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!