Happy days, eh? With a game plan that very obviously included the instructions "don't concede early goal" we endured rather than enjoyed the first half hour before banging in three before the break and adding a fourth in the second half. For a while an absolute rout looked likely, but Rochdale pulled one back as we coasted (remember last time we did that? Scunny. Fair enough) to victory. Get in, that'll do nicely. Very nicely indeedy-do...
Despite the defeat at Burton, and the news that Wyke is unlikely to play again before Christmas (let’s hope the Quinn-esque start to his Sunderland career is followed by a Quinn-esque remainder), the vast majority of us are maintaining a positive outlook. Of course, there have been a few (very few, actually) who have started moaning, but they need to remember that we are in League One because we’ve been rubbish for the last however many seasons and we have no divine right to be anywhere other than exactly where we are. The spoof protest involving shouting at Jacky White’s Market at noon was a direct response to a group of fans who think they have a right to a league status that, in the real world, has to be earned, and that the way to get to their “rightful” place is to shout at various shops belonging to their owner. No prizes for guessing…
Today was only the second meeting between the clubs at any level, that one being in the EFL Trophy or whatever a couple of years ago, when a side including Jason Denayer (who starred for Lyon in Europe this week), Maja, and Honeyman drew 1-1 (a screamer from Elliot Embleton) but missed out on the extra point by losing the shoot-out 4-2. And I got a speeding ticket afterwards. No doubt their slightly barmy (in a nice way) manager Keith Hill will be pushing the “this is your cup final” mantra at his players, but we have to treat it as a cup final as well.
Most of us, Jack Ross included, acknowledge that keeping a clean sheet is a problem, mainly due to our lack of proficiency in defending set-pieces, and the consequence of that is that most of the pub table– and social media, to be honest – discussion through the week has been formations, concentrating on the back four, three, or five, and how to protect them, from both frontal attack and crosses from deep or wide. Many solutions were offered, some involving up to fourteen players and heavy machinery, but most opted for Flanagan at either right back or part of a three-man set-up at the back.
While we’ve lost our “League One Option” up front in Charlie Wyke, we appear to have too many midfielders to make selecting that part of the team easy. Many of us reckoned that Maguire and McGeady could be the pair with the cunning to unlock today’s opponents, who’ve been scoring a fair amount of goals, but – according to their own fans – are pretty naff at set-pieces, and let a few in. Sounded promising. One position that didn’t come up for discussion is the keeper – a welcome change from last season, when we had the Three Evils, and the manager had to decide who was the lesser. With all of that sorted, it was off to the match, bumping into Skinner/Dr Phibes/Mr Marshall, of the parish of Aycliffe who I did my away apprenticeship with back in the day, and he confirmed my thought that folks are actually enjoying the matchday experience again. Bairns today, they don't know they're born.
Flanagan Loovens Baldwin Hume
We kicked off South, and quickly settled into a 3 or 4 at the back, with Hume pushing forward to help us defend further up the field than we have been of late. When he did, the three big lads shuffled across to cover, and did the unexpected - they dealt well with a big centre forward. Most of the early exchanges involved us soaking up stuff forty yards out and forgetting the "play it to the fullback" system we'd previously employed, trying to hit Maja. Unfortunately, he always had a defender on his back, and he switched from left to right in an attempt to find a bit more space. Of course, soaking up stuff and preventing attacks meant that there wasn't a huge amount of attacking from us, but with Catts and McGeouch filling the hole in front of our defence, there wasn't much defending to do in our box, which is always a good thing. Baldwin hit the sort of long ball that we've been missing Power hitting, from deep on the left to find Gooch on the right, but, as has become the norm, there were two on him to deny space. Loovens got away with one obvious foul but was booked on 21 for his second "oh no you don't" moment on halfway. At least the aforementioned big forward was always looking over his shoulder thereafter, so it was job done, Glenn.
When Hume broke forward, he was fouled by the corner of the box, but McGuire's free was too strong and sailed harmlessly wide of the far post. Young Denver won a corner soon after, and that signalled a change in fortunes for us. We won a corner on the right thanks to Baldwin's persistence, we had a decent shout for a pen, although it wasn't a foul, then Jack hit an outrageous ball off the outside of his right boot down the left to set Maguire away. Warming to his task, Chris twisted, turned, and pinged in a perfect cross for Maja to head inside the far post.
