Quick as you like, we had the chance to build on our best away win in almost four years – that game at Palace when the unlikelihood of our halftime lead was beaten only by a certain member of my party missing three goals while getting the halftime beers in. We took on Palace’s near(ish) neighbours Wimbledon – the real Wimbledon, not that aberration known as MKD – and, despite losing eight (yes, eight) players from the squad due to a Covid scare, managed to get a point. That was, of course, an ironic comment, as we bossed the game but failed to create any clear chances other than the one we put in to equalise a silly penalty. There was more than a shade of Parky about the overall showing, but that’s to be expected after the new bloke’s only had a week to impose those ideas that it looked like we’d taken on board at the weekend.
With the new gaffer – I’m still getting used to having a manager/coach called Lee – making all sorts of the right noises, it had been a pleasant few days thinking about football for a change. I know that new managers tend to go all out to make the right sort of statements, but the best place to make a statement is on the pitch, and that’s exactly what we/he did at the weekend. It only needed a tweak to the personnel, the formation, and – most importantly – the attitude to make all the difference. A bit of positivity goes a long, long, way, and it doesn’t take a genius to work that one out, although it sometimes, and obviously, takes a brave person to put it into place. It doesn’t need that much thinking about, but sometimes in football, as in other walks of life, the truth is too simple for intellectuals. We never got to play our last scheduled fixture against Wimbledon thanks to the spring lockdown, and that was a real let-down, as I, and a handful of marras, had got corporate tickets, two nights B&B in Kingston on Thames for less than the cost of a round of drinks in central London, and the services of a personal guide to the local nightlife (in exchange for my allocated match tickets). Perhaps by the return fixture I can make use of Harrier’s local knowledge, and the hotel will be just as affordable – though I’m not holding my breath for it either happening or the accommodation costs to remain chip-like in cheapness.
With Scowen’s ankle knock that forced his replacement on Saturday still playing up, there was a place up for grabs, and the local money was on Embleton to get the nod. Otherwise, I could see no need to change things unless the gaffer sees the need to get Willis back in at the expense of Flanagan. Change a winning team? Happens all the time in the Prem, so it should be good enough for us……and then came the Covid News, and the queries about why our game wasn’t postponed when Charlton had postponed theirs under similar circumstances. Much was said about certain people being in close contact, but exactly what had the same players been doing on Saturday afternoon if not “in close contact” with each other – and the rest of the team, not to mention the opposition? Three players get called up for international duty, and we postpone the game. Eight are unavailable due to Covid, and we play the game. I probably understand Urdu more than I understand the thinking in football at times. According to Phil Smith in the Sunderland Echo, “if you postpone, there’s an EFL investigation. With a lack of clarity on what the outcome would be, #SAFC didn’t want to take the risk (punishment could be anything up to a forfeit). Hence the bizarre situation where some clubs with cases are postponing, others aren’t.”
Surely, under the current circumstances, clubs should be able to postpone games at a minute’s notice when positive tests are returned – but that would be too simple and obvious, and completely ignoring the established formula of EFL+Government = chaos.
Anyhow, the upshot was that there was no Flan, no Wyke, no Maguire, no Power, and no McGeady in the squad, all players who would have played a part, and the addition of Mitch Curry, Dan Neil, Brandon Taylor, and Oliver Younger to the bench as well as a not-quite-fit-yet Gooch.
McLaughlin Wright Sanderson McFadzean
Leadbitter © Embleton Dobson
Diamond Grigg O’Brien
Not really a “cup team” but a vastly different line-up to the one we’d have seen under “normal” circumstances, and one that negates my bet on Charlie Wyke to score first. I’ll have a bet of the most popular answer to the question “what does EFL stand for?” instead.
Once Dance Of The Knights had been played half a dozen times, we lined up defending the North Stand, and Wimbledon, all in yellow, let us win the toss and Grant to set things away with a pass back to our George, who in turn rolled it back to Wright before taking the return and letting Sanderson try his luck at moving up the field. It took barely four seconds for the stream to freeze, which is something of a record even for my lightning internet connection, and leaving young Dion in an uncomfortable position for several minutes. Five, to be exact, but apparently I missed nothing other than a scuffed shot from the edge of the box by Diamond (I think). It was nice to see that the replacements had slotted into the formation that Johnson has established, with the game being played almost exclusively in the sixty yards furthest from Burge’s goal – which is always nice. What became gradually apparent, to those who didn’t already know it, was that Griggis no Wyke in physical terms, and O’Brien is no McGeady when it comes to bewitching trickery.
