As days at the match go, this was a pretty mad one. Sunderland won, having earlier in the day dispensed with manager Jack Ross who managed us for 75 games, and lost only seven in the league – only City and Liverpool have lost less in the same period, I believe, and he has the highest win percentage (50%) of any permanent Sunderland manager since our first manager, Tom Watson (who managed 62.3%), and he left in 1896 – but the 27 draws probably did for Ross. Statistics, eh? Add to the mix uncertainty over the takeover, which Stewart Donald tried to explain on local radio before the game, and the atmosphere in the last couple of weeks, culminating in that nonsense at Lincoln that purported to be a football match, plus Ross’s post-match comments – something had to change. It ended up being the manager, like is usually does. All of which means that I’m looking forward to watching the Lads serve under the 45th managerial appointment of my lifetime. Radged, just radged. To be perfectly honest, the first I knew of developments was an interruption to my pre-match day out, when the phone went and the voice at the other end went “you’ll have guessed that I’m calling about the Jack Ross thing”. As I was wandering along the cliff tops at Blackhall Rocks staying away from the world in general and football in particular, I had to guess what had happened. It didn’t take a genius to guess correctly, and another one bites the dust. Was I surprised? With something like Sunderland getting shot of a manager? I’d be mad if I was surprised. Life goes on, so I finished my walk, had my fish and chips, and headed for the Roker End Café to swap thoughts and watch the pink slice disappear faster than a manager’s career on Wearside.
Having discussed the potential new gaffer (ha’way, man - some of those suggestions aren’t even alive), it became apparent that, despite the initial frustration, the general feeling was one of inevitability. It’s Sunderland, it’s what we do, we’ll keep on keeping on, and hope that there’s someone of sufficient ability and insufficient sense out there who’ll take us on.
Being adventurous, I’d got one of those tickets on my phone –which worked – and squashed into the middle of the East Stand with the rest of the plebs. The West Stand had the smattering of dignitaries and junior players who somehow find their way there for such games, and the Roker End had the fifty Grimsby fans who’d made the journey north. There was nobody in the North Stand, not a soul – not even any cheeky youths taking the mick out of the stewards.
Grimsby sensibly decided against their barcode home strip and chose one which is basically the same as our blue away job, and kicked off towards the North Stand. We lined up:
Mumba Lynch Taylor Hume
Watmore Leadbitter Dobson O’Nien
Dobson fired a pass through to Watmore in the inside left position on four minutes, but the keeper was marginally quicker to the ball and hoofed it clear. With our standard ball out of defence being Lynch to Hume, who then looked to gallop forward, the left hand side looked to be our most likely route to success, and it was after one such break that Dobson’s rather predictable shot on the turn was saved. Seeing plenty of the ball, Dobson then pinged a pass through the middle to Grigg, who turned but couldn’t/didn’t take the ball with him. As things settled down, we were clearly the more comfortable side on the ball, but they kept threatening with their pacey number 7 – thankfully Hume is no slouch, so what he lacks in defensive nous he sort of make up for by keeping up with his opponent – most of the time. We thought that we were onto a winner when Burge missed out the defence and midfield to find McNulty with a huge clearance, but their defender somehow made up the ground and forced Sparky (see, I’m up to date with nicknames) to the right and snuffed out the immediate danger. When we did get it central, O’Nien carefully side-footed it a yard over the top to send an empty seat clacking away.
We’d settled into a fairly straightforward 4-4-2, which is great for an old-fashioned fan like me. It means we can see where players are supposed to be, and after quarter of an hour, Watmore played McNulty in, and his effort went behind for a corner on the left, which Leadbitter flung in. It eventually came back to him, and he tried a delicate chip which was well tipped over for another corner at the other side. Five minutes later, he tried another chip, this time from distance and more central, but it floated harmlessly wide of the keeper’s right hand post. We were having lots of possession going forward, but not creating any real chances, so when we conceded a corner we were a bit concerned that we’d be hit by a sucker punch. Thankfully, although we didn’t clear it properly, Burge was down quickly to his right to smother the shot.
