Iverson in the Rotherham goal pulled off a fantastic one handed save.
The Millers had a couple of half hearted penalty shouts waved away, but our defence was dealing with everything that was coming their way and then Conor Mclaughlin tried to get on the score sheet but his effort also went high and wide.
The general feeling around me was that another goal or two would settle matters and that opportunity arose just before the half hour mark, when some close passing between McNulty and Gooch, saw the American tripped by Clark Robertson and we all glanced at the ref to make sure he was pointing to the spot. It looked as if Gooch wanted to take the kick himself. The consensus was that he was the appointed penalty taker, but captain for the night Aiden McGeady took the ball from him and placed the ball on the spot. No bother we thought. We have one of the best conversion rates for penalty kicks in the league and McGeady knows what he is doing. There then followed one of the worst penalties I have ever seen. No power, no placement and never left the ground. Daniel Iverson made the simplest of saves and our best chance to put the game to bed had evaporated. Doubtless, had Iverson flung himself towards the post and the ball had trickled under his body McGeady would have been hailed as a genius but to be honest this was as feeble an effort as you are ever likely to see. I hope it was a mis-kick but if it wasn’t then the entire squad must be made to sit and watch this then spend twenty minutes at the next training session practising picking a spot and striking the ball firmly. Fair enough if the keeper makes a great save, but he could have put one of those sausage dog shaped draught excluders on his goal line and it would have prevented the ball going into the net.
This seemed to deflate the home players and spur the visitors on as from that moment the tide turned and for the fans a whole hour of frustration was to follow. Somehow, if we had played badly for the whole 90 minutes and come away with a point it would have been more satisfactory than last night, after the perfect start then missing a golden opportunity to put the game to bed
McGeady might have made amends just before the interval, making space for himself with one his characteristic spins before curling a shot wide of the right hand post, but we went into the break with the Yorkshire side in the ascendency.
In the latter stages of the first half and immediately from the start of the second Rotherham looked by far the more fluent side. Our play became scrappy, we were losing out in situations which we would have won in the opening spell and it seemed like only a matter of time before the equaliser would come. We were also picking up stupid bookings with Dobson and McLaughlin (C) both going in the referee’s notebook for what looked like innocuous challenges.
At one point the visitors did beat Jon McLaughlin with a deflected shot but play had already been stopped with Jordan Willis on the ground with a potential head injury. There then followed an interchange between the referee and the players which ended in an uncontested dropped ball just outside the penalty area, which the Rotherham player, possibly under the referee’s instruction, passed out to the right wing before play continued normally. I can’t say I’ve ever seen anything like that before and presumably it is the result of the new laws as they are applied this season.
Wyke came on and introduced a more physical presence. It was McNulty he replaced so I can only assume the Scotsman had taken a knock as he had busied himself all game. O’Nien too had been in the wars and by now was wearing a numberless shirt. He had also been yellow carded for a foul.
Rotherham were piling on the pressure whilst we were on the back foot and it was almost inevitable that they would get one back.
It came from a quick break down the Rotherham right. With our defence flooding back the ball found itself at the feet of Freddy Ladapo who had the presence of mind to look up and spot the run of left winger Jake Hastie. With Conor McLaughlin way out of position and scrambling back hastily across the pitch, Hastie had acres of space and plenty of time to fire hard and low across the other McLaughlin to make it one all.
Maguire came on for McLaughlin as O’Nien slipped back into the number 2 slot and in the dying minutes Grigg came on for Gooch. As the minutes ticked by we were hanging on for a draw, but despite being second best for all but the first half hour, had two chances to grab a winner. First Wyke found himself in the clear after a slip by a Rotherham defender but his shot was blocked by Iverson. Then McGeady sent in another trademark curler across goal which grazed the post. In the six minutes of added time, O’Nien too found himself in a good position breaking into the box but ran it out for a goal kick, when with a little less desperation might have done better.
A home win would have been hard on Rotherham and had we lost I don’t think anyone would have been surprised but we did dominate for thirty minutes and had we played like that during the last half hour rather than the first, we might have been happy with a point. But as the two blokes passing my open window as I am writing this were saying, it was frustrating!
