I never was much for third place playoff games, and, despite claiming to the contrary, there are a number of players, both Belgian and English, who’d rather be at home getting ready to watch Sunday's final. Not all - I believe Pickford and one or two others wanted a spot of revenge on the Walloonatics and genuinely wanted a third-place medal and another England cap – but probably more than half of them. Which made my trip to Hartlepool a no-brainer - as if there’s much thought goes into watching Sunderland anyway. Apart from planning tricky away trips, it’s just a case of when it’s matchday, you go to watch Sunderland play.
You’ll know by now that, after 180 minutes of trying, we scored against non-league opposition and came away with a 1-1 draw. Personally, it was a bit different from a normal game. After spending yesterday morning fitting seats in the East Stand - and whoever sat in seat 303, hang your head in shame for clogging up the screw-head with chut - you know who you are, and one day I’ll find you. It was a properly enjoyable morning, and strangely satisfying, but it was done in the knowledge that I’d won the “Benno for a day” competition, and therefore wondering how I’d manage to watch us for 90 minutes without letting rip with an expletive or three on the BBC.
Anyway, on another blisteringly hot day (29 degrees, according to the car) I took my place alongside Nick Barnes, donned the headphones, and tried to make meaningful comments on the Lads without resorting to standard football crowd language. The game was preceded my a very moving tribute to the former manager Neale Cooper, who passed away in May, with his family present and a floral tributes laid in front of the Neale Cooper Stand (formerly the Millhouse stand) where our supporters were situated. A minute’s applause was contributed to by both sets of fans (2,233 Wearsiders, 1,501 Poolies), before the Lads lined up:
Matthews Love Flanagan Hume
Honeyman Catts McGeouch
McManaman Maja Gooch
No sign of Ozturk, James, presumably because of injury (slight, I hope, or the manager wants to see 90 minutes of Hume) or Tuesday’s triallist Forrester – mebbe Darlo was all we’ll ever see of him, or mebbe he only plays on a Tuesday, in which case we might see him at Grimsby.
With the impressive Hartlepool vista of sea, headland, and the masts of the Triconmalee towering over Morrison's, we kicked off left to right. That's south, if you're still unaware of the lay of the land.
As we’d suspected, McManaman was out wide, and we huffed and puffed a bit without really producing much against a Hartlepool side who, in rugby terms, had an advantage of several stone and several feet. We’d got in a couple of crosses from the left before Honyeman (captain on the day despite Catts being on the field) moved more to the right, and things started to happen – but no goals. Someone waved a phone in our faces to tell us that Belgium had taken an early lead against England, which was thoughtful of them. First Gooch found Maja on the edge of the box, and a clever turn found the space for a shot, but it took a deflection for a corner on the right, which Gooch took and Pools cleared. There were a couple of crosses from our left which sailed harmlessly over the box, and a hard and low one from Gooch as he battled a way inside the box, but Maja was tightly marked and couldn't force a shot on target. Then we almost got into the box with some decent short passing, but it all went a bit Lee Camp after 18 minutes when Love dawdled on the ball when looking to play it back to the keeper, and was outmuscled by Muir. McLaughlin went down at his feet as he advanced into the box, but the ball was clipped over the keeper and in. First effort on target, first effort of any type by Pools.
Typical Sunderland, I hear you say, and I can’t disagree. Expletives were kept in check, mainly because of the slightly surreal experience of being unable to see any of our fans without leaning forward a dangerous amount. Our main method of getting it out from defence - no aimless hoofs, but no Pickford passes either - was either the fullbacks playing the passing game down the sides, or Flanagan carrying it up the middle, which he seemed more than happy to do. He's nee Beckenbauer, but simple passes to the central midfield isn't a bad idea. Speaking of the central midfield, Catts was further forward than McGeouch, which seems a bit daft, but the latter is a willing carrier of the ball and must have been under instructions to sit the deeper of the two. Hartlepool's back three were dealing with Maja quite well, although there were one or two moments where we almost passed our way into a shooting position - then they had a drinks break on the half hour, which was nice.
After that, and a lengthy stoppage while Poolie sorted his laces out, McManaman got a couple of crosses in from the right, the first of which Honeyman headed wide of the near post, and the second, a couple of minutes before the break, was met with a diving header from Gooch that went a bit closer, but still wide of the near post, and our Yankee Doodle Dandy got a boot on the head in the process. No lasting damage, thankfully. McManaman got in to the box from the right, but being a tricky winger rather than a goal machine, elected to cross low rather than shoot, and Pools cleared. There were a couple of minutes added, a text from Anne arrived to question our pronunciation of McGeouch, and the break arrived. 0-1, and not a lot in the way of saves made by either keeper, because there were not a lot of efforts on target, although we'd had two or three corners to Pools' none. One crucial save by McGlaughlin would have been nice, but he'd looked fairly calm and assured, which is a novelty for us, I suppose.
