It’s good to be back, for the first time in seasons....and it turned to be even more good to be back - a sunny day, over 30,000 in attendance, the fanzone bouncing, and a dramatic injury-time diving header to win the three points. Can it get any better? Let's hope so.
Having negotiated the most hectic of summers, we’ve acquired new owners, who brought in a new manager, who brought in (at the last count) eleven players. That’s a whole team. Because of all this change – positive change – and despite successive relegations, the mood is miles away from the last few opening days. Everything about the club seems a lot brighter and shinier, especially the new seats. The new players, as you’d expect, cover all positions from keeper to forward, include a real number nine, several real centre halves, and a midfielder whose great uncle Lim Kin San was responsible for Singapore’s housing reform, and was awarded the State's highest honour, the Darjah Utama Temasek (Order of Temasek) and the Ramon Magsaysay Award for his community leadership, which provided a model for the developing world. You work out which player it is. Other back-stories include having a beer named after a derby-day goal (Forty Yard Screamer), and others will no doubt emerge.
All of this, and the fact that we’ve managed to sell 22,000 season tickets, has somehow generated far more excitement for the season’s opener that should be the case in our situation of successive relegations and recent financial turmoil. Even after the number of season’s openers on my CV, this one’s got none of the recently standard dull, stale, familiarity about it. Not when Juan Sartori, as expected, has joined the board, with all his personal riches - not to mention his da-in-law, who makes Mike Ashely look like a pauper by comparison.
Being an early start, it was Johnny’s special matchday sausage sarnies in the beer garden, then onto a bus that had been fully booked for a week - memories – and was filled with folks bursting with genuine hope and anticipation rather than resignation, with plenty of excited chatter and new shirts. Plenty of old-school Harrington jackets as well, mind. It’s fair to say I’ve not felt this childishly excited (dare I say optimistic?) about an opening-day game for yonks. Not so much the hope of eventual success, but just the fact that matchdays can be an enjoyable experience again.
The usual relaxation in the Isis was missed due to the early start, so we made do with some Maxim in the Wheatsheaf, and saw a few familiar faces not encountered during pre-season, and the remaining “alreet, marra” or two of the summer were exchanged. The fanzone was back, it was busy with excited kids and parents, the seats looked the business, the new shirts seemed to exude a power and togetherness, and the grass was a greener than a football pitch has a right to be after the recent weather. We’ve got a captain who has come through the academy, and we’re memorising the squad numbers while wondering why it isn’t Mumba Number 5 with a little bit of Ozturk by his side. Never mind, let’s hope this season makes him a man… and we’re off. Plenty of new faces in my part of the ground, who took an age to find their seats and get used to their new neighbours. All part of the fun.
Matthews Ozturk Loovens Love
Honeyman Bali Gooch O'Nien Maguire
Charlton couldn't provide a full sub bench, we kicked off to the South, had a couple of bright moments, but it was the visitors who showed the more attacking intent - albeit with a couple of assists from an over-zealous ref. Two free kicks, then a ninth minute penalty which I thought was wrong but TV watchers claimed was correct. Obviously under instruction to silence the crowd, Charlton started like a steam train. Which is just like a diesel or electric train, but more dramatic, and it worked. Our central defenders were shown to have less pace than Jan Eriksen, which in Ozturk's case, at 25, is scandalous. After a few dodgy decisions which made claims that ref in this division let the game flow, he blew for a penalty after our man had slid in to take the ball away from a Charlton forward's feet. I thought no penalty, those with access to TV screens said it was. Typical Sunderland, high to McLaughlin's left for 0-1.
Maguire was making himself the main man out on the right of midfield, taking any dead ball that needed to be taken, and firing in a couple of useful crosses that the visiting defence did well to keep away from Maja. There was little protection for the defence in the centre, as Bali the Kid, for all his deft and clever touches, isn’t the boy for that job. A long-range effort dealt with by McLaughlin at the expense of a corner, and Love was hurt defending it. He was eventually replaced by Oviedo on 25 minutes - look, I like Love, but having a World Cup left back on the bench at the expense of a right back is a bit daft and Brian's ability to carry the ball out of defence immediately took the pressure off Loovens and Ozturk to be the next Stan Varga.
Charlton were nearly in for number two on the half hour but McGlaughlin did his job well, keeping it out at the second attempt. Maguire continued to take frees, but no holding midfielder let Charlton use their pace to keep us on the back foot for a fair amount of time. What looked like a perfect free kick form Maguire evaded everybody, then Matthews fed Mumba who found Oviedo and he tried a shot from distance that was well saved. As the half faded away, with three added minutes announced, a right wing corner was headed goalwards by Loovens, but Ozturk couldn't get on the end of it to convert, then Maja couldn't get the vital touch on a wildly inaccurate shot that flew into his feet. Oviedo had a penk from distance, as we know he can, but it didn't trouble the keeper and we headed into the interval a goal down. The scoreline was possibly right, as our lack of play out of defence had let us down. Honeyman had a quiet half and more positive second half needed from him, while O'Nien had shown lots of effort but struggled to connect with his team-mated.
It was therefore no surprise when O'Nien didn't emerge for the second half as we switched to two up front and Sinclair made his debut. A sensible change, and he had an instant impact with quick feet and positive running. A good run into box by Gooch, ended with a cross that was cleared. We got some wind in our sails, and the next cross resulted in a clash of heads, with Sinclair off to have vinegar and brown paper applied while his Charlton counterpart had a nice lie down for a few minutes. Maguire then worked a bit of space but shot tamely wide.
It then went a bit daft on 64 minutes, when we looked to have nowt on, but Maja produced a lightning quick turn in the box and fired a left-footer low and just inside the near post. No more than we deserved for the change in pace and formation.
After pressing for a few minutes, we lost our impetus and spent ten minutes stuck in Oviedo's corner. Maguire was getting tired, unsurprisingly, but got his second wind, and almost put us ahead on 75. Gooch was fattened 20 yards out in the inside-right position, and. Maguire's free kick almost caught keeper out. Time was ticking away, but we kept at it, with Gooch putting in a deep cross that found Oviedo, but his low n hard effort was diverted the wrong side of the near post by Sinclair.
There was a ludicrous amount of stoppage when their lad kicked Gooch's foot and he lay a foot from line while being treated. He was eventually subbed on 88 minutes, to tumultuous boos as he walked off unaided.
We made our final substitution in the dying minutes when Sinclair looked to have done a Howard Gayle and popped a hamstring closing down on halfway. On came Luke Molyneux, and six added minutes were announced. A coup of shots were deflected for corners, which Charlton kept out, but when a cross went over from our left to the back post, Gooch flew through the air to connect with his head, sending the ball into the net and the crowd into raptures. Injury time diving header to win a game? Does this sort of thing happen to us? Apparently so, as the whistle went soon after and we sang happy songs.
Man of the Match? Gooch kept going and was rewarded, Oviedo sorted the defence, but it was Maguire for me, always wanting to take responsibility.