In contrast to some other websites and social media platforms, contributors to Salut! Sunderland, whether in the main body of text or in the comments sections, tend to make reasoned arguments and are prepared to respect the opinions of others and discuss issues, rather than indulge in polemics.
The season has come to a disappointing end and inevitably the inquests have started and just as inevitably, there are those calling for a change of ownership and/or a change of manager in an open and frankly rude manner. On the whole these types seem to believe their simplistic solutions would see us competing in the top flight and challenging for European trophies. Often a variation of the very approach they advocate has been tried with disastrous consequences in the very recent past and many of their solutions ignore what happens in the real world.
Add to this a kind of double standard which sees any decent player in the squad who looks to move to another club, as a disloyal traitor or a money grabbing mercenary but welcomes an incomer with open arms whether or not they have spent years at their former club, nor in what circumstances they were persuaded to come to Sunderland AFC. Allied to that is the belief that as long we offer the right money, every single person who ever pulls on a pair of football boots would jump at the chance to come to Wearside, as if finding a top quality striker or centre back is the same as deciding whether to go into Harrods to buy some wild rocket, mignoette and micro salad or making do with some iceberg from Lidl.
Decisions have to be made and one course of action will impact on another. In football of course there are also the imponderables over which no-one has any control. One such decision which was made this season which quite rightly, is being questioned is whether or not the club should have made Josh Maja see out his contract and finish the season with us. Elsewhere both John McCormick and Paul Summerside make valid arguments that this, in hindsight was a poor decision and they are supported by others’ comments.
They might be right and we might have been looking forward to Championship football next season had Maja been retained, but the truth is we don’t know. Anything might have occurred and all we do know is what happened. Maja might have suffered a loss of form. He may have been the recipient of the type of meaningless and vindictive challenge that saw the unfortunate Duncan Watmore sent back to the treatment table so soon after his recovery from serious injury. Then again he may have scored another fifteen goals and turned some of those draws into wins and finished off Fleetwood and Southend before they took all three points from us. We’ll never know and while I know John and Paul will accept the truth of that, there will be others out there who will be 100% sure that I’m talking rubbish.
My own view is that there is no point in going back and bemoaning that particular decision but now what is needed is an analysis of what went well, what went badly and what we need to do to improve and I’m sure Jack Ross, the coaching staff and the owners will do so.
Letting Maja go and replacing him with an injured Will Grigg, who let’s face it, despite his song, hasn’t set the Stadium of Light or any away ground come to that on fire, seems to many a poor decision. Facts would seem to support that view though personally I am convinced we are yet to see the best of the former Wigan man. There is of course the financial aspect. Failing to get Maja tied down to a new contract would have seen him leave for nothing in the summer. I am prepared to accept that finances are such that without his transfer fee the club would have been limited when looking for a replacement over the summer, and had we gone up the type of player we needed to replace him would be expensive. At least with Will Grigg, the club has a saleable asset, as well as a player who might well contribute the number of goals we would like to see from him next season.
Similarly Charlie Wyke, though working hard in every game he has played has not been in any way prolific. Does that make him a bad player? I think not – not at this level anyway so I think we need to look elsewhere as to how to improve.
One thing I’m sure the management team are looking at is the balance of the squad. In my view, the best 11 players don’t necessarily make the best team and one of the problems I feel we had against Charlton was the lack of creativity in midfield. To my mind, Power, Leadbitter, Honeyman and Cattermole may all have deserved to start on recent performances but are all too much of a muchness in my view. Of course the manager has to pick from the players at his disposal and judge not only how fit they are, but how ready they are to start, but in the case of Honeyman, Leadbitter and Cattermole, there should be no room for sentiment in a one off play off game. I’m sure that didn’t play a part in JR’s thinking but it’s possible he felt that they might be more motivated than some others.
Dylan McGeouch is perhaps our most creative midfielder, but wasn’t even on the bench. He hadn’t really contributed much in the two previous games he had started but might have been able to give us something the others didn’t. Bali Mumba is young and inexperienced but again might have been the spark that was lacking in midfield. O’Nien is lively in midfield and has considerably more pace than those who started in midfield, but seems to have become the first choice right back.
