Sunderland can now chuck in the familiar line “we can concentrate on the league” (for a few months, anyway) after dropping out of the League Cup at the first hurdle against Sheffield Wednesday. On a Thursday, before we play Scunny on a Sunday. As the ALS Head of Retail and I discussed who would be playing and why, a stream of folks came in and bought the Joy Division T-shirt, with imminent destinations of China and Toronto (not the one near Bishop), there was a surprise visit from our Ian, and somebody called Michael bought his son a badge.
But let’s be realistic about this defeat. We weren’t outplayed, outthought, or outfought, and certainly not out-tackled, as the number of Wednesday players left splattered on the turf showed – we were outfinished. Much of the talk before the game had been about who we’d play up front, as Maja – our only fit striker – would almost certainly be given a bit of a rest. As it was, Maguire got the nod as the gadgie to do the business, and boy, did he try. We lined up:
Hume Ozturk Baldwin James
O’Nien Honeyman Embleton
As this tournament seems to generate about as much interest as an Ebay listing of a gallon-sized can of Alan Shearer Signature edition creosote, we did well to get as many attendees as we did. With only the East stand employed, there was the Sheff Wed lot up to our right and a smattering of the great and good opposite, their pockets filled with corporate doggy-bags. You know who you are, and you saw Chris Waddle and Mick McCarthy hand us a home tie with Wolves in the next round – or mebbe handed Wednesday a home tie with Wolves. The following ninety minutes would tell.
We started off with Catts and Power at the base of midfield, and a three-man support of Maguire in the shape of O’Nien on the right, Embleton on the left, and captain Honeyman roaming across the middle. After we’d worked out that Hume was playing on his wrong side and that we weren’t scared of a tackle, the visitors, backed by the League Cup’s compulsory noisy away support, won the first corner, which we repelled, and we gradually and patiently (which is what we want) imposed ourselves on the game. Maguire, having played for the visitors a few years ago, seemed to have a point to prove – as you’d expect – and therefore got into a few situations. Which, in English, means that he gave the opposing defence a few bumps and bruises. After he did well to hold off his marker to play in O’Nien, the cross, not for the first time on the night, looked good, but was aimed at the striker we don’t have. So we didn’t win the ball. Embleton, who’d more than justified his selection with a confident display, put a shot well over the top before McLaughlin did well to get down and field a low effort from Wednesday.
Then it went a bit daft. Ozturk, tracking back, wanted the keeper to come for the through ball, but couldn’t decide what to do when he didn’t. Consequently, Wednesday’s Matias nicked the ball and poked it beyond our helpless keeper. A bit of a dafty from our latest Turkish import (via Holland), when he should have obeyed the centre-half’s mantra of “if in doubt, hoof it out”. It would take a forty-yard screamer to redeem him on the night, the daft bugger. That was on the half hour, and we were entitled to claim a bit of unluckiness at being behind. Straight from the restart, O’Nien found himself on the end of a clever pass and therefore free on the penalty-spot, but, with the choice of hooking it over the keeper or trying a more forceful volley, chose the latter and the keeper got in the way. The rapid-fire passing we were trying to play wasn’t affected by the scoreline as we kept plugging away, particularly down the right, and Catts even found the position to have a go. The crowd, trying to come to terms with being all clagged together in the East Stand, kept behind the team, and as the half drew to a close there were few tackles that helped them keep that keeping behind - and it was as much Hume and James as Catts and Baldwin. Baldwin, despite his rather slight frame, is far from scared of a battering, and seems to read the ball in the air very well. With a minute or so to go, we got James deep into the penalty box, and he smashed one across the area, but the Wednesday keeper somehow stood up to the onslaught, and our next effort was blocked by Nielsen.
Well, you take your chances and you get your rewards – or the opposite. We’d handled the returning Fletcher reasonably well, but had made a crucial error to let the Wednesday take the lead, which they held through the minute or so of added time. With a team that was 50% central midfielders, we’d had enough possession to do away with the visitors, but not the killer instinct up front. As a target man, Maguire had been absolutely fine, but we needed more instinctive attackers alongside him. Still, the approach play we’d produced was nice, with ball on the ground and being pinged between our players as we probed for an opening.
No changes for the second half, as we kicked towards the (empty) North Stand, and we looked like we were intent on getting back into the game pretty sharpish, with Honeyman buzzing across the middle and firing in a shot from distance that won us a corner. Ozturk rose highest to that but could only nut it over the top. As the home crowd showed their appreciation of what we were trying to do, Baldwin had to clear off the line and allowed us to break forward again, with some patient passing being at the heart of our play. McLaughlin had a decent save to make, and we came close to creating a lot. Just after the hour, Gooch (insert OOOOOs as required) replaced Embleton, who’d done his chances of a first-team future no harm at all, and our favourite Yankee Candle set about his task with his usual, buzzy, enthusiasm, but it all seemed to stop on the edge of their area.
Catts made way for Maja on about 67 minutes as we went two up top and reshuffled to accommodate, but barely five minutes later a dead-ball from their right beat our defence and a glancing header went in off the foot of the far post. That was it really, as, despite the replacement of James by Molyneux, and the subsequent deployment of O’Nien at right back, we showed effort and commitment, but not the necessary bits and pieces in their box. Maja strived manfully to hold it up and lay it off, we had several crosses that the visitors dealt with – and we had a penalty shout (although, to be fair, I have those in my sleep) when Gooch whacked one in from our left and it hit a defender.
Five minutes were added, we kept plugging away, lots of folks went home and missed Maguire’s free kick as it didn’t curl down quite sufficiently, then the ref signalling the end of the fun. On the plus side, we don’t have to worry about Wolves at home in the next round, and we saw that whatever the opposition threw at us, we could clatter in with the best of them, and then pass it around in stylish fashion.
So we’re out of it, but we did get another chance to see what Ross is all about, and it looks quite canny – OK, we lost, but we tried to play football – did play football – the way the manager wants us to. As I said about the Luton game, we’d almost certainly have won it with another striker on the field. At least we didn’t leave the ground despondent. Onwards and upwards, which is where we’ll go because we’re trying to play football without forgetting how to get stuck in.
Man of the Match? Lots of ground covered by Honeyman, as usual, great composure shown by Hume on his wrong side, great anticipation and reading of the game from Baldwin, but with lots of good stuff from Maguire, he gets it again.