Hands up who expected that. Liars! Sunderland, with gaffer Ross having made nine changes to the eleven that overcame Wimbledon at the weekend, turned in a gutsy and controlled performance to become giant-killers at Turf Moor. Comeback goals from Grigg, Flanagan, and Dobson did the damage after we’d fallen behind to an 11th minute opener by the home side – earning a pop at Premiership new boys Sheff Utd in a month or so.
We spent a rather different pre-match refreshment break back in our old haunt of Skipton – different in that we were the only dozen Sunderland fans in town – after new driver Rob had patiently followed the Skipton Hay Company’s tractor from Harrogate (now there’s a town that needs a bypass). Myself and our Ian wandered around the smaller of the town’s hostelries (combined capacity about 100), had some good craic with the landlord of Early Doors – Half a world Away – and bemoaning the fact that Freddie Trueman’s statue was surrounded by building works, making selfies impossible.
As we drove into Burnley, we pulled up as requested and the attending polis asked if we knew where we were going. “Yes, we saw a cop…policeman a while back and he said to go down this way”. So we did, and plonked ourselves on the end of a short line of coaches. Short line of coaches, but a surprising number of Mackems in the ground, and just time for a quickie in the marquee, plus the unfortunate necessity to use the Portaloo which, judging by the pint glass of mould, hadn’t been cleaned our last visit. Or the one before.
I’m not sure if we expected as many changes as we got, but we lined up:
McLaughlin2 Baldwin Flanagan Hume
Gooch McGeouch Dobson O’Nien Embleton
Mr Grigg, blue touch-paper as ever at the ready, set things in motion as we kicked away from the visiting fans, who were in fine voice. Look, if it’s a midweek in August, it has to Lancashire, so we know our place, and it’s a noisy one. We wondered how the much-maligned central defensive partnership, with Flanagan captain for the evening, would fare against top-division opponents, and the signs in the first ten minutes were OK as both sides shifted the ball about at speed. Aaron Lennon, who’s seemingly spent his whole career never quite achieving what he’s capable of, found McNiel, who some of us had been very wary of, but his shot was more of a danger to us in row W than Lee Burge. Will Grigg, well supported from midfield but lacking a direct partner up front, was working hard and pulling the home defence around, and one such piece of work made space for O’Nien to burst forward only to blaze over the top. Gooch then showed his strength to get past his man on the right and Embleton, coming across from the left, got his shot away but that was also the wrong side of the bar. Ha’way Lads, let’s get one on target and see what Joe Hart’s made of.
We looked just about able to match the Clarets, then they shifted up a gear and pulled us about a bit, with Rodriguez going into their right hand side of our box on the end of a decent passing move and rolling it across Burge and beyond the keeper’s right hand, low into the far corner. Bugger. He’d scored against us in a friendly a while back when he first broke into the team and before he went south and back north, meaning that I, for one, was thoroughly sick of the sight of him.
We rallied a bit, with McGeouch doing his best to calm things down and Gooch having a few decent runs down the right, while O’Nien and Dobson were all energy in the middle, but there just weren’t any shots, and near the half hour it so very nearly went very wrong. Lennon, not allowed into the box, shot from distance against Burge’s left hand post, and the ball flew out to Vydra, who somehow hit the other one. Oh, how we laughed, as well as murmuring about banjos and caw’s backsides. That seemed to lift our spirits a bit, although it can’t be said that they were low in the first place, but incidents like that somehow give the defending side a feeling of invincibility. Five minutes later, Hume went belting forward for the umpteenth time, and although his low ball into the box was intercepted, the Burnley defender’s touch only put it into the path of Grigg. You’d like to think that it was an easy chance, but until it’s either in or wide, it’s just a chance. Thankfully, Will took all of the time at his disposal to control the ball then lift it left-footed high into the net to Joe Hart’s right. Boom, gerrinn, we’re back in the game, and the away end bounced away in celebration.
Rather than go Hell for leather for a second, we – perhaps wisely – got hold of the ball and probed patiently, looking every bit on a par with a side from two divisions above. Sorry, that’s a scary statement, but it’s unfortunately true. We didn’t so much hold on until the break as play our way through the single added minute and went in deservedly level.