Will Grigg is a different type of player to Charlie Wyke and with McGeouch in the side I would have been interested to see if Grigg and Maguire might have been able to work the Charlton defence better than we did on the day.
Morgan has been inconsistent since he came to us on loan and didn’t really get into the game on Sunday. He might have done as he has the ability. After Power was forced off I thought his introduction to the game might have seen a simpler tweak to the formation than we got, with Honeyman taking up Power’s position and Morgan playing Honeyman’s role but the skipper seemed to carry on taking up the same positions and the Celtic man never looked totally sure of what was expected from him.
With Aiden McGeady less than 100% we may have expected more from O’Nien and Oviedo in the attacking third but as we saw against Coventry a kamikaze approach can be fatal (yes I know you Japanese speaking purists not can be but is) but I wondered if Jack Ross considered tweaking the system prior to Wembley. After all for the first time in ages he had an opportunity to put in some serious work on the training ground.
Might a back three have been better? It worked in the second half of the opening game of the season, when Ozturk was pushed out wide. I thought back then he looked good on the left of a back three. That would have allowed the wing backs more freedom to attack and I know it’s not a system Jack Ross has employed much but that in itself might have been a plus. The one reservation I have about JR’s tactics is they became too predictable.
Early in the season there was a fluidity about the team. Players knew their own roles, but also each others’ and we saw them chopping and changing within the game. If a full back went high up the pitch, the defence would move over and a midfielder would drop back to cover. We moved the ball more positively and players were always looking for space. The front line too would swap positions. We seemed to lose this as the season wore on. That may have been tiredness, owing to the number and frequency of fixtures but it’s something that can be worked on over summer but being able to implement plans A B and C during the course of a game, would give opponents a bit more to think about.
We’ll never know if Josh Maja was the difference between us going up and facing return trips to Accrington, Rochdale and Lincoln (games I’m looking forward to) and Milton Keynes, Portsmouth and Coventry (games I doubt I’ll be going to) and we’ll never know if my starting line up of McLaughlin, Flanagan, Dunne, Ozturk, O’Nien Leadbitter, Cattermole, McGeouch, Oviedo, Maguire, Grigg would have been able to see off Charlton.
But the club now has the foundations in place and can build this summer, whereas twelve months ago, those foundations were shaky and the cracks full of expandable filler.
Malcolm Dawson writes………none of us really wanted to go through the playoffs, even those who would have settled for that scenario before the season kicked off, but for Pete Sixsmith they represent an increased workload. With 46 league games to report on, plus all those cup ties and his twin series of First Time Evers, he is doing far more than his fair share this season, so we agreed that I would once again step onto the soapbox to cover this game.
Rest assured he was at Highbury last night and he will be at Southend on Saturday, where he is making a weekend of it, so you may have to wait until Monday to get your Sixer fix, via his final soapbox of the regular season. Until then you’ll have to put up with me and what John McCormick suggested might be a more measured assessment of events at Highbury Stadium than Peter might have provided.
About ten times a year I have a commitment which takes me to Lytham St Annes, just south of Blackpool, and this rearranged fixture with Fleetwood fell slap bang in the middle of one of those weeks. So last night’s game was only a short drive for me up the Fylde coast and knowing someone who lives only five minutes from the ground, parking was no problem. The final part of my journey was literally a walk in the park and while Pete Sixsmith was snoozing on the coach back to County Durham, I was back in my hotel having a brew and mulling over a game which to my mind was a microcosm of the whole season.
We started off well, and jumped ahead, seemingly in control and way ahead of the opposition, but failed to consolidate our start. Then came a bit of a wobble but with still enough of a showing to suggest we might find a way back, until crash, bang, thank you mam and our fate was sealed. This was the first time all season we have been beaten after taking the lead, but not the first time we have been unable to build onto, nor even hold onto an early advantage.
Fleetwood’s stadium has been smartened up considerably in recent years, but still retains elements which reflect the fact that not so long ago this was a club playing in the Evostick North including the clubhouse in the corner, which has to have advertising banners in front of the windows so you can’t enjoy a pint and watch the game at the same time – just one more thing for me to hold against Margaret Thatcher.
