In a game that was pretty well devoid of Christmas cheer, Sunderland fought their way to a goal-free draw with Bolton, in the way that fought means sort of flapped limp-wristed slaps at each other for ninety minutes. Folks have dubbed it the worst game they’ve seen, but that depends on your and their definition of worst – is it worse to watch today’s toothless tumble, to watch us lose by a hatful at Everton, Chelsea, or Southampton, or that home game (Fulham or Charlton? I forget) when we’d have lost even if the opposition had failed to arrive?
I’ll leave it up to you to decide, but as passions are running high - or rather, and embarrassingly, low – at the moment, I suspect many of you will choose today’s game as your personal nadir….and I can’t blame you. In today’s circumstances, with our current league position, and with the current mood around the club, it’s hardly surprising. Club officials leaving, senior players being telt to find another club, and rumours about things behind the scenes being just as iffy as on the field mean that it’s not a great time to be a Sunderland fan.
It being Boxing Day, there was an expectation of the traditional Bumper Crowd, and our bus made that look rather accurate –but only by the standards set in recent weeks. There was the usual pre-match dissection of the team selection in the Isis, fuelled by Rossy’s spicy sausage pies and our Molly’s jam tarts. The general consensus was that if we were playing three at the back, then Flanagan needed to be on the right. Once in the ground, it was noticeable that many had made the effort to be in in time for the appreciation of former players, club officials, and fans who have passed away in the last year. So what if the music and the silence was far from perfectly timed? – it was well observed, and the feelings of the crowd were palpable after the names of Ivor Broadis, Nigel Saddington, Martin Harvey, and Billy Hughes boomed over the PA system. The montage of images and video clips of Billy’s Sunderland career caused many a Wearside cheek to be stained with its own little teardrop. Mine certainly was.
Anyway, once Bolton, backed by a sizeable following as is traditional, kicked off proceedings towards the north end, we quickly worked out that Flan was as far from right as he could be as we set ourselves up:
O’Nien Ozturk Willis Flanagan Hume
Watmore Wyke Gooch
Personally, I’d have preferred De Bock as the left side of a defensive three, as he’d been sort of solid-ish (only by our standards, mind) last time out, despite the result, but he wasn’t. We started reasonably well, using the pace of Watmore and Gooch to get forward, but the best we got early on was Wyke’s effort being kneed behind for a corner. Leadbitter took it, and, not for the first time this afternoon, it was a decent delivery, but despite the presence of Wyke, Willis, and Flan, was cleared. They did the same with another corner and broke at pace, but when they got it in the box they somehow failed to trouble McLaughlin, hoofing the volley hopelessly wide. After Wyke’s header from yet another corner went over the top on the bounce, they broke again, but this time the same forward (D’Arcy?) brought a good stop from McLaughlin. At this stage, even the most generous of bookies would have suspended betting on no goals being scored, as both sides piled forward – more us than them, to be honest, although with little quality in show from either side – and the visitors had a couple of men booked. Wyke and Watmore had efforts blocked, and O’Nien’s header was saved before the half’s crucial moment. In came the ball, up went Flan, and in went the ball. Celebrations all over the ground (apart from the upper north, obviously) until the ref said no. Folks in the Roker said he’d got there in front of the keeper, the ref said he’d headed the keeper’s hands. Looked a perfectly good goal to me, like – but it’s Sunderland, it’s 2019, and we’re not going to get those decisions going our way. Up to that point, I thought the ref had done a decent job, but I fear the “Sunderland aren’t bigger than me” mentality then clicked in. To our loss, unfortunately.
There was an Ozturk moment, with a loose back pass that meant McLaughlin had to recover his ground to make a crucial stop, then a McLaughlin moment as he took the ball wide to clear, but simply hoofed to Daryl Murphy 35 yards out. Fortunately, Daryl’s pace is somewhere between previous clubs, and we recovered to defend successfully, and two added minutes were announced.
No changes for the second half, and we had Willis to thank for yet another crucial headed interception as Murphy looked set to benefit from a through ball, then on the hour we looked like we were going to score. After Hume broke down the left again, we worked it across the box and laid it back to O’Nien, whose blast from 25 yards was either just wide of the keeper’s left hand post, or just shaved it, depending on who you were sitting/standing next to. Maguire replaced Watmore, and immediately took charge of any free-kicks given to us, but it was at the back that his first action came. Bolton got down their right and crossed for Murphy, who looked certain to invoke the curse of the former player, McLaughlin somehow got a hand to the effort, and Maguire was on hand at the back post to hoof it clear. He then fired in a free kick that was a yard over, drew a good save with another, and generally looked like he might be the player to provide the bit of cleverness to open things up. Inspired by Billy Hughes, the player he would love to be, perhaps.
Flan pulled up hurt after clearing for a throw rather than giving it to McLaughlin, and we thought – OK, mix things up a bit, Parky, their front line has less teeth that Dot Cotton after a bar-room altercation with Phil Mitchell, hoy McNulty on and let’s go for it.
Nah, just do a like-for -like (apart from the replacement actually having a left foot) with De Bock coming on. Which meant more of the same – if the game was won on statistics alone, our corner count would have got us three points, but from open play…well. We got forward often enough, but while Wyke won a fair few high balls, he also lost a fair few to Liam Bridcutt, playing in the heart of the Bolton defence and at 5’ 9” conceding a considerable amount of height, and weight, to our man. Gooch made way for McNulty with about twelve minutes to go, and he repeated what the rest of the team had been doing – getting to the box, but not producing the killer pass or getting on the end of one. Power managed to shoot a Bolton fan with a shot, then McNulty was there onto Hume’s cross, but the keeper was up to it. Maguire’s corner was cleared, five added minutes were announced, and we stumbled our way to a point. At this stage of the season, and with the current mood on Wearside, it was two less than we needed, and the performance was way short of what we needed to lift spirits. With the Bolton fans scant respect for what Parkinson did with them last season - and who can blame them – the mood amongst the departing home fans was anything but seasonal. As I said at the top of the page, whether you’ve seen worse than that depends on a lot of things – age, experience, perspective, how much you’d had to drink – but in our predicament, it doesn’t take much to turn people’s smiles upside down. But it was bloody awful, even “at this level” and that sort of performance is simply not going to get the fans excited or the part-timers interested. Just not good enough.
Man of the Match? We’d have been royally shagged without the presence of Willis, and Hume was a bright spark going forward. You choose between them, I can’t.
By the way, belated Christmas wishes.