Sunderland signed off their league campaign for the time being by coming from behind to overcome Walsall in a game where the wind had as much influence as any individual player. Going behind in the third minute meant we had to dig deep into our reserves of grit, determination, and patience, but thanks to goal-machine Catts and the incendiary Grigg, we came out on top.
Much of the week had been spent discussing Wembley tickets, and today was no different as we arranged meeting points and transport for our trip to the capital, noted a surprisingly small number of Saddlers fans in the town in stark contrast to most games, and pored over Jack Ross’s team selection. No surprises, really, despite a couple of changes, with Dunne either being given a rest or paying the price for getting the ball caught under his feet once too often, and Morgan replacing Gooch. Thankfully, the rain in Bishop had given way to wind in Sunderland – a good drying day, as it turned out.
O’Nien Baldwin Flanagan Matthews
McGeady Power Morgan
After the visitors kicked off towards the north end, the first fifteen or twenty minutes saw us play as disjointedly as we have all season, with Baldwin committing a silly foul near the corner of the box only a couple into the game. It was whipped in, no doubt catching the wind a bit, and was cleverly flicked into the net via an improvised donkey-kick. Bugger, very early bugger. Whether it was the wind, the opposition, or just our own inability to get a grip on things I don’t know, but we stuttered through the opening part of the game. Uncharacteristically, Leadbitter’s dead-balls didn’t give us any joy, and Walsall sat on their lead without looking owt clever as we tried to get our system working. McLaughlin made a fairly comfortable save, then we gradually got to grips with things and started to make a game of it. Just after the quarter hour, Leadbitter’s free-kick eventually found Baldwin at the back post, and he nodded it back across for Grigg to prod home, but the ref decided that Jack had fouled his man. You’d need to have been in the Roker End to confirm if that was the correct decision or not, but it looked a bit soft to me from the far end.
After another save form McLaughin and a bit of a desperate but effective clearance by Matthews, we produced the best football of the game so far with some lovely interchanges of passing down the inside left channel to present Morgan with a good chance, but he put the shot just wide, then could only watch McGeady’s cross, destined for him, get pushed over for a corner. Getting there, getting there. There followed close things from Morgan, Baldwin (not really that close, to be honest, but it was an effort), and Catts before Leadbitter reverted to being deadly with his corners – Power won the header, and Catts volleyed it against the post, off the keeper’s head, and in. Get in, no more than we deserved for our patience in waiting to get to grips with things, although it had taken 33 minutes.
Five minutes later, Grigg came very close when he brought out the best in the visiting keeper with a decent shot then watched as Power hit a beaut which was midriffed out for a corner. I was over a hundred yards away and I felt that one. There followed a minute or so stoppage time as the stricken defender was re-inflated, then Matthews came across to clear as O’Nien was caught slightly up-field, and the fullbacks swapped sides for a couple of minutes as three extra were announced. No more shots, no more goals, and we waited for the half-time entertainment as the teams went in level. We’d probably done enough to be winning, but had shown enough for us in the seats to believe that a win was on the cards. On the down side, another booking for Leadbitter, for a bit of a daft shoulder charge on halfway, meant that he’d once again had to tread carefully to avoid the inevitable. The ref had also seemed way too keen to book Catts for a bit of a clatter, so he was also having to be careful.
Said half–time entertainment has been so well received that we gave it two goes today, much to the delight of the crowd, who do doubt (well, I did) hope for a repeat of the Plymouth shenanigans. No such luck.
No changes for the second half, and we started it much better than we’d started the first, with Leadbitter placing a shot from outside the box onto the roof of the net after excellent work by O’Nien to cut it back from the right. We had a lot more purpose about our game, and we looked at the various corner flags, and swirling crisp packets, to try and judge if the wind was in our favour or not. Unfortunately, all four flags were blowing in different directions, and the crisp packets were, well, swirling, so we had no idea. In the space of a minute, McGeady’s shot was saved and Power nodded Leadbitter’s cross just over before Catts had a decent effort from outside the box saved. Surely the second goal was only a matter of time. Just after the hour, Gooch replaced Catts, with Morgan initially taking up the central position behind Grigg and alongside Power, who dropped a little deeper. Max had done OK, but he’s no Honeyman in terms of buzzing about. We kept on the front foot, but were forced into another chance a few minutes later when Matthews made was for Hume – great to see the Lad back, and it gave us a natural left-footer at left back. Another few minutes on, and Ross made his last throw of the dice, putting Wyke on for Morgan, who’d buzzed about down the line but not managed to create enough. Not a bad game from the Lad, though, but today was made for Big Chas. Grigg alone up front isn’t quite big enough to win every battle, and isn’t quite quick enough to evade the attention of all the defenders, although his hold-up play had been good. Give him a bit of support, and the defenders immediately have twice as many forwards to worry about and get stretched, and we have another target to pass to. Wyke’s effect was immediate, as we came down the right and he play a nice little ball to Grigg, who didn’t rush things and picked his spot. What a canny goal, on 71 minutes.
It could have been more, as with about ten to go we produced a lovely passage of play that almost carved the visiting defence open when Gooch cut in from the right and found Grigg, then a through ball saw their keeper rush out and splatter his defender as he hoofed it clear with Grigg closing in. A moment of craziness saw their keeper lose the ball out on their right, and a third looked inevitable when McGeady picked it up, but some desperate defending kept it at two. McLaughlin pulled off another decent save, then, as four added minutes were announced, O’Nien got his head in the way of a goal-bound shot to preserve our lead.
A cracking win, and one that keeps us in touch of the top two. We already have a game in hand, and will have another two by the time we return to league action. A good day at the office, thank you very much, Lads. Good substitutions and tactics by Ross the Boss, producing a well-deserved win.
Man of the Match? McLaughlin was again steady, having no chance with their goal, and McGeady was his usual tricky self, while Grigg took his goal superbly well. For me, though, it goes to Mr Energy, Mr Enthusiasm, Mr Never-Say-Die, Mr Rocking All Over League One. Nice on, Luke.
Away home on the bus, with a bit of an emotional speech from Geoff the driver, who, after seven years of taking us from Bishop to the match and tolerating all of the nonsense that entails, is hanging up his driving gloves. Cheers, Geoff, see you at the match… at Wembley.