The whole ground holds less than six thousand and from my vantage point I was able to scan our section of terracing and identify people I knew, including Wrinkly Pete and others of the HoE branch who I waved to, but who didn’t acknowledge my presence in the posh seats. Disappointingly, the stand opposite was only half full and almost half the total attendance of a tad over 4,000, would have been wanting a Sunderland win.
We started with three changes from Saturday’s team with Gooch and Maguire replacing Honeyman and McGeady and Will Grigg leading the line in place of Charlie Wyke. Grigg is a different type of player to Wyke and this formation saw us playing more controlled, possession football, looking to create gaps in the Fleetwood defence, rather than hump the ball to, then play off a target man. I thought we did it well in that first half. We dominated possession and moved the ball better than we have done for some time, but for all the attempts to create scoring opportunities, we were mostly ineffective. When we did lose the ball we never seriously looked threatened and McLaughlin was always in the right place and hardly had a save to make.
Up the other end Alex Cairns in the Fleetwood goal was seeing a little more of the ball, saving well from Max Power after good work from Maguire and a cross from Lewis Morgan. On another day it could have gone in but credit the keeper for a good stop and then grabbing the ball at the second attempt, before Power could finish it off. Soon after Will Grigg curled a shot onto crossbar. On another day that too could have gone in but rebounded to safety. Grigg had another opportunity not long after that, but this time a rather tame header was an easy catch for Cairns.
Earlier, Lee Cattermole had tried his luck from outside the box and had seen his effort go high, but it was he who finally broke the deadlock and got us the goal our bright start deserved. A corner on the right was whipped in by Lewis Morgan and Catts got in a glancing header following his near post run.
One nil as news was coming in that the Posh were two nil ahead at Portsmouth and the buzz around me was whether the impossible scenario might still be a possibility come Saturday? Personally, at that stage and with how we were playing I thought it might be, but only if we could eat further into the GD deficit with at least another two goals.
There was little in that first period to suggest we wouldn’t go on to win the game, but anyone who has seen us on a regular basis would not have felt confident that we would.
Joey Barton, who unsurprisingly had been the object of some less than complimentary comments from the away sections of the ground, made one change at half time but it wasn’t really obvious that there was any change in formation or approach from the Fisherman. Rather, as we have unfortunately seen several times this season, it was our own performance which slipped after the break. We became more wasteful in possession, lost more second balls and defended deeper, allowing the home side to play higher up the pitch.
We were still 1-0 ahead when Sterling replaced Grigg. Sterling I feel could make a decent player in the right set up and given the right sort of service but this was not the case last evening. Apart from Ozturk, Flanagan and McLaughlin, there was little height in the side and yet those at the back seemed to think the Tottenham loanee could do the job Charlie Wyke does and pumped long balls up for him to hold onto or head on. He did neither and apart from one run and penalty shout was pretty ineffective. Honeyman came on for Maguire in a straight swap and was immediately sent crashing to the floor by Wes Burns who was only yellow carded, when a red might have been more appropriate. It would be easy to say that this might have been a deliberate ploy from the manager, who we all know is no angel, but we have seen several teams at this level indulge in dubious practices and time wasting and Fleetwood were no different. Their time wasting saw the referee add five minutes extra time at the end of the ninety, but it would only benefit the home side in the end.
We were still 1-0 up at this point but it was difficult to see where any more goals would come from. Meanwhile, Fleetwood were starting to get back into the game as former Black Cat Ross Wallace showed us a bit of trickery and produced some decent balls into the box, but it was a neat bit of interplay between Paddy Madden and overlapping full back Lewie Coyle which brought about the equaliser, as Madden found the space to side foot Coyle’s pull back out of McLaughlin’s reach.
I couldn’t see any way back after that, even though a draw was no good to us. We had some half chances but even a 2-1 win was unlikely to be enough as despite the events at Fratton Park the required turn around in goal difference meant we would still be unlikely to catch Luton or Barnsley. So the losing goal in the additional time was pretty irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, though it probably means we will have to face Charlton in the two leg stage of the play offs instead of Doncaster or possibly Peterborough. Despite my age I never thought I’d be able to say that I saw Eastham, in a red shirt with white sleeves score at Highbury, but it was Ashley, not George who grabbed the winner.
