Sunderland swallowed part three of the Wembley Hangover Cure with a bit of difficulty against Burton, with the 1-1 draw meaning that we’re guaranteed a place in the Play Offs – so I’m told by an accountant, and they’re apparently people to be trusted. It might be complete rubbish, and I’m in no mood, and have no willingness to design a spread-sheet that will confirm or deny that claim. What I do know is that we recovered from an own goal to level in a game that had chances at both ends, that we hit the woodwork three times, and that the referee, while possibly not having a direct influence on the result, plumbed new depths of incompetency and unfamiliarity with the rules of the game – even by the low standards that we’ve seen this campaign to date. Still, we’re second with a game in hand, so before you start crucifying the team in time for Easter, think on that.
The squad was used again, as we lined up:
O’Nien Baldwin Flanagan Oviedo
Morgan Wyke Grigg Honeyman
....or you can drop the wide men deeper and call it 4-4-2. I like the positive vibes generated by 4-2-4, like in the olden days. Anyway, Burton, backed by a good 55 travelling fans, kicked off to the North, and it quickly became apparent that Harness, who’d pestered the life out of us at their place, was going to be a bloody nuisance as he ran at O’Nien. We had the better of the opening exchanges, despite the Brewers looking dangerous on the break, and when McGeouch slung in a cross from the right-hand corner of the box, Wyke bonked his header over the static keeper and we watched as what had initially looked a fairly insipid effort bounce off the top of the bar at the Roker End. Tough luck, Charlie. It was nearly a goal to them, however, just after the quarter hour, when Harness jinked in to the box down their left and played it into the middle – fortunately, it was Boyce’s boot rather than his main footballing appendage, his arse, which made contact and the effort was safely over the top. That arse was used on many occasions throughout the match to bump his marker out of the way without the referee noticing – mind, he’d probably not have noticed a yellow shirt setting his car on fire as he’d have been too busy phoning the police to complain that someone in a Sunderland shirt was being nasty to his cat.
The opening exchanges were bursts forward by both side, but we managed to set Grigg away with about twelve minutes gone, and he cut across from the right and fired in a low shot with his left peg that the keeper saved but couldn’t hold, having to thank his defence for scrambling it clear when we were screaming for someone to put it away. A couple of minutes later, Harness turned O’Nien and forced a fairly comfortable save from McLaughlin, low to his right. Two more minutes later, and it all went wrong. McGeouch carried the ball out of defence, as he’s done so effectively in the previous two games, but on halfway appeared to kick the turf as he played it forward. The result was that it went straight to a Burton player, who got it out to Harness (again) and when he cut inside his cross went off Flanagan’s knee and left McLaughlin wrong-footed as the ball flew inside his near post. Oh bugger. Another opportunity to show our strength as the team in League One that’s won the most points from a losing position. Just what we didn’t need, especially with the box behind me containing Gooch, Maguire, and McGeady when you need their match-winning ability on the field or at least the bench.
Big Charlie, who’d been either winning the high balls or being climbed onto when not doing so (without the referee noting, obviously) in a proper battle with their centre half, was hurt on about 20 minutes and took a while to stick back together, but thankfully the injury appeared be shaken off once he’d had a good chew on the magic sponge.
When we won our thirst corner, on the right like the previous two, Leadbitter fired it over for Baldwin to do a Watson/Hurley and bonk a header past the keeper to set the crowd alight. Still over fifteen minutes to play before the break, and the lift that goal gave us added a bit more spark to our game. Just before the half hour, McGeouch, who was still hobbling, either injured or embarrassed after their goal (I’d go for the former, he’s an honest fella) made way for Power. Max, a little unlucky not to start but perhaps a victim of our large squad and the number of games we have to play, was quickly amongst thing, putting over a decent cross that arrived between Wyke’s feet only a few yards out, meaning that the big fella couldn’t dig it out properly, and his shot was very well saved. Still should have scored, mind.
After a period of particular nonsense from the ref, who regarded every challenge as an opportunity to give Burton a free kick, they almost got a second in similar fashion to the first, this time on the other side of our goal, but thankfully the deflection went the other side of the post on this occasion. That left us with ten minutes so get ahead, but their sharp passing game kept on our toes. When we did get a free kick, the ironic cheers were amongst the loudest of the first half, and the ref followed that up with another two decisions in our favour before reverting to type. There were four added minutes, largely for that blond/bald lad up front for them who spent most of the half on his backside. We did manage to set Oviedo away down the left, and when he cut inside and slung over a right-foot cross to the back post, Wyke got on the end of it but was always stretching and the ball ended up hitting the side netting.
Happy to be level at the break, to be honest, and we wondered what Ross would do or say to change things. No more subs, as it turned out –not even the ref, who could surely have been removed at the discretion of the assessors in the stands. Burton were presented with a decent chance when our central defenders made a mess of carrying the ball upfield, and McLaughlin had to be at his sharpest to get down and prevent their second. It nearly arrived a couple of minutes later, when we were all over the place at the back and had to thank Baldwin for getting onto the line and clearing.
Thankfully, we got a bit of a grip on the game, and almost went ahead when Leadbiiter took a return pass, looked up, and clipped the ball over the visiting defence for Wyke to hit on the volley – and off the top of the bar. He looked like he might have been offside, but I’m not sure if the linesman signalled for that or the goal kick. Power nutted an opponent’s boot on 57 minutes, and need a bit of treatment, then Sterling came on for Grigg, who’d not had the most effective of evenings. Our loanee was straight into the action, breaking away as the visitors failed to cut out a ball down the inside-felt channel, but as he turned inside the box, his footing went and the defence was able to get in his way. Honeyman set him away again soon after, and this time he kept his feet but leaned back and fired his shot horribly over the top. Not long after this he played the ball across the box to Honeyman, who let it run to Leadbitter who struck a sweet, low shot that left the keeper for dead, but struck the foot of the post and didn’t rebound anywhere near a Sunderland shirt. Excitement, pressure, and the crowd responded with the sort of noise we know and love.
For some reason, and as they did at their place, they took off Harness – perhaps because he’d let McLaughlin come out on top when faced with our Scottish stopper in a face-off. O’Nien was probably massively relieved, as he took that as a cue to up his attacking efforts, linking well with Honeyman on the right while Oviedo kept sprinting down the left. Kimpioka replaced Morgan with a couple of minutes of normal time left, and he almost got through a couple of time as we piled on the pressure. A corner from the right ended with their keeper carrying the ball over the line and dropping it into the net, but the ref was never going to allow that to stand. Five added minutes were announced, and further corners and free-kicks produced headers from Baldwin and Kimpioka that were saved and went wide respectively.
So it ended level, and in reality neither side could have complained had the other got the winner, as there had been chances at both ends. Perhaps we’d looked a bit tired, and Burton certainly passed and moved better than we did for large parts of the game. The absence of McGeady only emphasised what an important player he is, and we needed to take more advantage of the balls that Wyke won in the air. Our central defenders might have contributed our equaliser, and might not have been directly to blame for Burton’s goal, but their attempts to play football after winning their defensive battles just ended up inviting more defensive work. The formation also seemed to leave big spaces around the centre circle, especially after the departure of McGeouch.
Man of the Match? Leadbitter did OK individually, but didn’t seem to link up with Power as well as he did with McGeouch, or as well as he has done with Catts. McLaughlin was on decent for again, and O’Nien bombed forward given the chance. However, I’d give it to Oviedo, who defended and attacked well.
Oh, and another accountant of my acquaintance tells me that if you’d put a tenner of us to draw 1-1.
Big, big game on Satda.