Sunderland took on Gillingham for the fourth time this season and passed up the chance to finish the day a single point off the top two. Two delicious balls were tucked away by Lafferty for his first Sunderland goals, but we conceded two scruffy equalisers, the second with seconds to go, to end up level and send the fans home desperately disappointed.
Those of us who have been screaming for the inclusion of Declan John to be given a chance in place of Hume would do well to remember two things. Firstly, you’d never heard of him until he arrived, and secondly, you’ve never seen him play. Calling for a slight tweak to the team is fair enough, but calling for wholesale changes is nonsense – next thing you’ll be believing the Sunderland Echo headlines that read “Sunderland fans fume as Cats fails to add seventh goal – and here’s five reasons why.” Look, we’re not far off, and we’re a lot closer than we were at Christmas, so let’s be sensible about any changes that we shout for and hope that Parky is sensible about any changes he does decide to make. Perhaps Lafferty or even Grigg, who might well benefit from our current formation, could come in, but one thing we shouldn’t change is that current formation. It works, simple as that.
Perhaps those people should be concerning themselves with the current health scare – I’ve taken it seriously enough to buy a pair of Lee Camp’s goalkeeping gloves. Let’s face it, he caught nowt when he wore them.
O'Nien Flanagan Ozturk Willis Hume
Maguire Lafferty Goooooch (predictive text)
There you go, no Wyke, and his absence from the bench would suggest an injury. Whatever the reason, Lafferty had a potential 90 minutes to establish himself.
After a big roar, which boded well for the atmosphere, they kicked off north.
The most obvious ever shirt pull on Lafferty went unpunished - we could see it, why not the ref? - sort of setting the tone for that side of the game. We survived the first five minutes, which was a positive given our last couple of attempts. After a fair amount of probing down the wings, chiefly trying to take advantage of Hume's pace - and why not? - we won a couple of corners on our left. As we tried to play it across to the right, there was a naughty one on O'Nien and Gillingham started with what quickly became their default position - haranguing the ref at every decision that went against them.
We didn't make anything of that dead ball, and the ref thought either no action or a brief word was sufficient in dealing with the time-wasting. By twenty past three, they'd done it half a dozen times and not received a yellow. Really, ref... assert your authority, man!
Half an hour in, Willis and O'Nien swapped passes, and when Hume of all people won the header at the back post, Gooch was onto it and a goal looked on the cards, but their keeper got himself in the way and the chance was gone.
He eventually got sick of it and, after waving a yellow at Oz (no rugby tackles in the second half) they conceded a free forty yards out and central. No angle for Maguire to work with, but he got one when he played it really right to O'Nien on the edge of the box and Luke was chopped down. I think he booked three of them, mebbe two, before Maguire's free hit a head in the wall.
Two minutes were added, but nothing much happened in them and we went into the break goalless.
Dave Watson, freshly inaugurated into our Hall of Fame, did the halftime draw to great applause, which was doubtless increased by the video clips from '73. I'll happily admit to something getting in my eye watching that. What a player.
There were no changes for the second half, but we conceded an early corner which Maguire did well to defend but then gave it straight back to the visitors. He had a couple of frees, either side of the field after fouls on Gooch and O'Nien (probably the tenth foul on Luke) but the first was cleared and the second sailed over the bar.
There was a good save by McLaughlin when a shot came in low from distance ten minutes into the half, with Oz completing the clearance, as Gillingham reminded us that they posed a threat if we allowed them forward.
Power's low cross from the right looked perfect but was cleared, then their keeper flapped at a higher one and Hume rolled it to Lafferty, who shot low and a foot wide of the near post on the turn. Close, but not close enough.
O'Nien's run into the box and to the line ended with another low cross that looked perfect, but it was somehow kept out.
McLaughlin saved again when they broke into the box, then we got it upfield. After a bit of patient play down the left, Hume dinked in a perfect cross for Lafferty to stoop onto. 1-0, 63 minutes, and the Lafferty fan club in front of me went into overdrive.
Ten minutes later, and after a few breaks down either side, we conceded a throw on our left and didn't clear it, allowing the scruffiest of equalisers to follow. Mandron, of all people, three substitute appearances for SAFC. t could have got even worse a couple of minutes later but for another fine McLaughlin save at the expense of a corner.
With ten to go, we went flat at the back with Semanyo replacing Oz.
The next moment was our George winning a tackle on halfway and placing a pass perfectly into Lafferty's path. He carried it straight at the keeper and popped it away from just inside the box.
Brilliant... and his fanclub went off on it again. Maguire, job done, made way for Scowen on 84, and a few minutes later Lynch replaced Hume.
Semanyo did well to keep the ball in on the right and cut inside into the box. Yet another low cross looked perfect, but they half cleared it and their keeper dropped Power's shot from outside the box but recovered to grab it just in time.
Six added minutes were announced -three goals, loads of substitutions, the nonsense with their coach losing his rag, bits of time-wasting, you get the picture.
In the dying seconds of the sixth of those minutes, they hoyed in a long throw, it was only half cleared, and the equaliser was fired in low to McLaughlin's right. Mandron, of all people, three substitute appearances for SAFC.
Then the whistle went, signalling what felt like a defeat for us and no doubt a victory for the visitors, who sang we'll see you next year." Many more results like today and they probably will. We'd had a couple of moments in the first half and three or four in the second when a goal seemed inevitable, but the visitors had somehow cleared, Someone like, say, Maja would almost certainly had as hat-trick if presented with the chances we created this afternoon - just saying, like. On the other hand we'd seen McLaughlin produce three cracking saves after the break - probably from Mandron - to keep us in the game.
Man of the Match? I was tempted by Maguire, as ever, and even our George, if only for the tackle and pass that set up our second… and Lafferty scored twice. However, the three crucial saves by McLaughlin in the second half means that he gets the nod today.