Sunderland followed up their functional, disciplined, and effective performance in Wiltshire at the weekend with a narrow but well-deserved win over a Crewe side, who for nearly 80 minutes were a perfect example of the old adage that stupidity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Wyke’s header (or was it?)on the stroke of half-time was the decisive and, somehow, only goal of a fairly lop-sided affair as we peppered the visiting defence with crosses and corners from both flanks without creating many clear-cut chances, although Power and Wright missed glorious second-half opportunities to sew things up.
You have to have been around a while to remember our last game against Crewe, a 1-0 victory at Gresty Road thanks to a 58th minute goal by Stephen Elliott, who’d only been on the field for four minutes, in March 2005. That win backed up a 3-1 win the previous August (when Billy Jones and David Vaughan featured for Crewe – makes you feel old, eh?), and was a bit of revenge for a League Cup defeat in the September, when we lost on penalties after extra time – a game in which Chris Brown scored twice, 25 years and two weeks after his dad Alan scored twice, including a last-minute equaliser, at Sid James Park in the same round of the same competition. That night, my birthday, we won the penalty shoot-out. There’s one for the pub quiz, when such things make a comeback.
Given the injury situation in the centre of our defence with Flan’s ban and Willis’s ankle, the impressive return of McLaughlin on Saturday has been a bonus, as has the arrival of Sanderson and the adaptability of O’Nien. It’s why we have a squad – and Parky used it for tonight’s selection, although the personnel didn’t make the formation blindingly obvious…
McLaughlin Wright O’Nien
Gooch Power © Scowen Leadbitter Hume
I initially put Gooch at right wingback as he’s less one-footed than Hume, rather than mess with the formation and have Gooch in midfield/up front. Most notable amongst the visitors were Mandron, who effectively ended our season last time around with a last minute equaliser at home to Gillingham, and Will Jaasklelainen – son of Old Flappyhands himself, provider of that dive that had Magic Johnson struggling not to laugh as his shot curled in at the North End. Like father like son - here’s hoping.
Crewe, in their tie-dye kit, set things away towards the North End, which is how it should be, and both sides seemed happy to indulge in the usual five minutes of generally scrappy play as they settled into their formations. Perhaps the fact that Crewe’s players had been out taking selfies before the match was in indication of their attitude - it’s their Wembley.
Anyhow, once that initial five minutes was out of the way they appeared content to try and do something that they, like Swindon at the weekend, aren’t very good at, and play it out from the back. With Mandron as the lone striker, all we had to do was push him back and their forward passing had nowhere to go. We simply waited for their forward attempts to break, or be broken, down, and we were off, with Leadbitter doing the sitting and looking, then either playing it short to Scowen or Power or longer to Gooch or Hume. McLaughlin got his range of passing in as well, favouring the cross-field effort to Hume. Our two wingbacks pinged in crosses – we knew Gooch had two feet, but Hume appears to have found his right one – which were close but not close enough. Scowen was on corner duty, and put in decent efforts from both sides, to the front post, the back post, and low towards the edge of the box. Basically, we penned Crewe back in the final third, and their threat to our goal had fizzled away after the break which O’Nien and Leadbitter had cleared in the first couple of minutes, and O’Nien had got in the way of a shot at the expense of a corner after Hume was outmuscled. Wyke had taken a nice ball from Maguire and turned well on the edge of the box but put his shot over the top.
McLaughlin had a free-kick chance on 25 minutes after being fouled when taking a cut-back from Wyke, and looked to replicate his Carlisle goal – this time hitting it over the wall and a foot over the top with the keeper flat-footed. Close. The rest of the half was a story of Gooch and Hume continuing the runs and crosses, with the former even trying a shot with his right peg that went gently to the keeper, and the latter showing great determination to get to the line and dink in one that somehow didn’t find a Sunderland shirt but eventually dropped to Maguire on the edge of the box, who fired a foot wide of the far post. He then cut inside and worked a yard of space to curl one of his left-footers onto the top of the net as we simply didn’t let Crewe make any progress out of their defensive third. Burge had to be down sharply as they threatened to run into our box, then it was the turn of Maguire to shoot again, but this time a deflection took it wide for yet another corner. As the break approached, we could be forgiven for being more than a little frustrated that we hadn’t scored, then Maguire found Gooch again, and our favourite Californian curled a lovely cross behind the defence to the back post where Wyke arrived with his marker to nod home, although the goal has been given to that marker, Luke Offord. I’m sure he’d rather Charlie was given the nod, but we’ll take that. Cue a sigh of relief all along the Wear and beyond. As we celebrated, the single added minute was announced, then the whistle went and we all nipped off to put the kettle on/grab another can/bottle.
No more than we deserved, and probably a narrower lead than our general play merited, but we’re not a side bursting with prolific goalscorers.
