This was my first visit to Ashton Gate and Sunderland AFC hadn’t been there for nineteen years. At the last match I'd been to I'd struggled a bit trying to figure out who was who in our side and with the new arrivals in the transfer-window I knew it was going to take a while that day too. Back in the Sixties we had Montgomery, Irwin, Ashurst and McNab among others in our first team for years on end but such continuity had long gone, for us at any rate. The bottom of the table was settling into a dog-fight between five sides as Birmingham had suddenly started to put a few good results together and if we could only do the same we’d survive.
It was looking like a big ask, though, as despite some of the new signings looking promising, we'd continued to give daft goals away. The news of Ruiter’s lay-off was greeted with joy in some quarters but he was better than Steele at any rate. Another member of the dwindling faithful told me I was mad to be going to the match today, but I've always liked a day out on the train and I couldn’t help but live in hope that we’d get a few good results… one day. Actually, in the last four games I’d attended we’d had three draws and a win so I hoped my luck would continue. Burton and Hull had tough away games that day while Barnsley were in a Yorkshire derby so even a draw could have moved us in the right direction. My match prediction was 1-1.
I got into Bristol Temple Meads Station at 1.15 and as there was a heavy drizzle and as Ashton Gate was a forty-minute walk away I jumped in a taxi. The driver dampened my spirits somewhat by informing me that Bristol City were in a play-off position. As my gaze had barely risen from the nether regions of the Championship table for a long, long, while I wasn’t aware of that. I arrived just as our team coach was pulling round the corner to enter the stadium complex and I gave them the double thumbs up, but whether anyone behind the darkened glass noticed this I don’t know.
I walked round to see the squad disembark and, apart from Catts who had a bit of a smirk on his face, what a miserable-looking bunch they were. They looked like they were skulking into an appearance at Teesside Crown Court and the Bristol City equivalent of myself, who was standing next to me, wondered what was wrong with them. He told me that at away games their players always sign autographs and chat with the fans. I made my way up to the away fans area which was very Spartan with neither a telly nor a shelf in sight and bought a Thatchers cider (crap name but very drinkable). I took my seat in possibly the shortest row ever (it consisted of three seats) and got chatting to a couple of the faithful who lived locally. The p.a. was blasting out some tasty sounds including ‘Seven Nation Army’ and ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ while our fans were in very good voice at the kick-off.
Anyway, on to the match. We were terrible in the first half and my neighbour said it was the worst performance by us he’d ever seen. I thought things weren’t going to go well when Camp’s first goal-kick went for a throw-in. Basically, we were out-fought, out-jumped and out-paced while a lot of our side looked like they couldn’t care. We were one down within five minutes following a free-kick and despite a lot of mutual instructions among our defenders, Bristol chipped the ball into the path of the on-running Flint who trapped it on his instep and tapped it past Camp. Our back-line just stood and watched him do this. Immediately afterwards there was one minute’s applause for Bradley Lowery and fans of both sides joined in. We won the first corner of the game just before the half-hour mark but were soon two-down and what a sorry affair it was.
Again, there were oceans of space in our defence as a ball was put through for Diedhiou to run onto. It looked like he’d duffed it but despite the attention of Camp and a player on the post, he lammed it into the far corner. Our end broke into, “Are you watching, Ellis Short?” I doubted that very much. Diedhiou almost got his second a few minutes later but somehow he hit it wide from almost on the line. This prompted a chant of, “You’re not fit to wear the shirt!” Bristol made it 3-0 in the thirty-seventh minute when they broke down their right leaving our defence huffing and puffing before a cross came in and there was Diedhiou again to shoot home. Some defences are as tight as shite but ours is the opposite, which I suppose is just shite. A bloke behind us caught the ears of many when he exploded with, “Every one of them is fuckin’ spineless!” We managed to get through the rest of the half without conceding further and I was glad there was only a minute of stoppage-time. We’d clearly have to change something as it was looking like a 6-0 job. There was much booing as the sides went off.
As our side emerged after the break, I could detect zero applause from our end and I’d never witnessed that before. There were no changes in personnel for us, but we started attacking more while Bristol could afford to sit back. Fletcher and Ejaria both had goal-attempts, nothing great but it was an improvement. Twelve minutes in I thought it was 4-0 but the ref ruled it out for handball and Diedhiou was yellow-carded. We won a couple of corners in a row, which was also encouraging, and things really looked up just before the hour when we replaced Oviedo with Lualua. He gave us some oomph in attack and ten minutes later we pulled one back with a bizarre goal. Joel Asoro, who’d had very little change out of Bryan, finally got a good cross in from our right and it was met by Catts who headed it against the bar. It bounced down and hit Brownhill who was facing the goal before bouncing into the net. Cue great rejoicing in our end and a chant of, “We’ve scored a goal! (x5).”
We immediately brought on McGeady for Honeyman and he really made a crucial difference with his runs and passes across to Asoro on the right. With nine minutes left on the clock the momentum was with us and it was Catts again who forged the breakthrough. Asoro was fouled just outside their box on our right and Catts took the kick. He was clearly cooking something up and for once we made a success of a dead-ball situation when he hit it very low into the box and McGeady ran to meet it and shot low into the net. We brought Robson on for Ejaria, whom I thought had looked quite impressive.
With a minute or so to go it looked like we’d got the equalizer but Fletcher’s close-range shot was turned out well by Fielding in goal. Fletcher had his shirt over his head and he should’ve scored but all was not yet lost. Four minutes of stoppage-time were welcomed with glee by our end and half-way through it we got that crucial goal and it was Asoro again from the right who was the creator. He got to the line and crossed with power before it hit a Bristol player, Pack as it turned out, and hit the net. Cue complete mania all around me.
I’d earlier jokingly told the lads next to me that I was the lucky charm and as we jumped around shouting I reminded them of this. There was still some time to play out and I was more than happy with a draw, all things considered. There was an air of joyful disbelief as the whistle went and handshakes all around me. The lad behind had been chatting with me about the notes I was taking and I’d told him at 0-3 that probably nobody would read my column that night. As I said goodbye to him he said, “They’ll be reading it now.”
A game of two halves doesn’t get near it. It was one of those nutty games that I’ll never forget.