In the immortal words of Whitesnake, here I go again – along with thousands of other like-minded individuals. Another nine months of fresh air and fun following the red flag that is flying high up in the sky, and in the hope that it’ll be fluttering in triumph of some sort by the end of the campaign.
Oxford, the former (and probably still current) love of Stewart and Charlie, were first up at the SoL, and they repeated last season's efforts with yet another frustrating 1-1 draw as we recovered from an early setback to equalise in the second half Same old same old, unfortunately.
No captain Honeyman, off to Hull in another money-saving exercise – a player who couldn’t be faulted for effort, enthusiasm, commitment, loyalty, or overall professionalism, but lacking a stand-out skill and unable to command a specific position in the side. The subject of much unfair criticism, he’s recently been called a terrible player by the same folks who are complaining at the small fee we’ve received. Make no mistake, had we been in the Premier League, he’d have cost at least £5 million when compared to some of the bang average players who are changing clubs for tens of millions. Anyway, he’s here any longer, we’ve brought in a central midfielder with a more identifiable skill-set and a cracking surname, so we’ll be OK in that department, I reckon. A new centre half who’s a bit of a bully and an experienced right-back, along with a forward who’s looked sharp and direct and we’ve added to the squad well, it would seem. I eased myself back into the new season by watching the reserves (U23 to you) thump Bishop 4-0 on Thursday with all the goals (Myring 2, Hackett, Diamond) coming in the first half of a decent run-out which ended a couple of minutes short of the 90 when handbags started to fly and the ref decided to end it. It’s hard to evaluate who might get a sniff of the first team against (no offence) this level of opposition, but Patterson looked a proper ‘keeper, Diamond stood out, Mumba did stuff we know he’s capable of, Kokolo and Bainbridge looked promising at the back, and Sammut looked very comfortable. We even loaned Bishop Ahmed Abdelkader for the second half, as they didn’t have a replacement keeper and Liversedge, their first choice, was only recently back from injury. Let’s see how things progress.
To be honest, I didn’t feel that excited about the new season until Judith commented last night on how disinterested I seemed and I went to clean my boots – and the Painted Ladies and Red Admirals invaded my innards, meaning that by half eight I was a nervouswreck. A poor night’s sleep followed, then we were away. The lucky socks (yeah, I know) and polished boots were donned, the matchday coat was dragged kicking and screaming out of the cupboard (Play Off final ticket still in the pocket, so it went back in thecupboard. Can’t be that lucky, eh?), gnarly git breakfast at the Rio Bar, the same old faces packed the Bishop bus, the same old routine followed (thanks for the Isis, Mexico 70), and the same seat was taken in the ground next to the same faces. Let’s away, then…
Despite all the talk about three at the back, Ross the boss opted to start with a flat back four... or did he?
McLaughlin Willis Flanagan Hume
Dobson McGeouch Embleton Gooch
With a canny Oxford contingent, and Big Jon our captain, the visitors kicked off North, once the smallest mascot had been persuaded to leave the field.....and Gooch came over to the right with McLaughlin 2 going central. Three at the back it was. Sort of, and the first chance went to Oxford on four minutes when they passed their way through on the right and dragged a shot wide of Jon's right hand post. We followed that by breaking down the left and bringing a fine save from McNulty's shot after a one-two with Dobson. Gooch then swapped passes with McLaughlin 2 and ran along the by-line, but his cross evaded everyone, and he was on hand to head wide under pressure when it came back across.
It all went wrong on 13, when McLaughlin 2 won a tackle then lost it, Oxford ran into the box and clipped it past McLaughlin 1. Cut-price Adam Matthews? Mebbebtoo early to tell, but awww, man. If there's one shot we never miss with, it's the one to our own foot.
Dobson slung in a free from the left, winning a corner, but that was cleared and we followed that with plenty of frees and crosses, mostly from the left, but none accurate enough to cause real problems.
Our left was all over the shop defensively, and a second for Oxford, following a corner, was ruled out for pushing on 29… and the time wasting began.
McLaughlin 1 took a throw-in as Flanagan and Hume wondered what to do. There was another corner as a good passing move ended when a shot was deflected wide, but we could make nothing of it
Three added minutes, all for Oxford players lying down, and we won yet another free, right on the corner of the box, but it was fired straight into the wall. We ended the half behind, and deservedly so. Hume was getting no support from central defence to allow him to be a wing-back. The main thought during the break was that at least it couldn't get worse, and that Ross needed to use some stern words in the dressing room. We'd had plenty of possession but the final ball, usually a cross, hadn't been good enough, and the "three at the back" looked like it had never been practiced.
No personnel changes for the second half. Or the formation, and when we passed out way around their box, they knocked Gooch over. Penalty on 47, which he put away high into the net. That's better, Lads. We naturally perked up after that, with McNulty looking lively. There was a yellow for a foul on Grigg, we nearly got Gooch in down the right, and generally looked a bit more organised, but we needed two pieces of good keeping by Big Jon, one low and one high, to keep Oxford out.
Watmore replaced Embleton just before the hour and took up a more central position behind the front two. Gooch slung another free in from the right, Flanagan fed Watmore and the cross produced a corner, being headed behind after the keeper could only flap at it. They cleared that one, then Hume took a pass from Watmore and set McNulty away down the left only for the cross to be a yard ahead of Grigg. Another yellow allowed Gooch to dink in another free that was eventually cleared, then we gave them a corner out if nothing. We cleared that, winning a goal kick on 67.
Gooch lost his rag when an opponent pretended to have been the victim of a high foot as the visitors kept up the gamesmanship. On came McGeady for Grigg with 20 to go, giving the crowd another lift and taking Warmore's place in middle with Dunc going right, before moving more to the left.
McLaughlin robbed this man, galloped forward before cutting it inside and allowing McGeady to return it. Quite how his low cross didn't find Sunderland feet is a mystery.
With nine left, Gooch made way for Maguire - definitely a flat back four now. He quickly won a corner on the left, but again nobody could get on the end of that, or the resultant corner from the right. Another Oxford player had a lie down before Willis produced a shocking pass to invite Oxford into out box, and somehow we got bodies in the way to keep it out, with Flanagan taking a hefty knock in the process.
Clever play between Maguire and McGeady allowed Hume to cut it back and somehow Oxford kept us out, with a free awarded just outside the box. McGeady hit the wall then took the rebound towards the line, where he was fouled. Another free was cleared as 5 added minutes were announced. There was a bit of handbaggery as an Oxford player ignored the ref's instructions on where to leave the field when being subbed, earning a booking.
And so it ended. Another 1-1, another team happy to frustrate - but we had enough possession to have won it, especially when we sort of got settled in the second half. Unfortunately, Grigg didn't look any more likely to than he did last season, (like the team, unfortunately) and a Wyke- McNulty pairing has to be preferable. Three at the back? Sorry, not with those three, and for me, not with any three. I just don't like it, as it's never worked for us. Just my preference and opinion. On a positive note, at least Gooch was releasing the ball when he had the chance.
Man of the Match? Certainly not a defender, so I'll show very thinly disguised nepotism and go for Dobson. The new boy covered a lot of ground, looked strong on the ball, and was forever organising. A good competitive debut.
I'm off to Victor's to dance the night away to some funk n soul n rock n roll with Bishop Auckland's finest, JD & the Woodsmen.
That might only have been a point, but that one was for Alan Dunn, founder member in the 1990s of the ICPP travel club, who passed away on Thursday night. Memories of raucous trips, particularly to the capital following the Lads will remain with other club members – not so much the daft bets on us to outscore Thierry Henry and Arsenal at Highbury, though. RIP, marra.