In a game billed as one of the most important of the season to date in terms of putting one over on a potential promotion rival, Sunderland first ripped our opponents apart, then suffered an attack of the yips, before finally stepping up a gear to seal the victory on a cold, wet night. Only the one change, with Maguire recalled in place of Oviedo.
I should have known that we were in for an interesting evening when our sixteen-seater arrived with six child seats still installed – not much comfort for us folks of a slightly more adult build. Never mind, we soon put that right and braved the wind and wet to get to our seats. The awful weather, coupled with the evening kick-off, knocked the attendance down to 28,000 and a few, and we wondered what we’d get from a Barnsley side who’d played some decent, organised football so far this season.
Matthews Flanagan Baldwin James
Gooch Honeyman Maguire McGeady
Kicking South, we quickly got on top of the game without actually getting any serious efforts on target. McGeady was running wide on the left, with Gooch providing the same on the right, and Honeyman partnering Maguire centrally. Behind this was Power, back after his Walsall red was rescinded, providing the base of the midfield – but noticeably being careful in his tackles, especially with the turf being so wet. A cross from James on the left was met by the head of Maja at the front post – we’d been discussing his heading ability before kick-off – but the effort went wide of the post. Not long after that, McGeady took the ball into the box on the left and had turned away from goal when it looked like his legs were taken from under him. No hesitation from the ref in pointing to the spot, and the man himself got up, shook the rainwater from himself, and sent the keeper diving to his left, rolling the ball into the opposite corner. Girrup! That’ll do nicely for starters.
And it was just starters. Barely a minute later, Maja took the ball with his back to goal in the inside right position, shimmied to throw his marker – Pinnock, the same lad who’d tripped McGeady - far enough off to create space for a turn, and curled a beaut into the top corner with his left peg, way beyond the reach of the keeper’s right hand. Double girrup! Could this be the game where we actually batter somebody? A cross from the right found Maja’s head in the middle, but this time it drifted beyond the back post, meaning that the Lad could have had a hat-trick inside the first half hour. Not to worry, though, as the half hour ticked past, Gooch picked up the ball after McGeady had done all the clever stuff, and fired one into the same place as Maja’s – mebbe with a slight deflection, but did any of us care? Nah, of course we didn’t, and for the next five minutes or so produced some beautiful stuff – of the OLE! nature, and a real hammering looked on the cards.
One thing we’d not been doing was winning corners, which Barnsley did when they broke forward between our goals, but we managed to deal with them despite their number 19 (copyright League One centre forward) the impressively-named Kieffer Moore being a real handful both in the air and on the ground. From looking likely to hit our biggest score for ages, we started to lose shape, confidence, and the ball, and it there were several moment of apparent panic - thankfully not in the danger area, but not what we wanted to see anyway. With five to go, we seemed to have three or four chances to clear the ball from our area, but somehow didn’t, and he (Moore) eventually hit the loose ball low into the net. We managed to do enough to maintain our two-goal lead through the two added minutes – only just, as a shot from their right smacked McLaughlin’s left-hand post low down and ricocheted away, but spent the break wondering if Ross the Boss would put a rocket up them and get them to calm down, or change personnel. Maguire in particular had been running into brick walls more often as the half wore on, and there was probably a case for chucking Sinclair on alongside Maja to occupy their defence more and deny them the time to play it out.
No changes, but it was apparent that we’d been telt to cut out the passing it around at the back if there wasn’t a way out and hitting it forward early. For a while, it worked insomuch as we got it forward, but couldn’t get it into the box to cause damage, and every time Barnsley built an attack, it seemed to end in a corner. Matthews took a bit of a bang defending one of them but got up to produce a tip past a marker on halfway and what they call a lung-bursting run down the right. Impressive stuff, but nothing came of it. Maja made way for O’Nien just before the hour, with Maguire moving up front.
Inevitably, with the big fellers they had, a right-wing corner was met at the near post by Moore, and it was headed home to increase the nervousness in our players. Still half an hour to go as well – would it be a Barnsley comeback, or could we get back our grip on the game? Anything looked possible at that stage as we were forced to indulge in some desperate defending in the box - hitting clearances not quite far enough to prevent another attack and having to get in the way (in painful fashion, in the case of Honeyman) of shots and crosses. There was a doubly scary moment when McLaughlin called for the trainer, but I think it was just to do something that can’t be when wearing goalie’s gloves, like picking his nose or something like that. Anyway, he was fine, and soon collecting let another high ball.
Down at the other end, we started to put a few moves together in more controlled fashion, although we overdid the short passing on more than one occasion and conceded possession. A McGeady shot, cutting in from the right, was narrowly over the top, then he came to the left and ditched his marker after collecting a Pickford-esque free kick from McLaughlin to put in a lovely cross. A fourth goal looked inevitable as O’Nien dived in, but the presence of his marker was sufficient to prevent proper contact, and the effort went agonisingly beyond the far post.
Barnsley were still trying to attack, and when they put too many men forward, we played it over halfway for Maguire to bear down on goal in the inside right channel. As the keeper came out, most of us were expecting a dink over his head from twenty yards and the ball bouncing beautifully over the line, but Chris elected to knock it past the goalie, who stuck out a toe and blocked it. Not to worry (like we were, the untrusting lot that we are), our next attack saw Maguire atone for his miss with a clever backheel in the middle to get the ball out wide where McGeady eventually had the goal at his mercy, but made absolutely sure by rolling it across from the left for Lucky Luke to poke it home and go ballistic again. To be honest, he’s probably standing on the bar in the players’ lounge punching the air as I write.
Finally, the stuffing was knocked out of the Tykes, and on came Sinclair for Maguire and, just as the added five minutes were announced, Oviedo for Honeyman – no, Gooch, as the announcer eventually got it right.
A big test passed, I think, despite looking shaky for a while and conceding those two goals, the first being particularly disappointing as it could have been got out of danger. After going three up in little over half an hour, the way we allowed Barnsley back into it was a bit of a frustration. What we needed was to keep calm, and we didn’t for a considerable amount of time – perhaps had Power not been on tenterhooks because of the actions of a certain Mr Hicks on Saturday, he’d have brought that calmness. It was a tough night for the central defence, but they dealt with most of the big stuff chucked at them, although in pretty desperate style at times. The pressure Barnsley put on us meant that the quality of the ball out of the middle of defence wasn’t as good as we need it to be. The fullbacks, particularly Matthews, got forward whenever they could, and are proving to be a welcome addition to our attacking options.
...but we won, and that’s what counts. If I have to moan about lack of calmness after every game, but then add the caveat “but we won”, then we’ll all be very happy Mackems come May.
Man of the Match? Probably McGeady again – score one, created two, and did a fair amount of chasing back tonight – with honourable mentions for Matthews, Honeyman, and Gooch.
Happy days. Now up for the cup!