Still smiling after a week or so that was anything but typical Sunderland (other than the continuing injury problems) we were off to Gresty Road for the first time in nearly sixteen years – when Sleeves Elliott, on the field for barely four minutes, scored the only goal – and on the anniversary of “that” Man City game in 1973 when Billy Hughes (2) and Bobby Kerr were on target in one of Roker’s most memorable games. Thanks to a pair of late belters, we scraped a point after being two down at the break, with subs Jones and Maguire the scorers. For the majority of the game, we’d been a poor second to a lively Crewe side who marked McGeady very tightly and kept us on the back foot as we struggled to cope with their two big lads up front. Five changes in the 55th minute and one ten minutes after that made the difference for us, with the pace of Jones and the deliveries of Maguire a constant threat.
Good news still pours in regarding the reorganisation of the academy, and KLD’s commitment to it, while the fans have decided to sell virtual tickets for the Papa John’s Trophy final, with the proceeds going to charity. The initial target of £10,000 is a distant memory, as, at around 11am, the running total stood at over £50,000 thanks to the generosity of our followers and a very sizeable donation from Stewart Donald. On the field, it seemed likely that O’9 would continue as part of a three-man back line (strange how dull that formation seemed under Parky and how energetic is seems under Johnson), which would allow us to stay unchanged – never change a winning team is a football adage that seems to have gone out of the window, especially in the Prem – and I’d be happy with that. Out of all the technical and tactical terminology that Lee Johnson has been using, (“the slide” “high press”, all that sort of stuff) has come a side with a winning mentality and a growing sense of togetherness – and that’s the stuff from which good things are achieved. Enthusiasm is also part of that, and exemplifying that is O’9 (“even when he falls over, he does it with passion and intensity” L. Johnson) whose attitude must be spreading across the squad.
Had there been a pre-match cocktail stop, it would probably have been in Knutsford, and the chat would probably have been of the aforementioned Man City anniversary, augmented by the only time I’d been to Sid James Park and shouted for the home side. That was Blyth Spartans in 1978, against Wrexham in the FA Cup. As it was, I made do with pretending it was a home game and cracking open a new box of Jelly Babies (thanks, Jack & Molly) as the Crewe manager told us how unhappy with his squad, as it contains “six number eights and six right-footed central midfielders” - and Mickael Mandron. We were once again described as the “Big Guns of Sunderland in one of the games of the season”.
There was, in fact, a change to the line-up, with Leadbitter dropping to the bench alongside Matthews, Maguire, Diamond, Winchester, Jones, and Vokins.
McLaughlin, Sanderson, O'Nien
Gooch, Power (c), Scowen, McFadzean
O'Brien, Wyke, McGeady
As ever, we lined up defending the goal to the left of the camera, in our away kit of blue tops and socks and red shorts, and Goochy set things away in bright spring sunshine with no apparent wind. We started brightly, obviously keen to impose ourselves on the game before Crewe had any chance to get hold of things. A decent move down the right ended with O’Brien cut along the edge of the box and scooped the game’s first effort over the top a couple of minutes in. Crewe’s plan seemed to be a longish ball forward whenever the opportunity arose, which we dealt with – but then McGeady misplaced a pass coming out of defence. There was a big shout for a penalty when the ball was clipped into our box, but I think their man fell as much as was knocked, and the appeals quickly dissipated.
This seemed to give Crewe heart, and they piled into us, causing a few scares in the box as we spent a couple of minutes very much on the back foot and being grateful for an offside. Our defence looked to have reverted to a foursome, with McLaughlin on the right and McFadz on the left, and O’9 and Sanderson in the middle. The commentator got McGeady and O’Brien mixed up, making for some interesting comments when O’Brien crashed over the Radio Stoke hoarding on our right and eventually emerged rubbing his head. Play restarted with a bounce ball, as nobody had really seen what had happened. Burge then hesitated as the ball came through, and Sanderson did well to pick up the pieces and clear.