No changes for the second half, and there were no reasons there should have been. Many of our lot were still availing themselves of the lavatorial facilities when things restarted, we nicked the ball off them, won a corner, then and set Gooch away down the right. Unlike many occasions this season, he managed to work in inside like he used to and blast in a shot that Hart couldn’t hold, and before he could grab the loose ball, Flanagan simply stuck his brow on it and put us ahead. 47 gone, and as we celebrated, we could see the stuffing visibly come out of Burnley. Even old boy Bardsley’s head seemed to go down a bit, as his side, despite still maintaining the bulk of the possession, didn’t do much with the ball. Three minutes after going ahead, and before most of us had even begun to calm down, we won another corner on our left, which Gooch played short to Luke, and he placed it perfectly into the path of the onrushing Dobson, who picked his spot from the edge of the box and made it 3-1. Look at us, playing a short corner routine successfully, and giving me the opportunity to write “Dobson scores for Sunderland” and our Ian to hit social media with claims of brotherhood.
More Burnley heads went down, but they still had enough about them to give us some trouble, and any doubts about Burge’s qualifications to stand in for Big Jon when necessary were dispelled around the hour mark, when he somehow stopped efforts from the Long and the pesky Rodrigues, first with his left hand and then with his right.
With twenty to go, the home side brought on Chris Wood, who’s been scoring on MOTD and was therefore a threat, but when he did get a chance to shoot soon after replacing Lennon, Baldwin hoyed himself in the way of the shot and we hoofed it clear. Wyke replaced Grigg, who left the field to a generous and deserved round of applause, and Big Chas was up against his Boro youth team chum Ben Gibson. So, he battered him about, as you’d expect, and was joined up front by O’Nien, presumably to chase and force errors.
Every time the ball went back to Hart, and it did that a lot, he was given the “ooooooooh – ahh!” treatment, as well as being compared unfavourably to Jordan Pickford as we in the away section enjoyed our evening. The home fans, in the other half of the Cricket Field Stand, had lost their voices as it became apparent that their Carabao Cup adventure was coming to an early end. O’Nien, who’d run himself almost to a standstill (nah, not possible for our Luke, but he must have been knackered with the miles he’s covered) made way for Power with five to go, then three extra minutes were announced and we basically gave it to McGeough, who did what he’d been doing for most of the game – control, touch away from his marker to make space, play a good pass and look for the return.
The whistle went, those who’d made the journey thanked their lucky stars for having witnessed a great win – up there with the Battle of Turf Moor 39 years ago when, deprived of Joe Bolton and Micky Henderson for the second 45, two Rowell goals gave us a memorable victory. No such thundering battle tonight, but some cracking performances. The stats might say that the home side enjoyed (almost certainly not the right word tonight) the majority of possession, and had more shots, but we had more on target - and more importantly, we put three of them away. Seeing the utter joy on the faces of the likes of Dobson and O’Nien as they celebrated goals in an un-choreographed and totally wild fashion was an absolute delight. If you’re going to live the dream, live it with SAFC, boys.
Burge looked more than capable, while his full-backs dealt with most things in contrasting style, with McLaughlin (in his preferred position for the first time in a Sunderland shirt) preferring the pass to Hume’s tip and run, while the two centre halves had a fine game apiece. No fannying about trying to be Beckenbauer or even Bennett, just getting in the way and getting rid. Dobson was all legs and movement, while O’Nien was intent on being everywhere. Embleton did just fine without pulling up any trees, putting in some good defensive work when required, and Gooch looked closer to his old self. Grigg also looked more like what we expected when we bought him, ploughing a lone furrow against supposedly higher-class opposition.
Man of the Match? McGeouch. He’d have taken the sting out of a wasp tonight, as he did all the simple things very well, and often had Burnley’s midfield standing in empty space as he moved away with the ball to set something in motion for us. Nice one, Dinky.
Bonus? We got to listen to a certain team bugger up a penalty shoot-out when we got back on the bus. Happy days.