Can it get much better? 4-1 away from home, and you can only beat the teams that turn up against you, which we did in a thoroughly comprehensive fashion after going behind before McLaughlin had touched the ball. Happy days indeed...
As it was a longish train journey to Medway, I had plenty of time to think about last time we were there, and all that’s happened in between. Actually, no – it wasn’t that long a journey. What I did consider, between moving seats to somewhere cooler as the aircon had broken on our carriage, was what we’re missing – or not, as it turns out. Discounting last season, which was a bit of a blur (perhaps thankfully, under the circumstances), it’s no time at all since we were plying our trade in the Prem. That meant regular, if usually late in the programme) appearances on MOTD. Inability to deal with complicated technical things like TV recorders means that my machine is filling up with such programmes, and that I can have the occasional peep to see what’s going on. I know this’ll probably sound like jealously, partly because it is, but what I don’t miss in the slightest is the contact issue. In the first weekend of the Prem, a Bournemouth player was touched on the leg in the box, went down, and was awarded a penalty. In the studio, Shearer explained that, by the letter of the law, it was a pen as the lad had been touched. His oppo, Ian Wright, I think, argued that the player could hardly have felt it, so slight was the contact – bringing to mid the comments of a certain Michael Owen a few years back which resulted in soft objects being hoyed at my telly. “He was entitled to go down” – look, you should only go down if you can’t stay on your feet. Anyone who is coaching kids to do otherwise should be removed from football. In a perfect example of karma, the penalty in question was saved.
I don’t miss that, and I don’t miss the ten-minute review of every tackle, and I don’t miss the Neymar-ish pretend agony, much preferring the “ouch-and-get-on-with-it” that’s generally the norm where we are now. A bit of sour grapes? Undoubtedly. Am I alone in my thoughts? I doubt it.
Anyway, I and numerous other Sunderland folks arrived at Kings Cross a few pints sweatier and a few pounds lighter and made our way to St Pancras for the Sir Steve Redgrave train east. I headed for the small but perfectly formed Past & Present pub, then for a cold shower to rinse off the effects of the train and the overall temperature. Then it was rendezvous time at the Will Adams, named, as most things in that part of Kent seem to be, after a local lad who, in 1600 or so, was the first Englishman to reach Japan, where he became a Samurai – mainly because the locals wouldn’t let him go home. On this day, the locals were more than accommodating and friendly, with several of them wondering why so many of us had ventured south of a Wednesday. Well over 2,000 as it transpired, and we were once again ensconced in the Brian Moore Kerplunk temporary stand, which bounced as we bounced.
Love Loovens Baldwin James
Maguire Honeyman Power Gooch
We kicked away from the visiting fans (that’s us), in the stripes and red shorts, and before we’d had time to adjust our britches, a cross came in and was headed back over McLaughlin by Eaves. Only two minutes in but was indicative of the new mood on Wearside when we responded not with negativity on the terraces, but chants of “you’re just a fit Andy Carroll” in deference to the scorer’s man-bun… and positivity on the field, just two minutes later, when Loovens headed into the box and Maguire was quickest to respond, sending a clever effort beyond the keeper and in. That was it, to be honest, and without wishing to sound big-headed or owt, Gillingham were simply overawed by us. The away end was bouncing, the players were knocking it about with confidence, style, and above all patience. It was nice to watch. Lovely, in fact, and when we played Honeyman into the inside right position in the box, he shot straight and true across the keeper and into the far side of the net.
But that wasn’t it. We were still celebrating George’s strike when we played the ball across the edge of the box and Power was there to place it ever so carefully into the bottom corner. Who cares what division we’re in, winning games is bloody enjoyable, and there was still 20 minutes to go until half time. We could be forgiven for sitting back and taking a deep breath, which is what we did, even if allowed Gillingham to enjoy the majority of the possession for the rest of the half – but Loovens turned into the cookie monster, gobbling up everything that was punted forwards or crossed into our box, and heading it almost invariably to a red and white shirt. He might as well have had a deckchair and a pina colada, such was the ease with which he seemed to deal with stuff. Let Baldwin do the running about and passing – which is what we did up to the break. 3-1 up, and deservedly so, we were a very happy bunch of bunnies through the interval, as we discussed how we could mess this one up. The general consensus was that we couldn’t. Not this Sunderland –this wasn’t a flash in the pan awayday at Palace or Derby, this was (so far) a properly accomplished performance. A team performance. James and Love had slotted back in for the injured Matthews and the otherwise absent (transfer imminent?) Oviedo to maintain a solid four at the back, and Catts had shown the composure that comes with a decade and more of higher-level football. Power and Maguire were coolness personified, while Gooch and Honeyman were all energy.
No changes for the second half, and it was more of the same form the home side. It might have been a tad frustrating to see them have so much of the ball, but hey – we were 3-1 up and dealing with whatever they threw at us. On the hour, we played it down the left and then in to Maja on the edge of the box. Have Gillingham not been watching the videos? You just can’t let him have the ball the ball there, and once again, he showed why, with a clever working of just enough space and yet another low shot past the keeper. Kevin Phillips stuff. 4-1.
It might have needed Catts to do his job on the goal line, and then McLaughlin somehow scrambled along his line to tap it away to maintain our advantage, with the Gills happily misplacing the loose ball, but the longer it went on, the less it looked like Gillingham would reduce the arrears. McGeouch replaced Maguire with twenty to go, then O’Nien was let loose for the last ten at the expense of Power, but by then it was just a case of holding on to what we’d got. The ref found four minutes to add, which we enjoyed and Gillingham certainly didn’t, we sang our hearts out, the team responded and saw the game out in thoroughly efficient and professional style. Style – that’s the word. We applauded them off the field, they showed their appreciation, and we poured into the side streets of Medway and back to the Will Adams, where the locals were more than appreciative of who were are and what we’d just done. Overawed, I think I said earlier, and that’s a mindset amongst other teams that Ross will have noticed and will no doubt take advantage of.
Man of the Match? For all our clever, industrious midfield endeavour, I’m going to give it to Loovens, who, on the night, made Mickey Bridges look a nervous wreck. Seldom have I seen such a calm, cool-headed display, and the midfield picked up his clearances all evening to set up our attacking play.