Boom. Resistance broken, relief felt, 37 gone, and the feeling that, despite the appearance of a Shearer in the away end (oh, grow up) this was going to be a good afternoon. Two minutes later, that man Maguire fed Maja on the right, he dinked a lovely little ball to Gooch, who had his legs taken from under him on the by-line. Barely a hint of a protest from the wearying Rochdale defence, and our favourite American dusted himself off to place the spot-kick firmly into the same corner as Josh's header. Lovely, inefficient, just the job, let's have some more.
Baldwin was a tad unlucky to concede a free a couple of yards outside our box, but when it was touched a yard into the path of a Rochdale player, McLaughlin was up to the job, punching the powerful shot out to the right, where Maja did the sensible thing and relieved the pressure by applying a git big, old-school hoof to the ball.
Just as we were thinking that two up at the break would be quite nice, we broke down the left again, found Maja near the box, and he turned into a yard of self-manufactured space to fire low across the keeper, who by this stage must have wished for a longer left arm, and into to net. As we were bouncing around in celebration, two added minutes were announced, and we bayed for a fourth. We didn't get it, but three nowt up at the break is a very nice position to be in, and some of us dreamt of Enrico and the 6-1 bet coming off.
There was a nice reception for Reuben Agboola, despite me having to explain his history to the lad next to me. Proper football, I said. One of the few things McMen#### got right, I said. Not scared of a tackle, I said. OK, he said, I believe you.
No changes for the second half, for which Rochdale appeared reluctant to take the field. Couldn't blame them, to be honest. Mebbe four attempts, and three had gone into virtually the same place.
Baldwin broke up a visiting attack with a brave tackle on our left, then augmented it with some clever juggling to set up Hume and Maguire, but it was Rochdale who got sort of on the front foot, winning a couple of corners, and forcing McLaughlin into the save of the day as he clawed away a header with his right hand. Their next attack ended with a yellow for diving -and it looked that obvious from the other end of the ground, so "suck it up" as they say in West Auckland. We again broke down the left, with Hume finding Honeyman, but his cross was too close to the keeper and it was duly claimed.
There could well have been a straight red when Goooch took an elbow. In the eye (I've seen the photos, a proper black eye), and when we got restarted, Catts, Maja, and Hume set up the Teesside Terror, but he was already laughing when his shot (I use the term generously) hit the Rochdale fan in the Shearer shirt. After yet another break down our left, Hume did a Micky Gray, but blasted over with goal machine Catts on the penalty spot, unmarked. When you're four up, you can afford that sort of stuff. A double substitution on 63 used up their spares, as they'd done one in the first half (I think).
A cracking first-time pass from Maguire set Maja into the box, but a sliding tackle as he pulled the truth blocked him- with a hand that the ref couldn't see, which was a shame. We didn't have long to wait for the fourth, as Gooch collected near the corner of the box from our right, dropped more shoulders than Bruce Oldfield on a sponsored Dynasty fashion shoot, and beat the keeper low to his right. Lovely. Just the job, let's have some more, still ages to go.
Unfortunately, it was Rochdale who netted next, when, after Sinclair had replaced Maja, Baldwin lost out in a tussle, we shouted foul, but Jack's slapping of the turf showed that he'd simply been outmuscled and they popped in the cross for 4-1. Best described as a bit of a bugger, I think, but at least Enrico's bet was on. Maguire was replaced by McGeady, and he did exactly what you'd expect as he picked on the bones of Rochdale. Oviedo replaced Gooch on 85, and he was instrumental in setting up Sinclair a couple of times.
In the six added minutes, Oviedo cut inside and hit a beauty with his right peg which caught the visiting keeper by surprise, and it was palmed over the top. It would have been a great way to end the day, but I'll settle for 4-1 without being too brilliant ant week Charlie Methven took advantage of his status to walk around the pitch (ha'way, Chas, I'd get hoyed oot) and appreciate folks. Just the job, and we left happy, happy, people. Skinner's pre-match comments about younger fans who've never known good times resonated, probably because I need new batteries in my hearing aids, but it is a new feeling for many to be enjoying our games.
Man of the Match? Gooch, Maja, Catts, Maguire, Hume…
Easiest to give it to Gooch. Or Catts. But for strutting his stuff, and keeping his neck wound in circumstances that would have wound up lesser mortals, I'm giving it to Maguire.