As most supporters stayed at home, presumably suffering from cup fever, the 7,642 who did attend suffered even more, with a McLaughlin howler gifting Gillingham an equaliser and thus knocking us out of our stride and almost out of the cup at the first hurdle.
What with the early kick-off and the current indifference shown towards the early rounds of the competition, Sunderland was a like a ghost town, football-wise, before the match. With only the east stand open, three-quarters of the ground lay empty and provided a backdrop that just doesn’t encourage football – a bit like the scattering on Tuesday. Much of the pre-match discussion had concerned the presence of Lee Burge on the bench, and what we’re going to do next Saturday with no match to attend.
Mclaughlin Lynch Willis de Bock
Maguire O’Nien McGeady
A strong line-up, and a strong bench that featured Watmore, and we attacked the Roker End from the off, with McGeady setting up Grigg, whose shot was blocked, then getting an effort in himself - only for that to hit a defender. We won a couple of corners with Willis going close from one, and it looked like it was going to a fairly comfortable win if we could only score the opener. About quarter of an hour in we did just that, when McGeady worked the space to shoot from the edge of the box. It didn’t look the best of shots, but it went into the corner and we were off and running.
Or so we thought. In fact, the opposite happened. Rather than spur us in to a second, it awoke the visitors, and they almost levelled when McLaughlin2 headed off his own post, and again when Dobson gave it away. They broke into our box, but Mandron, remember him? three games, no goals – saw his shot blocked and we eventually won a free-kick for a push. There was a decent chance for us when Maguire put a corner to the near post, and O’Nien’s flick only needed a toe-end to put it away, but no toe-ends were near enough to do the necessary. Maguire fired a volley wide when it seemed easier to score, three added minutes were played, and we went in with the narrowest of leads. There had been a couple of decent chances to add to McGeady’s strike, but we didn’t take them, and there hadn’t been a great deal of flowing football on show from either side.
No changes for the second half, which we began by conceding a free on the edge of the area. It was laid off to Lee, and McLaughlin looked too have gathered the shot comfortably enough – then the unthinkable happened, right in my line of sight and in apparent slow motion. The ball was no longer in his arms, it was between his legs and bobbling over the line. Awful to watch, and it knocked the stuffing out of us while, understandably, giving Gillingham a lift. Our game degenerated into one devoid of much movement – even O’Nien couldn’t see a marra to pass to so elected to simply put it out for a throw. At least that’s what it looked like. McGeady tried one from distance, but it was way too high and the ball spent a fair while amongst the north stand seats, as most of the ball boys (and girls) seemed to have been given the day off.
McNulty was given just under half an hour to make his mark, coming on for Grigg, who once again had looked about as sharp as a sponge, and a few minutes later helped create the space to allow Maguire and McLaughlin to break down the right, but the latter’s shot was put behind for another corner. T’other McLaughlin pulled of a decent save at the other end, then we created another chance, this time for O’Nien, but he couldn’t stretch enough to get the decisive touch with the net begging to hit. Watmore replaced Maguire on about 75, and ran about like he does, but it was Gillingham’s Lee who was closest to scoring when he couldn’t quite get on the end of a cross, before McLaughlin gave up waiting for a ball boy (or girl) and jogged up through the seats himself. That just about summed up the game.
All there was left to do was score and save us another trip to Kent, but we couldn’t. McGeady’s oow shot drew a good save, the corner was cleared, and Gillingham went up the other end to force one of their own which we cleared. O’Nien’s frustration got the better of him, and he earned a booking which must put him close to suspension. The groans and boos that greeted the final whistle after another three added minutes were disappointing but entirely understandable, as the game had been nowhere near as exciting to watch as it has been to write about.
Man of the Match? McGeady, because he scored and looked most likely to score again.