There were only three touches after that before the full time whistle went and a number of people around me went ballistic hurling abuse at the team and the club. I refuse to do that. I may criticise players who don’t show commitment or who are lacking in effort but I have never seen this squad fail to give 100%. The fact that they don’t always succeed or achieve the results we would wish to see is not down to those factors. The truth is that apart from Oviedo, Lee Cattermole and Lynden Gooch, the starting line up last night was composed of players who have learned their trade in Leagues 1 and 2 or the Scottish League.
I’d like to know how standing and berating players, including people like Jimmy Dunne who had spent the entire game running up and down the touchline in a training bib is supposed to help the side improve. Perhaps a former girl friend of mine was right when she accused me of lacking emotion, but while I am disappointed when we don’t win I can’t get angry about it unless I think the players are not trying and I can’t accuse any of them of that crime in any game I have witnessed this season.
Yes it is disappointing that we couldn’t be in with at least an outside chance of automatic promotion at Southend, but realistically we were always looking at the playoffs once we failed to beat Coventry. It has been a long season. We will have played more games than anyone else in this division, bar Portsmouth come the end of the campaign. We have a squad that was largely cobbled together over the summer, have had more than our fair share of injuries and they have, in my view, done well to achieve what they have. To my mind, Jack Ross has only made a few errors in his team selection (with Burton away being the main one) or in the way his teams have lined up, with Coventry being the most obvious example when we were too exposed at the back. Tactically we may have been more adventurous after opening the scoring as too often we have failed to press home an advantage. Hindsight would say that a few more wins and a few less draws would have been preferable in terms of points gained.
Southend is a bit of a no event game for us but could mean the difference between the Shrimpers staying in League One or being relegated. While I expect to see a few players rested for this game, we still need to put a decent side out and can’t be seen to take our foot off the gas with six teams still facing the drop.
The next time I am due over in this neck of the woods is Sunday 26th May, which just happens to be the day of the League 1 Play Off Final, so it’ll be an early drive over and find a pub showing the match if we are involved. The way things are going I’m not confident we will even feature in that game but nil desperandum. You know what they say about overweight divas.
Deputy Editor Malcolm Dawson writes…..with so many games to fit in between Wembley and the end of the season Pete Sixsmith and I agreed to job share the match reports so if you’ve come here looking for his erudite take on yesterday’s events at the soon to be renamed Stadium of Light, I’m afraid you’ll just have to put up with my version. Yesterday was a chance for me to catch up with some old mates from the Heart of England Branch while enjoying a couple of pints of Landlord in the Kings Arms. A couple of them I hadn’t seen since the Mick McCarthy days whilst the others, travelling up from Coventry of all places, were sent on a detour around Northallerton and other parts of rural North Yorkshire after an incident on the A1(M). They just about made it in time for a pint before kick off of what was to prove to be a pretty action packed game.
Bill Taylor, Bishop Auckland born, Sunderland through and through and still a devotee of all things SAFC, even though he is now domiciled in Canada, was mildly critical of my headline for Sixer’s Burton soapbox in which I described Tuesday’s result as disappointing. Well if I thought Tuesday’s result was disappointing I thought yesterday’s was equally so.
Equally so? Surely you are screaming why not more so? After all we lost for only the third time this season, the first time we have witnessed a home defeat in the league and we have slipped back out of the promotion places. The game against the Brewers could have gone either way as could yesterday’s. In truth we didn’t deserve to win yesterday but we could have on another day, same as Tuesday. Mind you on Tuesday we just about merited a point. Yesterday we didn’t.
In the introduction to yesterday’s Seven M. Salut mentioned the fact that social media was awash with angry, anguished messages about how wretched Sunderland’s defensive performance was. I don’t do social media. I can’t be bothered with it and while I have friends and family who tell me how useful it is my uninformed perception of it is that it provides a platform for the ignorant, the uninformed and the hard of thinking to air their simplistic views in language that often is hurtful and offensive without thought of the consequences. I accept that as in life, this is probably only a small minority but it’s something I feel I would rather do without. Another aspect of it which tries my patience is the lack of consistency in the views that are expressed by that vocal few – something which I glean from those sites and articles that seem to think people’s tweets and Facebook comments constitutes news.