Rather uniquely for a friendly, there were no changes at half time, and we upped our game a bit, although McGeouch was still sitting very deep. Hume played a decent ball to Maja, whose shot was blocked at the expense of a corner, which eventually found its way to Honeyman, who curled a right footer from inside left just over the angle at the far side. A bit more promising. As the hour approached, Gooch got chased a long ball down the left and got it back to McManaman, who repeated Honeyman's effort and curled it wide of the far post. Then the stadium announcer came out with the phrase "right, it's everybody except Kitching off and all the subs on" presumably so he didn't have to pronounce Gioukoudis, and the home side made ten changes - including a shorter goal keeper (six foot two in Lee Camp inches) and ex-Sunderland man Louis Laing (sub in a 3-1 defeat at Wolves in 2011). I'm not sure which was their first team: these lads or the ones they replaced.
Never mind, Jack Ross resisted the temptation to do likewise, and soon after McLaughlin did well to drop onto the ball to prevent a Pools attack actually coming to something, On about 65, he brought on Ethan Robson for Catts, Maguire for Maja, and Stryjek for McGalughlin. At least Robson was a lot more positive than Catts, producing a few decent runs towards the edge of the box and having a bit of a look of Henderson about him. With fifteen to go, he shot wide after being played in by McManaman. Honeyman took his eye off the ball and let it run for a goal kick when a cross should have come in, but he did get a decent cross in soon after which ended up getting to Robson, who was fouled just outside the box.
Maguire, who'd been playing very deep for a centre forward as he came back gain possession, hit it low, and the keeper fumbled the save, but the loose ball was knocked behind for another corner. McGeouch was replaced by Mumba on 72, starting his game a lot further back that he'd have liked, and took a bit of time to settle in. With just over ten to go, Honeyman, Gooch, Flanagan, and McManaman made way for Andrew Nelson, Molyneux, Brandon Taylor, and Kimpioka. Taylor added a bit of weight to central defence, as, while tall, Flanagan is quite slim, and Nelson did likewise up front. He'd only been on a few minutes when he took a heavy knock in a tackle, but was up after treatment and back into the fray. We were pushing hard for a goal, and to be honest we thought it was going to be one of those afternoons when it just wasn't going to happen, as we didn't quite do enough to make the breakthrough, while Stryjek had only a back-pass, which the ref decided wasn't a back pass, to deal with as the home side won only one corner all afternoon.
Kimpioka, who has been doing some good things for the under whatevers, showed some great control along the goal line in the box to win a corner from his hard low cross (or was it a shot?) from the left. Robson picked out Maguire with a good pass, but the shot was a foot or so over the top. At least Maguire could now get further forward as Robson was willing to give him the ball up there, and his next effort was a header that also went wide. Word arrived of a second Belgian goal, just to cheer things up a bit and add to the restlessness of the natives in the red and white section of the crowd. There was swearing, but it wasn't from me, much as I felt the need to express my frustration. All that attacking and so little work for the home keeper. Pool won their single corner with a minute to go, we dealt with it comfortably, and got the ball to Kimpioka near the edge of the box in the inside left position. With what looks like his trademark of rolling his studs over the ball, he made a yard of space and fired a lovely shot across the keeper and low into the far corner. Well done, young man, that's more like it.
A couple of minutes later it was all over, and we were a whole lot happier than we were five minutes previously. Without Kimpioka's goal, we'd have been beaten by two non-league sides in five days and things would have looked very bad. To be honest, they're not that much better now, but the manager will have learned a fair amount today. Donald Love is a competent fullback who can put in a shift in midfield, but he's not a centre half. Brandon Taylor is, and, if Ozturk isn't around on Tuesday, I'd like to see him alongside Flanagan. Robson seems a better option than Catts, so I'd like to see him alongside McGeouch. Up front, I'd like to see Maguire alongside Kimpioka for much longer. I know the bairn was only of for just over ten minutes, but he showed some lovely touches and looks, on that very small amount of first-team evidence, like he might just be something special. I know, I know...we shouldn't get too carried away, but surely some time we're going to find the next Gabbiadini in terms of someone who is actually worth his place in the first team before he's 20.
Oh, and England ended up losing 2-0. Is anybody really bothered, apart from those who've spent the time since Wednesday night calling the team, the squad, and the manager, useless? Look, they did better than most people expected, and while they didn't play as well as they can in their last game, almost all of the squad have another three tournaments in them. Not Phil Jones, though, please - he scares the life out of me every time he tries anything other than hoofing it as far as he can.
Man of the Match? It's tempting to go for McManaman, as he showed what he can do when he's properly fit, which he obviously wasn't for most of last season, and if he'd shot in the first half when he had the chance, instead of crossing, he'd have got it. Out of daftness, and despite his only being on the field for twelve minutes or so, those two little bits of trickery by Kimpioka means he gets my vote.
Right, I'm off to get my tongue unbitten, swear at next door's cat to get it out of my system, and try to guess Tuesday's starting eleven and who our next signing will be.