My grandparents used to have a saying “gone for a Burton”, referring to something that wasn’t where it was supposed to be, and that’s where our keeper’s handling was on the hour, gifting our visitors with a scarcely-deserved lead. With the manager’s chair yet again vacant, Sunderland entertained Burton Albion at the SoL– and I use the word “entertained” in a sarcastic sense, although they probably had a good laugh at our keeper - and once again failed to break down opponents who’d come to avoid defeat, thanks to our clever combination of a lack of a nippy forward and the lack of a killer pass. Despite having the vast majority of possession, we simply created far too few chances – even if Grigg, from the bench, actually looked like a striker and came closer to scoring than anybody apart from Max Power. Goalless at the break, we lost our first half positivity in the face of a massed defence, conceded a goal of the sort we thought was consigned to the Lee Camp book of quirky goalkeeping (available at 50p from the ALS shop, an ideal Christmas gift), and managed to salvage a point.
As the “powerbrokers” at SAFC search for a new manager and a director of football amongst football’s unemployed and unheard of, we’ve been bombarded with the usual journalistic efforts at a shortlist, and the usual quotes from the Big Book of Football’s Blatantly Obvious Quotes.
“Unfinished business”. G. Poyet
“You have to win football matches”. P. Cook
“Poison chalice”. Half the newspapers
“Sunderland are a huge football with a wonderful history”. D. Cowley
“Here we go again”. Fans of SAFC.
“They get though more managers than your average Wetherspoon’s”. Boris Johnson
…and the rest. In the meantime, as SAFC prepared to make the 45th managerial change of my lifetime, stand-in gaffer for the foreseeable future (the end of the week, according to those “powerbrokers”), Andy Taylor, is the man charged with picking tonight’s team for the game against Burton Albion at the SoL (does it really matter if it’s home or away these days, other than us knowing which way we’re kicking?). Had we been nearing the end of another disappointing season, we could have expected him to make the sort of selections that seem unique to temporary managers – debutant goalkeepers, half the youth team, and a centre half at centre forward. I couldn’t quite see that tonight, as he’s been the first team coach and therefore (presumably) had the same formation in mind as Parky but was absolutely prepared for one or two surprises. Mind, as a Sunderland fan, there should be no such thing as surprises. No alarms and no surprises…and it was no surprise that Gus Poyet’s odds with the bookies plummeted to summat like 1/10 on before his next quote of “where do I sign? Inchredibowl” a lot less surprising. As was the next revelation, that he’s not coming. Will the fans be split on that announcement? Of course, we will… but he’s not coming, with the reason given as he doesn’t want to “our division, even if it is rubbish.
All of which means I can put the Great Escape T-shirt back in the drawer - for a while at least – as the Gus Bus didn’t drop off at the Wheatsheaf, and that the players’ moods probably went up, then plummeted back down. Possibly – and the news that Kitman Cook has gone can’t have helped. Seven years a player, twenty seven doing the kits – if there was ever a nuclear war, I’d have built a bunker out of Cooky, as he’d survived everything – until now. Who’s going to make commemorative T-shirts, hand-crafted with a felt-tip pen, for a Sunderland player to reveal in the (admittedly unlikely) event of a memorable feat of goal-scoring? The end of an era indeed.
McLaughlin Wright Flanagan
O’Nien Power © Scowen Leadbitter Hume
Well, I, sat in front of a coal fire with a bottle of Maximus, hoped that young Embo was going to be up and around the pointy end to nip around Charlie. Having said that, the new manager, however temporary, is the old first team coach, so I shouldn’t have expected anything radically different to previous games. We set up defending the North Stand, Burton kicked off, and put it straight out for a home goal kick, which pretty much summed up their first-half game plan. Our first attack saw Wyke win it on the right, and when the eventual cross went right out the back, Hume’s return was cleared to Power, whose shot from the edge deflected over for a corner on the left. After that was cleared, McLaughlin took Hume’s deep cross to weave into the box as only defenders can weave, but then shot as only defenders can shoot, his low effort to the near post being no problem to the keeper. However, the first five minutes were virtually all Red and White, which was encouraging. Enbleton had indeed started up alongside Wyke, but then started dropping deeper before settling in with Scowen behind Chas. Hume and Embleton swapped passes, but Denver’s low cross was cleared, when a bit more accuracy in his attempt to get it back to Embo would have seen at least a shot on target.
Good chasing and harrying by Wyke gave Burton a throw instead of a goalkick as we strove to deny the visitors any time on the ball, with the sort of challenge that would have drawn an appreciative from the crowd, had there been one. Unfortunately, he sat down soon after – an indication that the tackle had done him more harm than good when the defender had fallen on top of him. Only twelve minutes in, and a change looked like it might be necessary as he trudged gingerly off the pitch. Smelling salts, quickly!