As we passed ten minutes, the home side were very much on top, and Burge had to be sharp to drop on a decent shot from the edge of the box. A bit of battling by Wyke helped to alleviate the pressure, but couldn’t prevent the ball being shielded out for a goal kick, and Crewe won a free on halfway when it was cleared. Thankfully, Wyke was back to head away, and we gradually passed it over halfway. A good strike from O’Brien, lurking at the edge of the box, couldn’t be held by the keeper as it dipped, and Wyke could only slash the loose ball wide – but was given offside anyway. A good effort, and a sign that we were starting to click – and with 17 minutes gone, it was about time. Gooch’s clever pass found O’Brien and his attempted cross won us a corner on the right. Geads put it right onto the penalty spot, but it was a Crewe boot that got there first and Sanderson had to battle Mandron again and conceded a foul. This was looped into our box, but the header went up and dropped over the bar, with Burge having it covered.
We made an awful mess of defending our own throw in as Sanderson let it run across him in the box but got back to head away from the post when the ball was lobbed over Burge, then the corner drew a decent tip over from our keeper. Thankfully, he took the corner comfortably, but the Alex continued to be the better side, pinging some good cross-field passes about. Gooch tried a shot, but it barely had the legs to get to the keeper as we built an attack and held Crewe up their end for a brief while. More desperate defending kept Burge’s goal intact as the half hour approached, but then Mandron rolled the ball across the box and set up a simple tap-in for Porter. To be perfectly honest, it had been coming, and we needed to get hold of the game as Johnson paced around the technical area clearly unhappy. It nearly got worse a minute later as Crewe made a mess of a really good chance with our defence all over the shop. According to Radio Stoke, we hadn’t found our rhythm yet, and that was an understatement.
McFadz then saw yellow for wrestling his man to the ground in a pretty clumsy fashion, but Crewe under-hit the free-kick then over-hit the loose ball for a goal kick. When we tried to break down the left, the home side seemed to have twice as many man and they allowed us no room to get through. With 37 gone, we lost the ball in the middle and Crewe came down our right, before switching it to Mandron on the right of the box, and he did a little step-over before pulling it back from the line for Crewe’s second tap-in, this time from Lowery. That was awful stuff, Sunderland, allowing the curse of the former player to strike twice in the form of two assists, and being very much second best all over the field.
Scowen danced into a shooting position and saw his effort deflected for a corner on our left, but it was headed clear of the near post, then Gooch carried back forward to win another corner which was well defended once our header dropped in the box. At least we were looking a bit livelier in the last five minutes, with Gooch’s cross from the right being claimed comfortably by their keeper. There was a moment of promise when O’Brien ran into the area, but he had two defenders all over him and couldn’t get a shot away, then two added minutes were announced. According to the Radio Stoke commentators, Crewe are notorious for throwing away leads - nice of them to remind us.
An awful half from Sunderland, and a very good one for Crewe – apparently the best they’ve played this season. Typical, but the score-line was no more than they deserved as we’d simply not got going. How to get going? Perhaps go to what had been working for us in the last few games, and put three defenders to battle their two big forward with McFadz and Gooch doing the wingback thing. Whatever it was, it needed doing if we were to get anything other a thumping from the game, and it’d almost certainly take more than me biting the legs off the green Jelly Babies to make Crewe’s keeper fall over. We’d had marginally more possession, but Crewe had been much more positive, and obviously effective, when they did have the ball – and, in typical Sunderland style, the sun, that had been in our keeper’s eyes in the first half, would be behind a stand for the second and thus not trouble their last line of defence.
No changes for the second half, which was a bit of a surprise, and we had to defend the initial Crewe surge forward, then Gooch gave away another free out on our right – perhaps he had gone to wing-back. Scowen’s throw from the left found Wyke in the box, but he couldn’t control it and the threat was gone as the ball ran under him for a goal kick. Gooch carried it along the edge of the box then set up McGeady for a cross, then Power’s pass to the edge was whacked off Wyke’s toes. Gooch got to the by-line but couldn’t pull it back far enough and the keeper gathered at the near post as we looked a bit more positive. No that positive, though, as Crewe carved us apart down their right and we didn’t deal with the low cross – thankfully, there was an offside flag to save our blushes. We then built an attack, with Wyke getting it out to the right, and O’Brien scooping a first-time shot from the resultant ball into the box over his own shoulder, but it dropped just over the bar.