Was yesterday’s defending shocking?
Well yes it was and there is no getting away from that but why? Jack Ross is trying to deflect the blame from his players, which is not only good management but also pragmatic. The fact is that our defence was exposed and exploited and a large part of that was down to the personnel who were available and the way in which the team was set up. For most of the season we have seen a formation that employs a single striker. Often we only had one available but that didn’t stop armchair managers calling for a traditional 4-4-2 citing a lack of firepower with the 4-5-1 set up.
Against Coventry we not only set up in a 4-4-2 shape but we had Luke O’Nien and Bryan Oviedo as the full backs, both of whom had obviously been told to push forward and provide width in the attacking half of the pitch while Honeyman and Morgan played slightly narrower. Power too, though nominally a box to box to box midfielder was often pushed higher up the pitch leaving Leadbitter as the only protection for the centre backs. If this was always the pre-match plan or came about after we found ourselves a goal down early doors I couldn’t say for certain but it did look as if team instructions were to get forward at every opportunity.
As a pairing Flanagan and Baldwin have at times looked unbeatable but that has tended to be where opponents have lumped the ball forward and they have had a lot of high balls to deal with, or where they can attack the ball whilst going forward. Both Burton and Coventry had several, quick, mobile forwards who moved the ball quickly, turned both centre backs inside out and created space and shooting opportunities. Should Jack Ross who is meticulous in his planning been prepared for that? Had the whole squad been available I don’t think we would have seen that starting XI. Adam Matthews and Reece James, might have been preferred to provide a more defensively minded back four, Lee Cattermole or Dylan McGeouch could have provided more bite in front of the centre backs. A fit Aiden McGeady and Chris Maguire could have allowed Honeyman to play more centrally. Morgan, who had a good game yesterday might have started on the bench but would have been an option to provide width on the opposite side to McGeady and Grigg, who looks as if he is playing through an injury might not have started. Ifs and buts and the manager had to pick a team from a seriously depleted squad. That doesn’t mean he got it right but could any of us have engineered a better result against the Sky Blues?
We started off well enough. Lewis Morgan had a shot saved whilst Baldwin and Flanagan dealt with a City corner well enough but after only 12 minutes we were 1-0 down. Recently O’Nien has been the blue eyed boy, but he did what would have tuned Tommy Clish, my old PE teacher at Houghton Grammar, red with frustration when he tried to play a ball across the face of goal looking for Grant Leadbitter. It was a fair way out but an alert Amadou Bakayako cut out the intended pass, moved it quickly to Jordy Hiwula-Mayifuila on the right. His first time pass inside found Bright Enobakhare who moved the ball quickly and side footed through a crowd of red and white shirts to find the bottom corner. One loose pass, one forward with quick feet. One nil.
Whatever criticisms can be levelled at this Sunderland team a lack of resilience and the ability to fight back after an early setback is not one (or should that be two?) and it only took four minutes for the Lads to get the first of their three equalisers courtesy of skipper Honeyman. Oviedo brought the ball out from the back and passed it forward to Morgan. The Celtic loanee made good progress down the left wing before cutting inside and looking up to see Honeyman just outside the box. Honeyman found the target via a deflection.
This might have been the start of the come back but those of us who were there on Tuesday and could see how much trouble quick passing movements could cause by dragging our defenders out of position recognised the threat and the next two Coventry goals were greeted with an air of resigned inevitability by those around me, whilst at the same time not extinguishing the hope that we might still claw this one back.
It was a quick, slick all along the ground passing movement that set up Bakayako for the second goal, with crisp movement and ball retention, the visitors economically bringing the ball out of defence, with no stop/start, have a look around and pass sideways thinking and finding himself running into space, the forward again stroked the ball, rather than blasting it into the net. It was a good run which left our defenders flat footed but to be fair was the type of move that needs to be cut out at source, rather than one where outright blame can be put at the feet of the centre backs. Sometimes you have to credit the opposition and had we scored it we would have been full of praise for our boys.
