Don’t you know there’s a World Cup on, man? Of course, but from a Sunderland perspective, there was the small matter of a rearranged fixture at Darlo - fancy planning it for the original date when there was a chance England would be playing - what negativity!
Aalreet, marra? Ah, the traditional first-game-since-last-season greeting that usually signals the return of football. Proper football, involving the Lads. The New Lads, Jack Ross’s Lads. The World Cup has sort of messed that up, in a very good way, but it's our first sight of the new manager and lots of new players, at a ground most of us haven't visited before - mainly because it's a rugby ground.
There was the usual low-key run-up to a pre-season friendly in Darlo town centre – the odd red and white scarf on a blazingly hot day, familiar faces from the Isis allocating various match tickets, and a small group of cola-carrying would-be casuals singing “it’s coming home” on the mile walk down Grange Road. I’d read good things about the clubhouse, but the over-zealous security chap wouldn’t let me in, assuring me that there was a bar in the away end.
Of course, there was no such thing, and as I’d no intention of standing in the sun watching bugger all for 45 minutes, I asked (politely) if there was any chance of being allowed through the barrier to the clubhouse. He (politely) explained that the club would make a decision on that once the game kicked off. Once he realised the daftness of this policy, the little family group I’d surreptitiously attached myself to (fieldcraft developed through years of following football) were allowed through. The clubhouse, obviously rugby-oriented, was very nice, offered decent ale and grub, and had the France v Belgium game on a git big screen – and you could see the pitch through the picture windows. Rugby fans, you see, are allowed more freedom than football fans.
Anyhow, on a dry and dusty pitch with a lush covering of grass, but which wouldn’t take a stud with the aid of a mell hammer, we got our first sighting of the new gaffer and his new players. Very much in the Keane/Di Canio style in terms of clothes and good shoes (you can tell a lot about a manager by his shoes) - your mam would like him. Smart fella. Jack stood on the same spot for virtually the whole of the game, issuing encouragement by means of “no bah, no bah” type comments. That’s Scottish, by the way, for “canny”.
Kicking from the right as I looked from outside the clubhouse, we lined up – in our new tops (proper stripes, daft all-red back) and red shorts:
Matthews Flanagan Ozturk James
Molyneux Cattermole Robson Maguire
By the time we’d worked out that it was triallist Anton Forrester, late of Everton and Port Vale, who was leading our line, we were a goal down as Darlo set their Jordan (Nicholson) through before ten minutes were up, and he popped it low to our keeper’s left and into the corner for the game’s only goal. Ozturk could probably have done better, but let’s put it down to lack of understanding of his new team-mates. There, you can stop reading now, I’ve given the score away.
Anyway, Catts did a lot of running about in the centre, Molyneux and Maguire did a lot of running down the wings, and we nearly got an equaliser when Forrester headed a corner back into the box and Ozturk’s effort on the turn beat the keeper but was headed off the line at the far post. Mumba was showing some very good touches, and the rest of the team were doing a lot of the “control, pass, move” stuff that’s so typical of reserve and youth games, but at least Maguire was running at people. On the half hour, Ozturk got a knock and was replaced by Love, and we noted how strong Flanagan was despite having the skinniest legs since Tom Ritchie (ask yer dad). This was a stark contrast to three Darlo players (numbers 4, 9, and 10 if you’re interested) who wore shorts that would only have fitted Neil Ruddock in his later years. Big lads. There was a comedy two-handed push on Mumba that ref Michael Oliver missed (where’s VAR when you need it?), and the player was then stopped by a great tackle in the box. Catts made the most of a decent period of passing up front by getting in a header, but it was inches wide of the post. In typical pre-season style, Andrew Nelson interrupted his warm-up routine to ask me the France v Belgium score - and seemed more than happy with 0-0.
A goal behind at the break, and Darlo probably just about deserved the lead, so we popped back into the clubhouse (much to the puzzlement of the security man who’d denied me entry before the game) to discover France were a goal to the good, watched the fun for ten minutes, then got back into the late evening sunshine. Our second half performance was a bit livelier than the first, but it was the home side who came closest to scoring when a shot beat Ruiter but came back off the post and went straight into his hands – a sign that his luck has changed? Mebbe. Please.
On the hour we did the usual pre-season thing and brought on (deep breath…) Stryjek, Honeyman, Gooch, Maja, Hume, McManaman, McGeouch (pronounced “mack-ouch?), and Nelson. Flanagan put the ball out of the ground (probably a regular feature this season, more due to the grounds than the player), there was a bit of nonsense in the centre circle as a Darlo player was thrown to the floor, and their keeper tipped one over the top. There were chances at both ends, with Stryjek puling off a couple of decent stops and Maja putting a late effort onto the top of the bar after Flanagan headed down from a corner.
A narrow defeat isn’t the best start to Jack’s career on Wearside, but it’s only a friendly. That’s always the excuse in July and early August, but as half of the team are new to each other and Sunderland, I’ll stick with it. Of the new boys, the central defensive pair looked sort of OK in an “I don’t really know how you play. marra” fashion, Maguire looks positive, and McGeouch likes to carry the ball from the centre outover and vice versa. I think we’ll like him. Stryjek is a decent enough keeper that we should have made more use of last season- but we knew that already, and we have pieces of training equipment which would have provided a more effective ‘keeping option than those who got a game ahead of him. On this showing, Mumba, given time on the pitch, could develop into something very useful.
Man of the Match? With 20 to choose from? Alright, I liked the look of McGeouch. He’ll do. Now, there’s an international game on. Must sort out and England shirt.