About midway through the half O’Nien and Watmore swapped wings, the first result of which was Dunc getting into the box and seeing his shot headed clear. Mumba, always a bag of tricks, emulated Hume by getting down his wing and crossing, but when the half-clearance looped up and fell for McNulty, he could only head tamely into the keeper’s arms. Ten minutes to the break, and we were still trying to create a proper chance, but after we failed to convert another pair of corners, one from each side, it looked like Grimsby might get something when their speedy bloke charged down the left, and we held our breath as Mumba chased him into the box – and produced a brilliant tackle near the bye-line that left their man on the deck and the ball at Bali’s feet, when a penalty had looked a real possibility
There was a single added minute, then it was half time. We’d had the better of the possession, but failed to create enough clear chances, which always leaves you a bit nervous about the eventual outcome –if you care about the competition, that is. If we’re playing, I want us to win, but there are those who understandably want out of this competition, whatever it might be called these days. Anyway, the discussion at the break was less about that than the performance of the two Lads who’ve not played that much for the first team. Mumba we know a bit about, and he backed up what we knew, while Brandon Taylor looked fairly comfortable as he added a wee bit of defensive guile, with a few nice touches, to Lynch’s more industrial approach. Actually, that’s a bit unfair on the big fella, as he picked out Hume numerous times to play the ball out of defence, or gave it to Leadbitter to maintain possession.
We made no changes for the second half, and Hume was away twice in the opening couple of minutes to cause the visitors problems with low crosses, the second of which created havoc, allowing Watmore to get a shot away which the keeper stopped before it was hacked away. Promising, but we needed less promising and more product, and Dunc was in the thick of it soon after, when we came down the right and Grigg teed him up – but the shot back across the goal was placed wide of the post as well as the keeper’s left hand.
Let’s get something on target Lads, was the cry when O’Nien found a shooting opportunity from the edge of the box, but placed it a foot the wrong side of the keeper’s right hand post.
It was beginning to feel like one of those games where we’d not hit the target, when Mumba, O’Nien, and Leadbitter combined down the right to set up McNulty, but he fired over the top with 57 on the clock.
What typically happens when we do that? Aye, fail to cut out a cross, this one from their right, and the ball was popped way from a couple of yards. Bugger – how are we losing this one? Burge was rightly annoyed –slightly more than the crowd were straight afterwards, when Hume’s pass inside to Watmore, after another gallop down the left, was shot over the top on the turn.
We won a free for a comedy push on Luke on the right, and when Leadbitter put it into the box, the ball dropped and shouts for a penalty went up, but the ref was having none of it and Grimsby cleared. Shame, but things got positive a minute later when another Hume gallop and cross saw the ball not quite cleared, and when Dobson dispossessed the defender on the edge of the box and fired in a low shot, the keeper couldn’t hold it. In a race to the loose ball between a bloke on the ground and Roadrunner steaming in from the right, there’s only going to be one winner, and Dunc duly got there first to smack it into the far side of the net.
Right, 22 minutes to win the game, but Dobson was booked for a lunge out on our right on halfway to take a little bit of the smile off our faces, and Burge had to come out of his box to head away (only just) to keep us on the edge of our seats. They made a couple of substitutions, but it was us who made the next positive contribution. O’Nien skipped round his man into the box from the right, making the space to square it low, and McNutly fired home off a defender. Get in. I don’t care about deflections, me! Surely, that was us through to the next round, or whatever happens in this crazy competition… nah. With ten minutes to go, we failed to prevent a cross, this time from our right, and there was another simple goal for Trawlermen (see, I’m still up with the nicknames), and more displeasure from Burge – and I’m not surprised, as he’d taken crosses under pressure, saved shots when he had to, and come out of his box to head away, but been let down by a couple of basic mistakes.
Anyway, that was the last we saw of Mumba, with Gooch coming on and O’Nien switching to right back – then someone reminded us that if it ended level, we’d get a point apiece but there’d be a penalty shoot-out for a bonus point. Oh, what fun! Score again, Lads, and get it over with.
Which we did, thanks to Hume going down the left again and this time crossing fairly high to the back post, where Grigg applied a lovely header into the top corner. Nice on, Will – five minutes to go, let’s just not do owt daft. Watmore left the field on 88, with Lee Connolly coming on, and then the board went up to indicate four added minutes, during which we had a couple of half-scary moments as we had to rely on Lynch’s muscle to head clear in the box. It also gave the chance to see young Kiernan, on for Grigg, have a run-out, and he and Connolly covered enough ground to see the result go our way.
There you go. It wasn’t even the big news of the day, and I suspect it wouldn’t have been even had it been in a bigger competition than the Thingy Wossname Trophy. As games go, it was canny overall, with a slightly frustrating first half followed by a second 45 with plenty of effort and goal attempts, as you’d expect from a 3-2 win. Nice to see Dunc back (again – please don’t break anytime soon), and nice to see Taylor show what he’s all about. Plenty of patience playing out from the back, and plenty of galloping forward by Hume – he’s nee Mickey Gray yet, but on tonight’s showing, he might get somewhere close before too long. That’s why he’s my Man of the Match, despite their first goal.
Who’ll be picking our next team? We’ve ten days or so to work that out – answers on a postcard, please.