A free kick – the first we’d conceded, on 14, which is a bit later than in recent games – was floated straight over the goal line as Burton wasted the opportunity to create something. Leadbitter found Hume, who refused to cross early, but Flanagan’s cross from the cut-back found O’Nien at the back post. Luke’s volleyed cross was poked away from the penalty spot when a goal was looking a possibility. At least we were keeping the ball moving and not spending an age going across and back again. Hume’s cross after a good switch of direction went for a corner, which Embleton took - and which was cleared from the front post. Not a good one, Elliot.
We won a free kick in a central position thirty yards out, which Embo took with his left (he seems to use either depending on where he is) and we kept the pressure on, the move ending when Wright’s header across wasn’t attacked by Wyke – still suffering from his earlier injury, or just not that sort of forward? He was away soon after chasing McLaughlin’s ball down the right, but he looked to be limping as O’Nien’s attempted cross won us a corner on the right. Trying to run it off? Having got nothing in the opening twenty minutes, Burton pushed an extra man up front, on the left, and were rewarded with a bit more of the ball, but nothing we couldn’t deal with. We changed things as well, with Wyke going straight down the tunnel as Graham, who’s reverted to shaggy hair from man bun, replaced him on 25, with Charlie presumably heading onto the already crowded treatment table. Wright, having done well to repel a couple of aerial attacks, gave away a free when the third came in, then was on hand to nod over our own bar at the expense of a corner on our left. Thankfully, the resultant header went straight to Matthews. Leadbitter again found the onrushing Hume, and this time the cross was early – but Wyke height, not Scowen height, and the header went looping over the top and onto the Roker End flags.
The ball stayed with us, and Power fed McLaughlin, who was fouled as his opponent slipped – but still got a yellow. Embo swung it in with his right, then got it back after it was cleared, setting up Power to clip a ball over the top – but nobody was expecting that as the half hour ticked by. A foul on O’9 on halfway as he won a header gave us possession again, and we sent Hume away before it came back to the right and we had to show patience as the visitors got back in numbers. We probed away, but with eight or nine yellow shirts goal side of the ball, there were no gaps. Embo and O’9 swapped passes to gain ground and win a throw on the right, and we built again but found the Brewers had gone ten behind the ball – not counting the keeper, and he’d only had the one, simple, save to make from McLaughlin. For all our possession in the opening 38 minutes, that’s all we’d got on target.
A show of strength (a proper dunsh) by Graham won us a throw on the right, but Power’s cross was headed clear with Leadbitter being pulled off the ball as he retrieved it. Scowen’s cross into the box was kicked off Graham’s toes by the keeper- unorthodox but effective – as we, once again, bemoaned our lack of a proper fox in the box. At this stage of the season, I’d settle for any kind of canine, to be honest. Leadbitter eventually picked up the loose ball and knocked a defender off his feet with a powerful drive into the face. Drop ball, once their lad had picked himself up and counted his teeth.
Two added minutes were announced, with the pessimists amongst us (realists, actually) praying that we did nowt wrong in that time while the optimists prayed for a late breakthrough to take us into halftime with something to smile about. We got 0-0, so it could have been better, it could have been worse. We’d started brightly enough, and continued in the vein, but, as has been typical of late, not created enough clear-cut openings. For all our advantage in terms of possession, which was massively in our favour, they’d had just as many shots on target. Again, not having a nippy forward hasn’t helped, but at least Scowen, and in particular Embleton, had looked more like giving support. Still, at least we weren’t getting beat – and far from being satisfied, that’s just being realistic.
Would Maguire be straight on to provide the cunning to prise open a massed Burton defence? Would Grigg be more of a mobile option in the box? The answer to these, and many other questions, will either be answered after these messages from our advertisers - or not.
No changes for the second half, with Embo setting things away and McLaughlin launching it to Graham, who flicked it on, but only to the keeper. Keep possession, man Conor! The same player, Edwards, who’d slipped into McLaughln to get yellow in the first, was over again and hurt the same player - get some proper studs before you break somebody, mate!
Instead of starting the half brightly, we’d conceded possession with that McLaughlin launch, and then lack of concentration by Hume gave the visitors a throw. Get ahead of it, Lads, and get back into their half of the field. Power, O’9, and Scowen exchanged passes only for the eventual cross to be cleared, then Hume crossed to the penalty spot where Embo couldn’t connect properly and Scowen, arriving at the back post, managed an effort which the keeper was grateful to drop on, right at the foot of the post. That’s better, Lads, but oh, for an SKP – and not as manager.
O’9’s attempted header went off his opponent’s back and thus won a corner on our right, which was taken by the keeper. Graham almost got in on the edge of the box after Scowen played it across, but a defender got a boot to the ball as Danny looked to turn. A nice interception by Flan, as they looked to build an attack, set us up to move forward, and Power eventually got in a cross which Embo shouldered up into the air and the keeper’s hands under the bar. Scowen chased a ball down the right and crossed, with a couple of half clearances following before we won a corner. There followed a couple of crosses that found Graham, but he had at least two opponents on top of him and couldn’t do anything positive with them. The crosses, not the opponents.