Their third came about when Grigg was dispossessed on the right of the half way line. Enobakhare again showed quick feet before slipping the ball to Hiwula-Mayifuila. It appeared he was looking for the far post but rather like the Burton goal on Tuesday and in almost the identical spot it was again deflected, this time off Jack Baldwin to wrong foot McLaughlin.
Four goals in the first 25 minutes had sent the 4,000 or so Coventry fans into raptures. In a funny sort of way this was a bit of a help to the home side. I doubt if there were many more than 100 sat in the North Stand Upper on Tuesday and while the home crowd were never overtly negative, the sense of frustration probably got through to the players. With such a good away following, the noise cranked up a gear while the hope in my section of the West Stand at least was that we could pull one back and go in just one goal behind. That we went in level was as pleasing as it was unexpected, though by pleasing I’m not saying it was deemed satisfactory, just an acknowledgement that things could have been a lot worse.
Charlie Wyke continued his recent rehabilitation back into a goal scoring centre forward when Power, Oviedo and Morgan working down the left wing, got another cross into the box. The keeper should have dealt with it and though Grigg was hovering he was really under no pressure, but he flapped, the ball fell loose and Wyke was on hand to stick it in the net, then just as we were prepared to settle for a one goal half time deficit we equalised for the second time.
Once more it was Morgan who fired in a cross from deep just as we were preparing for the half time break. Wyke rose highest at the far post and his nod down found Grigg, who though under pressure from the Coventry centre back, somehow kept control and poked the ball home from close range. Six goals in the first forty five and the game was so open we expected more of the same after the restart.
I thought we were the better side for the first ten minutes but just as I was beginning to think we might make a remarkable recovery, Baldwin tried to play a through ball down the middle to Honeyman. It was intercepted, fed out out to the Coventry right and after a couple of touches from the impressive Bakayako, he rolled the ball to Jordan Shipley whose run no-one had tracked and the number 26 powered home a sweet left foot drive from all of 25 yards. Had Chris Maguire or Max Power produced a similar effort we would have been singing their praises. As it was it was another hammer blow. Surely we didn’t have it in us to get back on level terms again.
But we did. Jack Ross had made a double substitution and it was the returning Aiden McGeady who found Max Power just outside the box. He went for placement rather than power (sorry but I couldn’t think of an alternative) and like Honeyman his shot took a deflection which sent Lee Burge the wrong way. This was already a remarkable game which might still go either way.
Some Coventry fans I was talking to on the walk back through the Sheepfolds admitted that they were expecting us to score every time we got the ball, which is an interesting perspective as although at four all we were hoping that would be the case, it was no surprise when we ended up on the wrong side of a nine goal contest. The final nail in the coffin came after another low cross from Charlie Wakefield on the right wing. Baldwin stretched, went down and failed to cut out the pass and although he got to his feet quickly, Flanagan also failed to deal with it as substitute Conor Chaplin took control and stuck it home. There would be no coming back from that one.
After the January transfer window we might have had a massive squad in League 1 terms but yesterday we were missing Rose, I mean Love (see comments), Matthews, James, Cattermole, Maguire, Watmore, McGeouch and Gooch. Have I missed anyone? Add to that Grigg and McGeady are not 100% and we are a bit stretched. Benji Kimpioka also came off the bench but showed his inexperience and also perhaps the manager’s desperation.
It wasn’t a good defensive performance, there’s no getting away from that but I’m not sure we had the right type of players to combat Coventry’s style of play. Hindsight is a marvellous thing and I’m left pondering whether or not we would have been better employing the lopsided flexible 3-4-1-2 system with Flanagan, Baldwin and Ozturk (who surely deserves a run out after recent events) in front of McLaughlin, Honeyman and Oviedo making up a back 5 when not in midfield, Power and Leadbitter sitting just in front of the back line with Morgan behind Grigg and Wyke, from those who were fit enough to start.
Automatic promotion is still in our own hands despite Barnsley, Portsmouth and Charlton all winning yesterday and in a way I am pleased we have three away games but none of those will be easy. We all knew that April would be a tough test after Wembley and we got off to a decent enough start with 7 points from 9 but we need a better performance on Good Friday against Doncaster to maintain the promotion push. Let’s hope we can get back to winning ways.
Ha’way the Lads.
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