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 ahead while 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.
Haway the Lads