A trip to SW London and a new ground – for the team, if not the fans, brought Sunderland up against the real Wimbledon, and we showed that we can soak up pressure without getting desperate and be efficient at the other end as a Wyke treble and a clean sheet brought us the points. In a game that was fairly entertaining without us having a rigid formation, a product of having both McGeady and O’Brien in the starting XI, we showed patience without prettiness and when the chances fell his way, Wyke did the business with an alternative perfect hat-trick – bundle, half-volley, and Little Engelbert. You’ll have to read to the end to find out what that is.
As it said at the top of the page, this would have been a new ground for us fans, and would have made a nice replacement weekender in place of the one we lost last season when Covid meant we couldn’t “do” Kingston on Thames. While we still wait for the EFL to ratify our takeover, we’re still looking to strengthen our squad, with injuries to Hume and McLaughlin meaning that we could do with another pair of fullbacks – unless we decide that Power will do well enough until Luke is back in action. I’d have preferred Luke to be given a chance at the sharp end of midfield – or even tried as an out-and-out forward, as he’s certainly keen enough – but we’ll have to see what Lee Johnson thinks. Quite what he thinks of the latest revelation about Ricky Alvarez is another matter. In the pantheon of financial cock-ups that have beset our club over the years, this surely has be the biggest involving a player, and December’s Court decision that we have/had to play him a further £4.77 million for “loss of earnings” means that in terms of player value, Ricky tops the bottom of the list. Taking inflation into consideration, his seventeen games cost us £1.6 million each, and his solitary goal at Fulham in the FA Cup replay in January 2015 a whopping £27,330,000. Just to add to the irony (if that’s the right word) we were light on the bench that day because Jack Rodwell wasn’t fit enough to sit on it, Connor Wickham was injured in the warm-up, and Danny Graham came off it but failed to score – mind, his solitary goal this term means that his two have cost us a mere £2.3 million each, keeping him safely in second top spot for the priciest goals for a forward. Still, Jordi Gomez and their keeper also scored, so we won 3-1. Happy days, eh? I wonder who settled that bill, if indeed it has been settled. Two season’s worth of salary cap going on a court case – how very Sunderland.
Power Willis Wright McFadzean
Leadbitter Scowen Embleton
O’Brien Wyke McGeady
….and a bench with no Gooch or Graham. Matthews, Sanderson, Winchester, Maguire, O’Nien, Diamond, Younger.
Whether that formation pans out as a 4-1-2-3, a 4-2-1-3 or any other combination that has four at the back and Wyke up front was the subject of much debate between it being announced and the kick-off, as was the presence of O’Nien on the bench, and the presence in the starting XI of both McGeady and O’Brien, who, it was presumed, would operate either side of Wyke.
The new Plough Lane ground looked nice, despite the presence of a partially-built block of flats which towered over the stand opposite the camera, and the commentary team tried their best to say “whyaye” as often as possible. One of the big mysteries of the day is why there were no Sunderland fans in the empty windows of those flats, in keeping with our previous efforts. We lined up defending the goal to the left as we looked, and wore our proper kit. Last time we played at Plough lane, a 2-2 draw thanks to goals from Armstrong and Davenport was the result, and it was constantly referred to by the home commentary team, who were very well clued-up on our statistics. We made a positive start after we kicked off, with McGeady sprinting down the left but being unable to turn back their McLaughlin, and the ball went out for a goal kick. What looked like a promising run by Wyke down the right ended when he pushed his marker over and handled the ball, just to make sure the ref saw. Wimbledon then had a fair amount of possession, but our defence stood firm even when the midfield couldn’t hassle the ball back -then with six minutes gone, O’Brien – sporting a new Max Power haircut - got to the line on the right of the boxe, and whacked it beyond the keeper, who’d come to his front post, into the middle where Wyke somehow got it over the line a from a yard or so as defender arrived to try and put him off, for his eleventh of the season. Yeehah! or as they used to say in those parts: Yidaho! That’ll do nicely, Charlie, and probably take the total distance for his goals into double figures. A very nice finish against one of his former clubs, and we maintained the positive attitude that had brought that goal, with Wimbledon not getting into our box until the eleventh minute – and we headed that one away comfortably.
