Nobody told me there'd be days like these
Strange days indeed -- strange days indeed
Sunderland got our league campaign off to a less than impressive start, with a disappointing 1-1 draw at home in front of a capacity crowd at the SoL, conceding after only two minutes and equalising with a Maguire blast with only eight minutes remaining. This was despite creating a number of chances and having a fair few cleared off the line, and seeing our George red-carded late on, largely due to the ref being conned by an awful piece of play-acting from a far from injured Rovers player.
Under normal circumstances (remember them?) it would have been a Git Big Breakfast at Expresso’s, a pint in the Green Tree, and all aboard Bishop’s barmy battle bus to the Isis, where myself, Dave, and Rossy would pick the team over a pint or two before heading to the Roker End café for my black coffee…and thence to my seat with five minutes to spare.
Who knows when I’ll be able to fall back into that routine, but for the time being the football coat can stay in the cupboard, and it’s on with the replacement lucky socks (thanks, Hannah Stace), after hanging the emergency sock on the wall (don’t worry, it’s in a sealed frame). I find it really difficult to get excited about a game that nobody can attend – even the dullest of encounters can be sparked into life with a thundering tackle, but only if it’s immediately followed by a roar of appreciation and encouragement from the crowd. Can they not just let me sit all on my own a few rows from the action to provide that roar?
Probably not. With far from pleasant memories of our last league game, ironically, but perhaps thanks to a spot of kismet, against Bristol Rovers, I did what most fans did and sorted out the live stream. A far from perfect situation, but the best we can do at the moment. In a radged attempt to make the afternoon a bit more sporty, I watched on my phone while Brandon and Ushaw Moor played out their final cricket fixture in the background.
Parky opted for his usual formation, the Lads running out:
O’Nien Willis Wright Flanagan Hume
Dobson Power ©
Maguire Grigg O’Brien
Perhaps it was a bit of a surprise that Grigg started, but (despite the fluffed penalty last Saturday) he had looked sharp in previous games. Even with the handicap of kicking the wrong way (North) in the first half, he showed more life in the opening couple of minutes than the entirety of last season. A lively beginning, which had me tending towards the phone rather than the cricket over the little white fence. Then it all went wrong, as our George gave away a silly free kick, Burge made an arse of dealing with a header and took out a Rovers player as he tried to get hold of the ball. Mebbe it was because it was clear-cut, mebbe it was because we weren’t there to scream our denial, but there was precious little objection from our players. Away went the penalty, up aheight and safely beyond Burge to put us firmly on the back foot, and Rovers seemed to decide that they could hold out for the next 88 minutes – they could probably remember our ineptitude back in March, so that was understandable. Sort of.
That mindset allowed us to continue the little bit of brightness we’d showed before the goal, and we charged Northward, getting onto the end of looped ball into the box and having O’Brien, who looks more like McGeady with every twazzle and dropped shoulder, and Power both see their efforts hit defenders. Parky’s one-up-top formation sort of morphed into two-up-top and back, as O’Brien seemed to be operating more as a partner to Grigg on occasions, which is fine by me as it hints at the “plan B” that we missed so much last season.
There was an awful lot of possession that amounted to little, although we always looked on the edge of doing the right thing, and when we did that right thing, found a defender’s leg in the way of either the final ball or the shot. With the visitors most definitely playing one up front, their breaks relied on their midfield chasing upfield to support, and our back three were largely quick to blot out such attacks – mind, somebody should have a word with Flan and tell him that if he’s going to carry the ball thirty yards into the opposition’s half, it’s generally a good idea to pass it to a red and white shirt rather than a blue and white one. Wright put in a clumsy (or intentional but I hope not) challenge to earn yellow and Parky some grief from the Rovers backroom staff.
We had the majority of possession without looking deadly (I suppose that if we’d looked deadly we’d have scored), and had a few blocked efforts and a nation of corners that came to nothing – but at least I now know that the taker raising both arms in the air means that he’s going to hoof it way beyond the back post. With the deadliness of Scowen’s corners on Tuesday, the surprise that he didn’t get a start today grew throughout the half. Grigg managed a header that barely had the energy to reach the keeper, who later tipped a Hume shot shot over the top after O’Brien had played in the overlapping defender, as we upped our energy, and apparent interest, levels towards the half hour mark.
All to no avail, though, even after Flanagan’s good interception and forward run and pass to O’Nien, who cut inside and swirled an effort just wide thanks to a touch off a defender’s shinpad. Another unsuccessful corner, and the visitors held on to their lead as we hit the break (there was probably some added time, but I missed the announcement because I got a text from Brian, who I sit next to, asking me to pass him a jelly baby). Ah man, I miss the SoL.
I’m sure half-time discussions at the SoL would have involved who Scowen would come on for (our George) and if Gooch would be a more direct option than O’Brien. Maguire would have been backed to stay on, but Grigg, despite looking more like a football than at any previous juncture in his Sunderland career, could have been sacrificed for Wyke or Graham.
No changes for the second half, which Rovers kept us waiting to start – not a very professional way to go on and we started it very much on the front foot with attacks down the left. Only a few minutes in, Wright repeated his first-half misdemeanour to have the Rovers bench in Parky’s face again when the ref kept the cards in his pocket – ah, stop being such a bunch of softies, will yer? – but we won possession back after the free and saw Maguire’s low effort tipped behind for another corner on our right. Close, and it got closer when O’Nien and Willis, who seems to like getting down the right, combined for the former to get in a cross which our George headed towards the far top corner – but Jaakkola (not quite Jaaskalainen, but near enough to give my keyboard palpitations) leapt across to palm it away.
In an effort to shake things up, Parky replaced Grigg with Graham as we approached 70 minutes, and we plugged away with the established shape, managing to create a few half-chances as well as blootering one way over the top from distance. Mind, Rovers had a chance to sew things up on a break, but put their shot just as hopelessly high - with at least two team-mates screaming for the ball. Cheers, mate.
We swapped things around with about fifteen to go, as Wyke and Gooch came on for Wright and O’Brien, and a flat back four (or desperately attacking two-at-the-back) formation was adopted. It paid dividends when yet another of our attacks was sort of cleared, but only to the edge of the box, where Maguire lurked. No mistake, as he picked his spot and hammered the ball home. The crowd erupted – well, a couple of us in the cricket club did. I assume others around the world did as well.
From there, we piled forward for the winner. A couple of knocked heads earlier in the half meant a ridiculous eight added minutes (which I could hardly miss) and host of opportunities. A Power blaster was saved one-handed, hitting the woodwork and bouncing down the wrong side of the line to be hoofed to safety. The cam our George’s daft moment – OK, it was a foul, but the Rovers player was an absolute disgrace as he rolled around in mock agony – but leapt to his feet to square up to our player who’d tapped his arm and suggest he stopped being an arse and got to his feet. The ref missed that and waved a straight red at George, leaving us short for the last few minutes.
And that was that. A typical Sunderland season-opening result, but a performance that was good and bad in equal measure – a daft early penalty, but 25 shots to the visitors’ five and 72% possession. That much possession is obviously good, but failing to convert that to a win is obviously bad. Changing formation got more bodies in the box, which is always a problem for the opposition, and something that Parky should perhaps consider sooner in future games.
Only a draw, but I think there was a lot more to take out of the game on the plus than the minus side.
Man of the Match? Probably Power, who was desperately unlucky with the one cleared off the line and the one saved onto the woodwork, and who kept driving us on for the whole game.
PS: Brandon won the cricket