It sort of looked OK, until Wimbledon ran down their right on eleven minutes, and Burge had to run out and hoof it up into the East Stand, conceding a throw eighteen yards up the pitch, which the visitors could do nothing with. It was at this stage that I realised that there was no commentary, and try as I might I could get nothing more than the shouts of the players and coaches. A loose Wimbledon pass across the halfway line allowed us to break down the right, but we were forced to turn back and play it across to the left. Although we couldn’t make headway, we retained possession and got it back over to Diamond on the right, but his attempted ball in to Grigg curled away from its target and to the keeper. Sanderson was looking comfortable on the right of the central defence, more than happy to carry the ball forward – and the visitors seemed more than happy to let him. McLaughlin tried his luck from twenty yards, but, with 27 minutes on the clock, only emphasised why he plays at the back, as the ball rattled around amongst the flags after flying way over the top. Ah well, if you don’t shoot, you don’t score, and this Lad could be the next recipient of the “shooooot” chant if and when we get back into the grounds. Or mebbe “dinnetttttt.”
Sanderson found Grigg with a precise ball along the deck, and then it went to Leadbitter and O’Brien swapping passes as we tried to find a way into the box. Wimbledon seemed to be treating this one a bit like a practice match, which made it hard for any sort of intensity to be generated, but when Diamond had his legs taken away as he weaved towards the box, we had a chance to create something from the inside right position. With all ten yellow shirts behind the ball, we couldn’t make the free-kick count, and had to do a spot of defending as they broke down their right - or would have, had they not shot really lamely in the vague direction of the North Stand. It was such a weak effort that Burge had to jog off his line to collect the ball as it threatened to bounce harmlessly wide of his left hand post. Down the right we went, winning a throw, and McLaughln got into the box to produce a low cross that was very nearly turned in at the near post. That’s a bit more like it. Lads. A good spot of harrying by our George caused their keeper to sling a loose one straight out for a throw, and we won a free forty yards from goal which Leadbitter slung to the edge of the box. Wimbledon got there first, but couldn’t keep hold of the ball and we kept pressing patiently. It ended up with the keeper when we weren’t quite quick enough onto a ball into the box, and a big punt got the ball all the way northwards to Burge. All this did was give us the chance to build down the right again, but when Embleton carried it across the edge of the area from the right and shot left footed, there was no power and it trundled harmlessly beyond the keeper’s left hand post.
On 41 minutes, we conceded a free just in our half on the left, which they flung into the box and we headed clear, only for it to go wide again and their man to get to the line and wriggle into the box – where he was clearly tripped by McFadzean. Penalty, no question, a very silly one, and a chance for them to have a shot on target. Which they did, with Burge going left and the ball to his right, 0-1. A very Sunderland moment in a very Sunderland half – the vast majority of possession, no clear cut chances, and going behind to a team who hadn’t really looked that bothered about being there. As a single added minute was announced, Burge had to save with his feet at the bottom of his left hand post as Wimbledon at last decided that they did actually want to be there.
As we trudged off, I could only think of the other games this season when we’d had most of the ball (70+% tonight) and gone into the break either level or behind, but at least tonight we’d tried to play the game in the last third and could point to the enforced changes as a bit of an excuse. Excuses have their uses, but they don’t get you points. Neither keeper had taken a cross, which was no surprise in Burge’s case, as the visitors hadn’t made any, but a bit disappointing at the other end, as all of ours had been taken by defenders. Mind, the stats aren’t that clever, even if they did have neither side as creating a clear cut chance – but they had us winning100% of our tackles. Wonder where the penalty fits into either of those stats?
Perhaps playing Diamonds Are Forever during the break was an attempt to get young Jack fired up, and we were first out for the second half by quite a while – and with Gooch on for our George and immediately taking up a position out on the left. I’m not biased, but I’d have yanked Grigg or O’Brien if it was down to me, as there’d been precious movement from either of them where it mattered. This meant that Diamond moved to a more right-wing position, with O’Brien and Grigg having a go at forming a front two. Out left is where Gooch was when we got our first throw, and he helped to play it back across the field – where Wimbledon won their first throw as we played it too strongly down the line. From that throw, they pushed our Lad over and we had a free Embleton could curl into the box – but which was headed away. After a couple of minutes the game settled back into the routine of the first half, with us comfy on the ball, but just as this became apparent the visitors broke and we had to be on our toes to keep it away from the penalty area.