Wyke did well to move down the left and get it to McGeady, but he was crowded out on the edge of the box, then we won a free when Embo and Scowen were both fouled. Embo got this own back at the expense of a free a few yards into our half after it was cleared, with us setting up our defensive line 25 yards out – and which defensive line dealt with the ball delivered over them. After a few abortive attacks, Embo was caught offside as he broke down the right, and we had to defend a hopeful ball into our box when the Dons got the ball up the pitch from the free. After more nice movement, McFadzean got to the line and saw his cross headed for a corner at the front post. We took it short and then saw the cross cleared and the home side break. Burge scrambled to his right to eventually drop on a deflected shot – it prevented a corner rather than a goal, but it still needed doing – and he was busy soon after as he comfortably saved a shot from their right, then again when diving to his left to palm away a shot from distance about halfway through the half. The home side had certainly upped their game since about twenty minutes, putting us under a spell of pressure, but we still kept our eyes firmly forward and tried to take the sting out of the opposition with some nice passing and carrying. A yellow for their man when he chopped down Wyke on halfway gave us a chance to play it forward, which Grant did and the ball bobbled around in the air on the edge of the box before O’Brien hooked a volley goalwards which the keeper took comfortably.
Power did well to keep his eye on the ball and poked it off the toe of his opponent at the expense of a corner, and O’Brien got it away from the near post, but Power to repeat his defensive work a minute later. The Dons couldn’t get that one in, having taken it short, but Leadbitter slid in to win a throw off a blue shin on the half hour. More Dons pressure was alleviated when McFadzean was fouled in our box. Wyke was beaten to the ball on the edge by the keeper, and we began to assert ourselves again with a few throw-ins as we pushed forward but were halted by an offside flag against Power. Scowen’s promising run ended with a short pass to nobody, and Willis had to be on his toes to nip in and clear when the ball was crossed in from our right and the sun came out.
The game had settled, if that’s the right word, into a fairly fast-paced and even contest, with both sides having periods of possession and trying to move forward. Wyke got onto McGeady’s pass and turned into the box, getting it back to McGeady who got a shot in, but there were defenders in the way. A period of good pressure ended with Power running onto another ball in the box and getting to the line, and his cut-back was hit first time by Wyke but it flew well over the bar. He was at it in the box again soon after, but couldn’t get past the two defenders on him, and when he poked it back to Embo in the inside left position, Elliot’s effort from the edge again flew over the top.
As the last couple of minutes approached – the danger period – we conceded one of those free-kicks thirty yards out on our left to give the Dons a chance to sling one in. They did, but Wright headed it away and we broke towards their box, only to have it taken off our toes and given back to the keeper. A free of our own was taken by Leadbitter, from a few yards in their half, into the box and it was headed clear as a single added minute was announced. We ended the half comfortably mopping up another Wombles attack, and went in a goal to the good. Happy with that.
We’d produced some lovely passing for a good deal of the half, despite there being no obvious structure to our attack apart from Wyke being in the middle, and while we’d got forward plenty, we hadn’t given their keeper anything really difficult to deal with apart from the goal. However, I wasn’t going to grumble too much about being ahead away from home, so I was just hoping for more of the same possession and just a tad more accuracy with the final ball into the box – and for us to stop conceding as many free kicks (even though the home side conceded nearly as many), as they’ve cost us on several occasions already this season. Stay strong on the ball and let the opposition do the fouling – they certainly hadn’t been averse to sticking their foot in where it hurts in the first half. With the half time stats showing that we’d won 76% of “headed duels” perhaps the way forward was to get some higher crosses into the box, even if we had scored from a low one.