No changes for the second half, and we conceded the first off side after a minute when we got too far of ourselves down the right. Power, Hume, Maguire, and Scowen combined from the middle to the left and back, only to see Josh’s shot blocked. We had to do a spot of defending, with Wright proving too strong for their man after he’d flicked the ball up and into the box, and it ended, eventually, with a corner to Crewe. Beckles got his head to a cross that came down with snow on it, but Burge collected under the bar quite comfortably. We continued with our game of pressing the visitors back, and they continued to try and play it out from the back – and probably wondered why they were constantly having to turn and chase back when Mandron lost the ball near halfway. Leadbitter broke up another foray forward by Crewe, and found what looked like a hopeful hoof up to the left dropped perfectly to Hume, who turned past his man and played it inside to Power, then got to the return pass and crossed. Wyke's effort was blocked, and the ball broke perfectly for Max a yard or so inside the box – but he put it over the bar. Bad miss, and that should have sealed the result. Crewe then did try something different, swapping the bulky Powell for Dale ten minutes into the half, but their tactics remained unchanged.
Hume was continuing to have a big influence on our forward play, firstly moving upfield and finding Wyke, who was unable to turn, then taking a pass from Power but hitting right foot shot that was slightly weaker than a half of shandy. Gooch, not to be outdone, cut inside and let fly with another left-footer, but it went straight in the arms of the keeper at the near post – surely, a second goal was on its way. It wasn’t as if we were on tenterhooks because Crewe were threatening anything, but we are, after all Sunderland, and nowt’s impossible.
Hume showed his new-found tackling ability with a smasher to set up a break, and when Wyke tipped it past the keeper outside the box on the right, he was flattened. Yellow, with the ref probably writing “Will” in his notebook rather than bother with the whole “son of flappyhands” business. Scowen clipped it in, it evaded the entire defence, and Wright showed why he’s a defender by diving in and heading it into the turf from a couple of yards out, only to see it bounce up and over the bar. Should have been three, never mind two.
Crewe made their other two subs, Hume was pulled back by Ng, and I assume the ref wrote his full name in the book. We continued to work hard when they had the ball and look relaxed but energetic (if that’s possible) when we had it, and Gooch looked to be on his way to emulating his last goal when he worked past the defence, but hit the keeper in the face with his shot. That one was unlucky. On 73, we brought on O’Brien for Maguire, and he continued where Chris had left off by drifting across the field, but showing a preference for popping up on the left. A few minute after that, a strange thing happened, and Crewe began to keep ahold of the ball further up the field, which meant some determined defending was required. Wright continued to stand firm, and O’Nien did really well, winning the ball and carrying it out of the danger area at least twice. Dobson replaced Scowen on 83, and worked hard to get in the box and see a shot blocked as we sought to counter the visitors’ increased liveliness nearer our goal. With five to go, Flan replaced Gooch, and we swapped things around a bit at the back, with McLaughlin taking Gooch’s place and Flan going more central.
Four added minutes were announced, and rather than spur Crewe to continue their pressure, it seemed to be the signal to give up – mind, the fact that Power, Leadbitter, O’Nien, and our George were ratting at them like demented terriers probably had something to do with it. We ened the game with a corner on the left, which, rather than put into the box, O’Brien played short to Wyke, and the pair of them clarted about with the ball until the ref ended it.
Another win, and one that should have been way more comfortable. The scoreline suggests a close contest, and it was anything but a contest for almost 80 minutes. Hopefully, our defence will remain as resolute and effective for the rest of the season against teams with a whole lot more attacking nous than Crewe, who were for the majority of the game, pretty grim trying to play their game, and pretty useless in creating chances. If they’d been feeding Mandron food instead of football, he’d have been off into the concourse for a burger by half-time. I’m not going to get too upset that we didn’t score more, as it’s hard to get upset about a match that’s essentially a television programme – and a pretty poor quality one at that, with the stream flashing black at times before freezing completely for a minute or so. Not good stuff for a tenner a pop.
The result leaves us where we were before the game, in 5th place, but if you look at the table, we’ve only let one goal in, which is pretty good going – and an even more impressive stat when you consider that was a penalty barely a minute into the season.
Man of the Match? Missed chances from non-forwards apart, nobody had a bad game. In a victory as one-sided as this, you’d love it to a forward who’s just bagged a hat-trick, but we’re not that sort of side. Our game is built on a solid defence, and patient and efficient central midfield, and pace down the flanks. Today, Wright was a rock, O’Nien was as willing as ever to win headers and do the carrying out of danger, while there was nothing wrong with McLaughlin’s game. However, it’s Grant the anchor that gets my vote, as he once again dictated play.
I think Pompey on Saturday will be a sterner test (let’s face it, they’d have to try pretty hard to be as toothless as Crewe) but we have belief in the system that we play, and our defence makes sure that Burge is the least-employed of our players – which is how it should be. Bring on the chimes, we’re not scared of them.