Sunderland, looking less than refreshed after the unaccustomed “break” of a whole seven days since the last game, went to Stewart and Charlie’s spiritual home (Oxford, not necessarily the Kassam Stadium) and did what they've done too often of late... only score once, and fail to hold that lead. Dunne’s first SAFC goal should have been the foundation for a comfortable win, but… Ha'way Jack, we can't carry on trying to protect a single goal advantage for an hour. Even with Big Mac in goal, something was going to give eventually, and it did.
We set off in the dickie dark of a morning with weather so filthy I was tempted to bring the shed indoors. It being many years since we’ve been to Oxford, we had to sift through the memory banks for places to stop off, and settled on Bicester, home town of Jenson Button, Isla St Clair (ask yer dad), Ian Paice of Deep Purple, and Dr Albert King, who rather unsuccessfully tended to President Lincoln after the unsavoury incident at the opera involving a dispute over popcorn...and a handgun. There had been a very tempting offer to visit one of the county’s many “chocolate box and duck pond” villages, but we’d already made out plans. So it was there that we discussed our ready-made terrace hero, Mr Grigg (who’s apparently ablaze), the arrival of whom seemed to cheer us fans up no end, the returning old boy Leadbitter, and unknown quantities Morgan and Sterling. We also reminisced about connections, playing and otherwise, between the two clubs – always a good topic for debate. Rush, Melville, Rogan, Smith, Gray, Crosby, Sinclair, Maguire, Whitehead, Whitehurst… and of course, the question of loyalties of two of our Three Amigos. I think that one has been well and truly put to bed.
Oxfordshire, where double-barrelled surnames mean you're posh, did indeed boast pretty villages, which we shot past on the way to the 3/4 Kassam Stadium. The other 1/4 is apparently way in the future thanks to the strange council/club relationship, but we found it… and the "entertainment" complex next door, which we quickly forsook for the relative sanity of the ground...which served proper beer, even if the staff didn't know what it was. The big crowd was a bit much for a couple of the stewards, who slowed things up by demanding that folks showed their tickets again, and that persons out of earshot stop pushing.
Anyhow, we found our seats, counted the people standing on tall things in the car park for a free view of the game, watched the Lads line up...
Matthews Dunne Baldwin James
Morgan Honeyman McGeady
...and we kicked off, away from the non-existent end. We had plenty of the ball despite the liveliness of the home side, but finding that killer pass to set Grigg away just wouldn't come. There was patience, with us working the ball out to McGeady and Morgan, mainly thanks to Leadbitter showing his nous, and there was determined and effective defending, particularly from Dunne as he won most of the balls in the air, but we had to rely on the man we're possibly taken for granted to keep Oxford at bay. Three times Big Jon produced vital, and very impressive, saves when the home side broke through, to make up for our failure to create the chances our possession should have merited. Baldwin and Mackie battled several times, and the Oxford man spent a good while on the ground on 10 minutes after another clash, eventually sporting a rather swanky head bandage that made him look a bit hard-ish. With Dunne’s regular clearing headers being greeted with roars from the visiting fans, who’ve taken his commitment to heart, there was a decent noise from our side of the ground. But his clearances, through no fault of his, didn’t set us up for anything. After the initial period of home possession, McGeady got a decent effort away, but it was too close to the keeper and it was saved – then came the first of McLaughlin’s saves, getting down well to block a shot.
It was then the turn of our fullbacks, first Matthews then James, to get themselves in the way of shots/crosses as we conceded a fair bit of ground in midfield to allow Oxford to come forward. McLaughlin then used his foot for his second big save of the afternoon to keep the effort out, then he produced a stunning left-handed tip-away low down, before at last we pushed forward again, winning a corner. Baldwin won the cross easily, but his touch down was well away from Grigg and no chance was created.
When we did make the breakthrough, it was almost inevitable that it should be Dunne (Jimmy Dunne, Jimmy Jimmy Dunne) who provided the vital touch. A corner on the right was slung in by McGeady, and Dundalk's tallest man rose in the six yard box to thump a header home. Boom, get in, here we go. Five minutes later, we should have doubled the lead, but somebody had been at Grigg with a fire extinguisher, and his shot lacked any real power and was harmlessly wide anyway. Damn – the second goal would have killed the game off, as Oxford were playing above themselves but you got the impression that another goal would have knocked spirit away.
Three added minutes (bandage time, presumably) came and went, and we rued the fact that there had been no second goal when we had our noses in front.
No changes for the second half, and we simply didn’t get into the game. I’m not sure if we were content to sit on the single goal lead, or if we just couldn’t find our shape/pattern/momentum, but it just wasn’t working. For fifteen minutes we laboured away, with McGeady and Morgan providing occasional flashes, but Ross decided to shake things up on the hour. On came Wyke for McGeady, who was a touch unlucky to be subbed, but if you’re going to change the shape, something and or somebody’s got to give. Big bloke to help Grigg – fairly obvious, but come on, ref – it doesn’t matter how big you are, if somebody puts an arm on each shoulder, it’s a foul. …and Charlie was on the end of countless similar infringements that went unpunished, as well as a naughty clatter out on the left that had us worrying about another serious injury, as he took a fair while to get to his feet.
Inevitably, they brought on Jerome Sinclair, causing fears of “former player syndrome”, on 63, and he played like he had a point to prove – but still didn’t shoot, which is why he’s out on loan again. Gooch followed him into the action in place of Morgan, and at last Matthews looked more comfy coming forward. After a couple of yellow cards (James and Gooch, the second one more than a bit silly) as we defended against a lively home side, Grigg made way for O’Nien and we hoped that his enthusiasm would generate the clinching goal. Well, he got booked for bumping their keeper as he tried to clear.
We hoyed in some crosses, with Gooch the main provider, then Sinclair looked to have fouled Dunne by basically crawling up his back as our man tried to chase the ball back, and our former loanee’s low cross provided a simple tap-in for Browne, not long on the field. Aww, bugger, another two points hoyed away, as the five added minutes passed without us causing the home keeper any problems.
Another draw – on the positives, we scored for the 37th (I think) consecutive game and didn’t lose. On the negatives, we were once again “victims” of a team raising its game against us – this one has special connections as well – but we should be able to deal with that sort of thing. The three home games, two of which we play before most of our opponents have a match, are now vital to make up ground on the top of the table.
Man of the Match? Our full-backs struggled to do their usual attacking stuff this afternoon, for whatever reason, while Dunne was impressive at both ends of the field. Leadbitter was again calm and affective but was let down a fair bit by his partner, Power, who didn’t have much of an afternoon – his early season bite and swagger seems to have evaporated with the daft red cards that weren’t red cards, which is a shame because he has it in him to ping in killer passes. Mebbe it’s time to partner Leadbitter with McGeouch and see what happens. Up front, Grigg got scant service and consequently produced little, while Wyke got absolutely nothing from yet another ref intent on proving that he wasn’t going to be overawed by Big Bad Sunderland. It was good to see Honeyman back, but for all his energy, he couldn’t get himself in the right place at the right time.
I’ll take the coward’s way out and share it between McLaughlin for his saves, and Dunne for the goal and a proper centre-half’s defensive display. Ha’way the Lads.
PS I left my Jacob's Club biscuits (fruit, of course) next to the heater on the bus. The only bit of the heater that was working. If I put them in the fridge, they might be solid by Tuesday.