Another foul in a central area let us pick our spots, eventually getting it left for Gooch, but he was forced away from the danger area and Wimbledon came up our left again to win a throw - which went a considerable distance straight to Burge. Ten minutes in, we were still maintaining 75% possession despite Wimbledon getting the ball a fair few times – but the fact that the usually mis-controlled it or put it straight of play helped. We worked a decent position for O’Brien on the edge of the box, but he sort of waved his right leg at it, and thus scooped his shot high and probably did a window in the Black Cats Bar – if it was powerful enough. Which it almost certainly wasn’t.
Then it all went a bit daft, as we put in a deep left-footed cross from the right, which found Bailey Wright at the far post, and he controlled it nicely before walloping a left-footer across the keeper and into the far side of the net. A beauty – get him up front and put Grigg at the back, I think. Reet Lads, there’s half an hour to win this, and we’re back on level terms. Let’s make our possession count.
Well, that was the idea, but Wimbledon nearly put paid to that with a shot from the edge of the area that took a deflection that took it onto the top of the bar. They passed up another chance when we couldn’t clear the corner properly, but that one went wide as well. After a spell in their half, we allowed them a chance with another free twenty yards out, but the move they built ended when Burge caught the ball at the far post. They came at us again soon after, this time firing into the side netting from the inside right channel. I’d like to think Burge had it covered anyway, but they were getting a bit more heart and taking a few more risks going forward.
With fifteen to go, Mitch Curry came on for his debut, replacing Grigg, who trooped disconsolately round the touchline as I resisted the temptation to say “faster than he’d moved all night” damn. I can resist anything but temptation. Haway then, young Mitch, get a goal and win me a few quid – I’ve already got the number of corners and the disciplinary points required, I just need the win. A few minutes later we won a free on the right hand corner of their box, and while we were waiting to take it, on came Willis for McFGadzean. In came the free, left footed by Embleton, but it was right under the bar and easy for the keeper with no stripy shirts in attendance. We got a corner on the right as we passed 80 minutes, and I prayed for Wright and Willis to get in the box. And McLaughlin, as he’s the only other sizable player on show tonight. Unfortunately, the cross went right over the lot of them and out for a goal kick at the far side. A waste, Lads.
Leadbitter got caught between two opponents and lost the ball, but the Yellows did nothing with the cross, Burge being able to jog to his back post to pick it up. A tea break occurred when one of theirs went down and needed treatment, giving Johnson the chance to gee the Lads up. I’m more of an Eddie Reader than a lip-reader, but I’m sure I detected the words “finger” and “out” amongst his words of wisdom. That took us into the last minute of normal time, Wimbledon’s keeper took an age with their free-kick, which is entirely understandable, then they tried a pot-shot when they got it up the pitch. Which didn’t go in. Three extra minutes were announced, we passed in along the halfway as urgency didn’t seem to be a word that we understood, and then it was all over and all we got as a point.
To be slightly unfair to Johnson, that display fell back into the Parky mould after looking initially as if we might continue where we’d left off on Saturday. Unlike Saturday, we didn’t have the guile and presence in the box to punish the opposition – but there was Grigg and O’Brien instead of Wyke and McGeady, meaning that we struggled to find a way through a team that sat deep, and when we did, there was nobody in the box who basically appeared to give a monkey’s what happened.
Man of the Match? Well, there’s two that it aint. Grigg, who showed less movement than the musical statues world champion, despite getting in the game’s first shot, and looked about as keen to be out there as a Mag in the Wheatsheaf, and O’Brien, who just doesn’t look very good with a football. Of the rest, Diamond can be satisfied with his game if not the end result, and Embo showed that he was definitely worth his place with a string of decent balls into the box and forcing a decent saver from the visiting keeper in the first half. The defence had precious little to do – apart from not commit that daft foul by McFadzean that gave Wimbledon their penalty – and the midfield retained possession well enough, as evidenced by the final stats that showed the ball had been in our control (the right word?) for the majority of the game. I got a text straight after the match that said “not a bad result in the circumstances and not too much damage to the league position” but I’d beg to differ. Wimbledon came to not lose and were almost certainly a bit surprise that they got what they wanted.
I’ll give it to Embleton – he put plenty of decent balls into the box, particularly the dead ones, and it’s hardly his fault if only Bailey Wright can be arsed to attack them.