A Burton attack looked to be no more danger than anything they’d constructed previously, as we held them outside the box, and when a shot that was no more than half-decent came in from distance, Matthews went down at his left-hand post. What should have been a routine save (ie Lee Camp would have been expected to hold it)saw the ball bounce off his chest and bobble into the middle of the box – and thence into the net via a no doubt sniggering Vernon . That’s Burton’s game plan working a treat – sit deep, get bodies in the way of anything we could manage, and hit us on the break. Oh, and pray for a howler.
Our sixth corner, on the right, from Embo found Wright at the back post, and his header produced another corner and a subsequent bout of head tennis. We kept the ball up and around the Burton box, but they’d had an hour of practice at defending, and there was no way through. A Scowen drive was a yard wide, and Burton took a deep breath, hoofed it up-field and won a free-kick for handball, then a throw as they produced their most creative football of the evening and our subs lined up to take their chance at changing things.
We moved it from a throw-in on the left to the right, from where Embo cut inside and fired over the top. On came Grigg for Flan to give Graham another experienced forward to work with, and Maguire for Embleton, to add a bit of guile, in the last twenty minutes. O’9 dropped deeper as we reshaped into a back four, but it was Burton who built the next attack, winning a corner on our right. Instead of being up for a fight, our heads seemed to go down and we let Burton start to play football and put us under sustained pressure for the first time. We’d gone from at least being on the front foot to playing two forward passes then three back – and got sloppy with it, Wright’s loose pass allowing a Burton break that thankfully ended in our keeper’s arms. His clearance helped us build a decent attack – and that ended when Grigg got to a cross from the right to beat the keeper with a clever near-post header that came back off that near post. Bugger, that deserved better, and he followed that almost immediately with another header that looped beyond the far post, before Graham had a shot saved and fired the rebound wide. Oh, ha’way man, Danny!
Burton swapped Powell for Gallacher with nine to go – probably another defender to counter the little bit of an upturn in our attitude in the previous couple of minutes. With six of those minutes remaining, Scowen dug the ball out of a challenge on the edge of the box to feed Hume, and his cross was met on the run by Power’s head. 1-1, thank the Lord. As you’d expect, that put our tails in the air and we looked lively once more. Burton brought on Fox for Quinn, presumably to dull the bit of liveliness we’d shown. Maguire’s whipped pass into the box was only just met by Graham’s head and thus flew wide of the far post – imagine the noise if there’d been a crowd in attendance?
Power played it to Grigg as he drove into the box, but could only fire the return over the top as three added minutes were announced, which Burton immediately extended by replacing their scorer, Vernon. A very late one on O’9 gave us a free, and presumably even more added time, on half-way. As Luke didn’t look like jumping up and being his usual effervescent self, holding his shoulder and making unpleasant noises that reached my front room when it was touched, Sanderson made ready to come on – as we had no more forwards to choose from. The free was swapped between Leadbitter and Maguire down the right rather than packing the box and launching it in – arrrgh man, with so few minutes left just hoy the thing in and see what happens - then Hume’s floated ball went straight to the keeper before we pushed forward again, with Leadbitter blasting over as the ball bounced up a bit too high for him in the box. A Maguire shot was a couple of yards wide from distance an instant before the ref put us out of our misery and ended it.
In terms of chances, we’d produced nowhere near as many as our overall possession warranted, and in the second half our heads went down after gifting Burton their goal – with half an hour still to play, that was not acceptable, even if we did regain a bit of life and get a leveller. The stats will paint a more attractive picture that the TV coverage, claiming that we had 71% possession (believable), twenty shots (eh?), of which five were on target (eh?) and eight corners to their two (that’s fine, I counted them). Strange definition of shots, I reckon.
Attendance –four, in the shape of two inflatable cats at either end of the East Stand. Best of the season.
Man of the Match? I can’t give it to anybody up front, despite Gregg actually looking like a forward for the short time he was on the pitch – can’t Danny Collins play up front? - and you have to feel sorry for the defence, as they did nowt wrong defensively, perhaps discounting the odd misplaced pass out, one of which may or may not have allowed Burton build the attack from which their goal came - and not including the keeper, for obvious reasons. Leadbitter did his usual stuff, Power looked happier not having to sit deep, Scowen scurried about, and Embleton looked positive in a more advanced role – but none of them provided a killer pass or arrived to take advantage of a layoff (of which there were few, admittedly), until too late. So, despite it being too late for a win, and despite that fact that I’m not that interested in draws, Power gets it for scoring a good goal.
A manager by the weekend? Don’t hold your breath – Taylor is unbeaten and could therefore be handed the job whether he wants it or not. Stranger things have happened, and this is SAFC we’re talking about. And, as we moved up a place, I’m off down the Welcome for a celebratory pint… oh, hang on, they don’t open on a Tuesday. Go for a Burton was an old advertising slogan that referred to going for a Burton Ale. Chance would be a fine thing.