Ten minutes into the half, Wyke burst onto McGeady’s clever pass and fired just over as the subs lined up to make their entrance –Jones, Maguire, and Diamond, two pace and one guile. As we were attacking, we left things as they were and Leadbitter also got himself ready. Power hit a decent one along the ground but a foot wide of the keeper’s left hand post. Off went Geads, O’Brien, McFadz, and Gooch, but it was Crewe who nearly scored next, with a break down our right setting up a shot which flew off Sanderson’s backside for a corner. Winchester was ready to come on soon after, when Leadbitter (not Maguire or O’Nien, as Radio Stoke speculated) went down and looked in real trouble – the stretcher was on, along with several backroom staff, and Grant was helped off the field with what looked like a knackered shoulder.
Eventually, Crewe took the corner on our right and Burge claimed it before bowling it out quickly to help set Diamond on a burst down the right, then was busy again to dash out to collect an attempted through ball. We won a free when Jones was knocked over thirty-odd yards out, but the delivery was poor and it was easily cleared. Our next spell of positivity brought a corner on our left on 72, with O’9 winning the header but putting it over the top. Jones then took a pass out on the left, and cut inside to slash a right-footer into the far corner with fifteen to go. Cracking goal, and one that obviously lifted our spirits, with Crewe forced into conceding a free out on the left. Maguire’s kick curled in perfectly, but O’9, having left his marker for dead, couldn’t get his head to the ball. Very close, and with probably fifteen to go, the personnel changes were beginning to have the desired effect, and Jones was upended for the third time – but we couldn’t create anything from it. Jones whipped it in from the line, and the keeper was relieved that the deflection of his defender’s heel came straight to him.
Radio Stoke said were of the opinion that Crewe were better off without 2,000 Sunderland fans roaring their team on, as we won the ball back in the centre and Diamond went down the right but could only win a throw. Another free, on our right, saw our big lads pile into the box, but Crewe got to it first before fouling Jones yet again on the left. Again. Maguire’s delivery was lovely, flying into virtually the same place as O’9’s chance, and again it evaded every Sunderland head. Mandron nearly got it over Burge, but Lee stretched to tip it away and Sanderson completed the clearance as nine (yes, 9) added minutes were announced. When the ref allowed a very obvious hold on Wyke, Crewe passed their way into our box and we had to stick out a toe to prevent their third goal as we threw men forward. With time running out we alternated between long balls and runs from Jones, with Crewe seemingly happy for their dead balls to go for a Sunderland goal kick. When we pressed through the middle from one such kick, Wyke got a header to Maguire, and he hit our second screamer of the game, blasting it over the keeper from the inside right position seven minutes into added time. A beauty, and it was shortly followed by another free on our left. Third time lucky for Maguire, as we actually got to his delivery – but Winchester’s header was a foot too high. That was effectively the last of the action, as Crewe barely had time to take the goal kick before the whistle was blown.
A disappointing overall score-line, but one we’d have been glad of at the halfway stage, and once I for one was relieved with at the final whistle. Geads never really got going thanks to the close attention of the home defence, and thus Wyke didn’t get much service until the arrival of Jones, Maguire, and Diamond. With a little more luck we’d have put one of Maguire’s free kicks away and won it, but to get a point after being two down is a fair achievement, especially after being so comprehensively off colour in the first half.
Man of the Match? It’s between Jones and Maguire, and not just because of the goals. Jones was fouled half a dozen times as he ran at the defence, and Maguire took those free-kicks beautifully. I’ll give it to Maguire, as his goal was slightly more spectacular.