Sunderland went into the rearranged game at the Memorial Ground full of hope that we could return to for after a few less than impressive performances, but came unstuck as we failed to produce anything like the controlled passion that had been the basis of our good run earlier in the year.
The team seemed devoid of attacking intent, probably because they got rattled by both the opposition and the ref, and thus became ineffective after having the bulk of the early possession. Consequently, we conceded a goal in each half without reply. The changes that some had been screaming for were made, but that seemed to do more harm than good as, while our preferred shape was maintained, its output suffered.
Our small but perfectly formed band headed south west through spells of dodgy weather which had us praying that the roof of the Tent End hadn’t sprung a leak, but by the time we have to in leafy Almondsbury, the day had settled into one of pleasant sunshine with only the odd wet squall to keep us on our toes, I don’t think Almondsbury gets many football fans in, but if you like that kind of place it’s just off the M5. Just don’t go at school hoying-out time. There was still time to meet up with folks in the Drapers Arms near the ground to discuss the line-up, before taking up our seats and rubbing our hands together (hand sanitizer not included) in anticipation of a victory.
O’Nien Willis Ozturk Flanagan Hume
Maguire Lafferty Semenyo
There were the changes – would they make the difference? - and we set things away kicking away from the visiting fans. It didn’t take long for us to work out that Rovers knew how to push Lafferty’s buttons, and you could sense his impending radge from 75 yards away. Far from looking like a side which had won only once in their previous fifteen attempts, they looked way more composed that we did. We had lots of early possession, but Rovers were happy to concede that and simply keep us away from the box. Semenyo looked promising, with several strong runs at the home defence, but there was nothing at the end that we could create from – in fact, when we did concede possession, Rovers looked more likely to cause McLaughlin problems.
We got rattled by the ref’s seeming obliviousness to some of the stuff Lafftery was on the receiving end of, which meant that when their first booking arrived on the half hour, it raised a bit cheer from the Sunderland fans. Lafferty, the steam still coming out of his ears, started trying to get his retaliation in first, so it was no surprise when he was next in the book eight minutes later and Rovers started to look more positive, denying us the space to pass and forcing us back. We seemed to have decided that, under this sort of pressure, Flanagan, Willis, and Ozturk would try to hit Maguire and Semenyo – or even Lafferty – without the aid of Hume and O’Nien, making those two virtual spectators for long periods. Rovers gobbled up most of these hopeful balls, and came at us. As the final five of the half approached, we in the seats had decided that we’d just have to hold out until half time, give ourselves a shake, and start afresh attacking our end in the second half. That didn’t happen, and they passed their way into the box on our left and hit a low cross that we failed to get near, then held off O’Nien and gave McLaughlin no chance with a low shot to his right.
That was us done for. The rest of the half, including the three added minutes, saw some desperate rear-guard action in front of the visiting fans, and yielded nothing positive – indeed, Oz and then Flan were booked as we lost a fair bit of composure. Mind, so was their player Hargreaves, for the heinous crime of pretending to have been tripped by McLaughlin as he dived on the ball. Rotten trick, that, but I think the ref had suddenly decided that he’d been far too lenient in the opening period and had better get his book filled up.
Wyke was on for Lafferty for the second half – whether it was an injury to big Laffs, or the more likely removal of him from the fray before he batted an opponent, we didn’t know – so we at least kept the same shape. However, we also kept the same inability to bring their keeper into the game, and it took until the hour to create a chance – but Maguire’s corner from the right was reached first by a blue and white head rather than one of ours. Not really a chance, then, but I’m clutching at straws here. As was Parky, when, with just about everybody, linesmen included, showing their bafflement at some of the stuff the ref was letting go or punishing unnecessarily – it does make you wonder what sort of training and instruction these blokes are given. Pat Partridge would be either turning in his grave or laughing his head off at their antics – he swapped things around. We certainly weren’t laughing at our team’s antics, even with this switch to four at the back when Oz made way for Gooch. Twenty minutes of his running could surely produce something positive, we thought.
It didn’t. Five minutes after Gooch’s arrival, Rovers broke down the right and slung in a deep cross that found its way to Leahy just outside the box on the left, and Power, jumping to block the cross, was hit on the elbow. Penalty, and Clarke-Harris beat big Jon low down for the second time of the evening. We gave it another ten minutes and slung on Grigg for Scowen, who’d not had the happiest of nights on his first start – indeed, for our seats, lower down than previous games, he looked worryingly small. It was only after this change that we actually produced our first two shots on target – both low, from distance, and allowing their keeper time to check his fancy hairdo – and in the six added minutes, Grigg flung himself at a cross and saw his header fly over the angle.
Game over, and the prospect of 300-odd miles in a minibus to contemplate the evenings failings – and there were a fair few of them. Willis was the pick of the three original defenders, as Flan and Oz looked both shaky defensively and inaccurate passing the ball forward. O’Nien had precious few chances to create, while Hume was almost totally absent as an attacking force. Power looked and bit lost alongside the zippier but less physical (than his marra Dobson) Scowen, while Maguire couldn’t produce his usual clever link-up play with O’Nien, probably due to the opposition having done their homework on us. Lafferty, and his replacement Wyke, had little opportunity to influence the game, while Semenyo at least looked interested, certainly in the first half.
Man of the Match? Semenyo, but only as the best of a mediocre bunch. A bad night at the office.