Sunderland fought back to claim a point that was the very least they deserved from a game in which they “enjoyed” two thirds of the possession, showing both what we have and what we’re missing. The level of performance wasn’t quite a repeat of Doncaster, but wasn’t far off and, but for a shocking piece of officiating, would have brought all three points.
As with every New Year’s Day, sunrise came too early for most folk, although the views of the North Pennines from the A66 were something we’d be happy for the rest of 2020 to look like. A bright and sunny morning saw us across the hills and into Lancaster before the Christmas Fair (Fayre?) had fired up, so we watched, over a sneaky early pint, the big wheel get a maintenance once-over before the first customers arrived. Suitably refreshed, we saw off the last of the mince pies on the last leg of the journey, and then fell out with the folks at Fleetwood who, unlike last season, had decided that entry to the supporters’ club was strictly one out, one in – fans of either persuasion out, but only home fans in. Having let them know our feelings, and with insufficient time to head to the town, we took our places on the Percy Ronson terraces amongst another sell-out away following. The team was unchanged, which was a pleasant surprise, so we hoped for a repeat of what we’d seen on whatever day it was we last played. Joey Barton had been handed a touchline ban for throwing a wobbly at a recent match, so we hoped to encounter him in the crowd to exchange pleasantries, but he must have disguised himself well.
Willis Ozturk Lynch
O’Nien Dobson Power Hume
Maguire Wyke Gooch
The home side started proceedings, kicking towards the visiting fans, after a period of applause (better organised than our Boxing Day effort) for those associated with Fleetwood Town who had left this world in 2019. In our blue kit, we shaped up exactly as expected, but the Cod (or whatever they call themselves) showed they had a lot more about them that our previous opponents as they stood up to our “high press” - as pundits now call the tactic of pushing opposition back and denying them time and space. In Evans and Madden (a proper worky-ticket, as we’d later discover) they had two willing runners who provided a two-pronged threat in positions that their team-mates knew they’d always occupy, and it was the latter who probably should have done better with the game’s first chance. Thankfully, it didn’t require any intervention from McLaughlin as he put the effort wide, but coming only three minutes in, it served as a warning of what to expect.
The tone for the afternoon’s officiating was wet when it became apparent that the ref was prone to act a bit like a geography teacher officiating a match because the games teacher was ill – the side that shouted loudest got the decision. Despite our possession, we created just the one chance which Maguire fired off target, and we had to concede some corners at the other end. While we were waiting for the first, Madden repeatedly grabbed Dobson’s arse, something which would probably have resulted in a lengthy custodial sentence had it been in the Prem, but the ref saw nothing, and we defended it well. Our George recovered from this traumatic experience to be in the right place to head away from under the bar to clear the immediate danger. Unfortunately, there were several other corners, and in the prolonged game of head tennis that followed one, we eventually cleared but the ref stunned the crowd by pointing to the spot. I’ve watched it many times – several times in the minutes that immediately followed, thanks to the wonders of modern technology - and have yet to see anything that looked remotely like a foul, and the closeness of the pitch to the crowd meant that we had a very good view. 0-1, Evans.
We dusted ourselves off, and if we hadn’t already been on our feet we’d have risen to them when Maguire went through their defence in the inside right channel, but something went wrong with the strike and the keeper was able to get a hand down low to push it off the turf and wide. The general shape of our side was working reasonably well, with Hume and Gooch providing most of the threat from wide, and when we got it into edge of the box, Wyke did well to work some space and force another save from their keeper. The announcer decided that he wouldn’t bother with informing us of added time, but there must have been a fair amount as it was nearly five to when the ref signalled cuppa time. Not a bad half, but we should have created more chances given the amount of the ball we’d had.
No changes for the second period, which we started at a much higher tempo than the first, pushing the home defence back towards our fans. Maguire forced an early save from Cairns with a swerving ball in from the corner of the box that could have been either a cross or a shot, but either way was just plain dangerous. He and O’Nien upped their game on the right, and got in a few more crosses, with Luke eventually providing one that found Wyke at the back post, which he met in classic centre-forward style. The header went down, hit the foot of the post, and we fully expected it to bounce along the line and in, but it kept on rolling past the other post. How close can you get?
McLaughlin produced three cracking saves, keeping out two powerful shots after first outwitting Madden when the forward ran through, and then defending the resultant corners. Gooch was working as hard as ever down the left, backed up by Hume, and when he powered past his man on the hour to put a low cross the wrong side of the defenders, we should have been level. O’Nien, rushing in from the right, somehow got under the ball six yards out at whacked it over the bar. Bad miss, Luke. After a spot of sound defending from Lynch, we replaced his partner Willis with Watmore after around 65 minutes, which was a bit of a surprise personnel-wise, as Willis is fast becoming our main man at the back. Subsequently, our shape changed to accommodate Dunc, and his running at the defence, chiefly from the right, reduced comfort levels in the Fleetwood ranks.
As the clock ticked past 78 minutes, McNulty replaced Dobson as we went all-out attack, and the sub produced a left-footed curler from the right that didn’t quite curl enough and flew past the far angle of the woodwork, but our fans were up for the battle and the players responded. It wasn’t all one-way, though, and McLaughlin had a couple more saves to make to end one attack, but Dunc was back in the action soon after. As he cut into the box from the right, his legs were taken away, the ref blew, and the weakness of protests from the home players confirmed that they knew it was the right decision. Maguire, who’d been practicing spot kicks before the match, smacked it high to the Cairns’s right, with enough power to negate the touch the keeper got, to level things, and there was still time to win it.
There followed a strange incident, indicative of the way the Fleetwood behave in the Barton era, when a ball boy tried to take the ball off McNulty as he attempted to take a throw in. The ball boys (and girls) had spent the afternoon dutifully returning the object of their presence to the home players, while blatantly not to visiting players. Their keeper was booked for time-wasting as more Barton-esque behaviour manifested itself, and I spotted the fourth official holding up the board that indicated four added minutes. We got the ball into their box several times, and one attack ended with what looked like a pretty obvious foul on O’Nien, with one defender pushing him in the back as another knocked his legs from under him. Obviously, we didn’t shout loud enough to sway the ref.
Then it was all over. We’d shown our strengths – Dobson and Power are proving a decent combination in terms of holding the ball and getting it out wide to feed the pace of Hume and Gooch, while Maguire is stepping up to the mark as the hub of the team. We can pressurise opponents and create chances, but we can still be a bit shaky at the back where Lynch needs to realise that he’s no Stan Varga. If you can’t pass, give it to somebody who can. Our biggest miss, however, is that rarest of things in football – a natural goal-scorer, someone whose natural, and instant, reaction is to shoot. Someone whose instinct is to get a shot in first and think of another option if that doesn’t work out. If one is available in the current transfer window, he’ll be attracting more money than we’ve got. Josh Maja anyone?
Man of the Match? More good work from McLaughlin, who seems to be back to his best after a slightly offish spell, and positive stuff in central midfield. For me, though, it’s back to back MOM’s for Maguire – takes the corners, takes the free-kicks, writes the theme tune, sings the theme tune.