On the plus side, it could have been worse. It could have gone to penalties. On the minus side, we crashed out of a third cup competition in as many weeks, thus missing out on a glamour home tie with Doncaster. And we were utterly devoid of invention, losing 1-0 in extra time to a Gillingham side who were little better than us in a thoroughly uninspiring game.
It’s a long and awkward journey to Gillingham (it’s nee Plymouth, mind), which, when added to the facts that we’ve not been much to get excited about of late and nobody seems to care about the FA Cup anyway, explained the low away turnout by our standards. 329 is still some going for a first-round replay 300 miles from home, though.
A fairly uneventful journey in the comfort of ALS tourbus saw us eventually get parked up a few minutes from Priestfield, and, with the keys in my hand meaning no discussions over a pint or two, we had a thorough discussion on our current predicament, whether we should have waited for Pochettino’s availability, and the best way to sneakily charge mobile phones. Despite the Kerplunk stand being closed and us being housed in the Gordon Road Stand’s covered seats (luxury, relative luxury), we had to use the Kerplunk turnstiles despite the Gordon Road stand having some its very own. The usual (for this location and day of the week) smattering of South East based Sunderland followers were easily identified, as they’d brought their kids along – probably ‘cos Santa’s watching – as they mingled with the hardy souls who’d travelled from the rest of the country.
We lined up
Taylor Ozturk De Bock
O’Nien Leadbitter Power Hume
…or if you’re feeling more positive, move Maguire and Watmore up front. We started proceedings attacking to the right of our fans, and it was good to see young Brandon Taylor getting a start – once we’d satisfied ourselves that he was part of a three-man defence and that Hume and O’Nien were indeed playing higher up the field. We had a chance after four minutes when O’Nien was bumped over on the right, and Maguire put in a good free-kick which was cleared. Once we’d done the same to a Gillingham corner conceded by De Bock in heading a dangerous ball behind, we established that our best attacking options were the burrowing runs of O’Nien or the sheer pace of Hume, with Maguire generally supplying the former. We won a number of corners, and with Leadbitter seemingly relieved of quadrant duty, it was Maguire who put them in – but nobody did more than challenge for the ball when it arrived apart from De Bock, who glanced his header beyond the far post. Most of the football (it was a game of football, so let’s call it football) was played in their half, with their breaks generally well dealt with by the defence. Young Taylor was looking confident and pacey, and deceptively good in the air for one of such slight stature. Ozturk was his usual bruising self, while De Bock was doing OK. In short, we were fine at the back but not creating chances at the other end – until Maguire turned away from his marker and set up Power, who carefully picked his spot from outside the box – that spot being Darren from Gravesend in row 22, seat 86. O’Nien actually drew a save from their keeper after cutting gin from the right again, with their man going down smartly at the foot of the near post.
Not much flowing football (copyright SAFC, season 2019-2020), a result of far too many balls, from both sides, spending most of their time in the air. Way up in the air. The ref added a couple of minutes, then when a Leadbitter clearance got stuck on the roof above us (hoof… boom, boom, boom …..nothing) he blew for half-time.
The general consensus (well, me, Winchy, and anyone else I could hear) was that we needed to add some quality – any quality – to our forward play, and it wouldn’t take much to get the better of the Gills, as we’d just shaded a pretty poor quality first 45. That was the theory, at least, but there were no changes for the second half.
Gillingham were on the front foot from the off, pushing us back into our own box, and it we had to produce several agricultural hoofs to get the ball out of the box. De Bock was booked for getting in the way of a throw-in he disagreed with, and they launched the ball forward again. When one clearance didn’t go far enough, Ozturk stopped the incoming thunderbolt with his face and spent a couple of minutes on the deck wondering if he was in York or Cork before resuming. With just over an hour gone, McGeady replaced Watmore, who’d looked a bit lightweight all evening. We all hoped that this was the player who could produce a bit of magic to unlock the home defence – but it never happened.
Grigg, who’d been involved in a running (jogging?) battle with Fuller all game, was unlucky when his cross was blocked and bounce off his head for a goal kick – and this sort of thing happened to us at both ends of the field several times. Unlucky, but good sides are a lot luckier, and a luckier player would have seen his left foot shot go a foot inside the post rather than outside it after taking McGeady’s pass. We felt in our water that a home goal was coming, but they were no more accurate in front of Burge than we were at the other end, and the next action was O’Nien being booked for what I can only assume the ref saw as an elbow as he challenged for another Burge punt.
As the ref was adding four minutes, Power’s attempted cross (I hope it wasn’t a shot) landed way up in the empty Kerplunk Stand, and phone calls were made to announce extra time and therefore extra-late arrivals home.
Ozturk didn’t emerge for the restart, being replaced by Jack Bainbridge in a like-for-like swap –presumably Oz was pooped after his first game in a while – and the young Lad did OK. Gills were far livelier than us, and as the first fifteen drew to a close, a looping shot hit the face of Burge’s crossbar, and there were big shouts for a home penalty. It didn’t look like on to me, but I wouldn’t have been surprised had it been awarded, and almost immediately things took a turn for the worse. Another Sunderland clearance hit somebody and bounced off a defender, allowing Hanlan to fire low across the helpless Burge and into the far corner.
Score twice in fifteen minutes? You have to shoot a lot more than we did to make that happen, and it didn’t. The ball spent most of those final fifteen out of my view, as it was usually at an altitude likely to distract holidaymakers on their final descent to Gatwick than to entertain those in the ground. Large passages of play, up to a dozen passes, went by without ball and grass making contact with each other, and at times the game resembled a head tennis contest. A poor head tennis contest, and I don’t think I’ve been to a game where the ball was out of sight in the air for so long.
A bot more added time, and that was it. No more cups for us, and another unwanted free weekend at the end of the month. Where were the passing triangles that make teams effectives? Where were the balls long the ground and into the inside-forward channels that turn defenders? Where were the killer crosses, and where were the forwards turning to create space for a shot or a lay-off? Nowt complicated there, but none of it happened. Defensively, we were OK, but creatively it’s as if we’ve become haunted by an energy vampire who’s sucked the imagination out of us. Plenty of time on the way home to contemplate these issues as the A14 disintegrated into a series of diversions that made Spaghetti Junction look like a straightforward T-junction, and the A19 was closed at Stockton. Time out of bed, 22 hours. Miles driven, 650. Satisfaction gained, nil.
Man of the Match? Brandon Taylor, who, like Bainbridge, looks like there’s actually a decent footballer inside. Let’s hope he proves that while still with SAFC.