Malcolm Dawson writes………last night was a big night in European Cup football. No not the thumping of Arsenal by Bayern Munich, nor the tie between Real Madrid and Napoli but the chance for the Sunderland Under 23 squad to progress to the semi final of the Premier League International Cup with a home tie to Spanish side Athletic Bilbao.
And so it was that Pete Sixsmith picked me up for my first taste of live football following my brief “holiday” in the Royal Infirmary. Well you can leave the car in the Stadium car park on these nights and how glad was I that I decided that the walk to the ground from our usual parking spot was too far for me to risk on Saturday! But I had no excuses last night and a decent game justified the trip from the wilds of Weardale to Wearmouth.
As Peter went up the stairs to join the band of Hetton Irregulars high in the padded seats of the West Stand, I ventured further along, nearer to the centre line where the front rows were vacant and much more accessible to a man with dodgy knees. I couldn’t understand why these seats were so empty until a group of young lads tried to sit in the row behind and the stewards informed them that these seats were reserved for the families of the players. I’m not sure I could have passed myself off as Joel Asoro’s younger brother but he didn’t seem to see me as a problem. Shortly afterwards he tried to move on a chap with his two young sons and got sworn at in what I took to be the Basque language but might have been Swedish. Anyway they stayed surrounded by empty seats.
Sunderland lined up with all the familiar faces that we see at the Colliery Welfare Ground in Hetton. Stryjek, the three Robsons, Greenwood, Beadling (on loan at Bury but allowed to play in this game), Embleton, Osoro, Casey, Ledger and Molyneux. But it was the Spanish side that started the brighter. They were composed on the ball and kept possession well whilst the Sunderland defence seemed content to hoof it anywhere. One poor clearance from Stryjek that went straight into the new red seats of the East Stand, had me commenting that they had obviously been instructed to play like the first team.
A few things bemuse me about modern day football. One is why so many foul throws seem to go unpunished, though the Bilbao left back did get pulled up twice for that and why goalkeepers punch the ball with their wrists when it would appear to be just as easy to catch it.
Bilbao had some decent players. Cordoba on the left wing looked particularly menacing as did centre forward Hernandez who had a couple of good chances, blasting one over the bar after Stryjek failed to deal effectively with a corner. The keeper would redeem himself before the 45 minutes was up however.
After 20 minutes or so the boys in red and white got more of a grip on the game and good movement and passing down the right saw Osoro fire in a shot on target which Etxeberria, in the Bilbao goal, could only parry into the path of Ethan Robson who fired home to put the youthful Black Cats 1-0 up.
Incidentally, both goalkeepers wore identical all green kits which might have given rise to confusion had either been sent up the other end in the dying minutes.
Bilbao kept plugging away and Hernandez had another couple of good efforts which were well dealt with by the Sunderland keeper. A fine dive to his right saw the young Pole get a strong hand to a close range effort, right on the stroke of half time to preserve the lead.
The second half started brightly and Asoro had a good chance within a minute of the restart but when one on one with the keeper his shot was saved by the Spaniard’s boot. Didn’t matter too much though because not long after Elliot Embleton fired in the second with a curling shot from outside the box. Two – nil was comfortable and it was to become more so when the tricky winger Cordoba clashed with Thomas Beadling. I have to admit I didn’t see what happened on the far side of the pitch. I did see the two players squaring up after a heavyish tackle but I didn’t see Cordoba hit the Sunderland man. I did see the referee brandishing his cards and when the player trooped off disconsolately I gathered it was a straight red.
The fact they were a man down didn’t seem to phase the Spanish side who continued to play the ball around well but they did seem to want to even up the numbers with several theatrical dives and accompanying squeals whenever they lost out on a tackle. Gurutzeta, the number 7 especially seemed unable to walk on several occasions, rolling around clutching his leg, before sprinting off unconcerned when the ball came his way.
It could have been three when Robson E hit the post, but in the end it was a comfortable win for the home side and a decent game all round. Several players put in decent performances – Greenwood, Asoro, Embleton and Stryjek in particular and it would seem that only Swansea City or Hertha Berlin stand between them and the chance of some European silver.
No Total Sport on the radio going home so we had to suffer the aftermath of the events in Munich and the whinging of the phone in Arsenal fans. At least we can have a week’s rest from the pain or rare pleasure in watching our team play!