No changes for the second half, with Wimbledon knocking it back then hoofing it up our right for a throw to us, which was nice of them. We got the first free of the half when O’Brien was knocked over, and tried to play it short and as a result allowed the Dons to keep us at bay before Wright, still up the field for the free, shot over from distance. He then mopped up at the back as they tried to break down our left, but they came back at us and screwed a low shot across Burge and well wide of his right hand post. McGeady was next to defend, sliding in a vital tackle as they shaped to cross from their right, and they were very close with a low shot soon after – this time it was inches past Burge’s left hand post. A run by Chilslet took him past three or four red and white shirts but ended when he shot way over, into what I believe would have been the away end. Undeterred, they just kept coming, forcing more defensive work upon us, which we managed, and got it down our right before Power was dispossessed and they were off again. Thankfully, the ref pulled it back for a free to them deep in their box, but Burge caught the hopeful ball into the box comfortably.
O’Brein had a shot blocked on 55 as we passed it nicely into his path in the box, and Lee Johnson sought to change things around and break up Wimbledon’s second half stride by warming up a substitute. Embleton, who’d barely had a touch since the break, was replaced by debutant Winchester in a straight swap. Power did very well to keep in a cross-field pass and get it forward where we won a throw, but the home defence forced us back down the pitch where we won another throw in our own half. McGeady, in typical hunched style, broke down the middle and found Wyke, who played it wide and watched as the cross went in, only to be headed over the top. A spell of Dons pressure brought a corner on our left when Scowen blocked a cross, but they put it behind at the front post for a goal kick. A series of throws down our right brought no rewards in terms of creating a chance, but it did at least keep the home side out of our half and allowed us to build an attack down the other wing, winning a throw well up the field. McFadzean took the return, and we won another throw when Leadbitter was dispossessed. McGeady received the ball in the middle and fired a shot off a blue shin and out for a corner on our left, which the home side defended all too easily.
With twenty to go, the home commentators were more or less accepting that we were hanging on to the lead despite their team’s best efforts, and we brought on Diamond for McGeady, who was almost certainly running out of puff. Swapping jinky cleverness for raw pace and directness? It would seem so. Scowen took a pass after Wright had won tackle at the back and got it to Diamond, but the ball was a tad too far in front of Jack was he was tackled. A break by the Dons saw Burge down sharply and bravely at their man’s feet - taking another bang, but thankfully this time to his left leg. With thirteen left, the words “routine away victory” were uttered, making me shake my head in disbelief, but it just goes to show how opinions differ depending on which team you follow. Optimism becomes pessimism with different coloured specs, obviously – while I was thinking the thoughts of a typical Sunderland fan (it’s only one nowt, we might get pegged back) they were thinking the thoughts of a typical opposition fan (all Sunderland have to do is to cruise to the final whistle).
As the stats showed ten fouls each, with ten minutes to go, Maguire was on for O’Brien – no doubt with his hat trick from 2019 still fresh in his mind. Winchester clashed with a defender, with both staying down and their man eventually walking off and a drop-ball being taken – then Wimbledon brought on three subs –don’t expect me to keep up with that! – for the last seven minutes of scheduled time. Willis burst forward and set us on the attack, but Wyke went down after banging his face into Nightingale’s elbow – and for once that’s exactly what did happen rather than anything untoward on the part of their man.
Diamond moved down the right and jinked to win a corner which Leadbitter took, putting it to the near post where Wyke side-footed it on the volley with his right foot and it flew into the net. An absolute pearler, doubling the total distance of his goal tally for the season, and surely game over with only three to go.
We’d barely got the celebrations done when the Dons broke form the restart and hit the foot of Burge’s right hand post, and we happily put it behind for a corner which we cleared. Diamond got in to the box and beat the keeper to his right with a low shot that zipped a foot or so wide. Jack had an even better chance immediately after when Wyke rolled in into his path in the box, but this time the shot, under pressure, was well wide. Four added minutes were added, we won the clearance and Wyke galloped into the box onto Scowen’s pass, and produced “a little Engelbert”, according to the commentator. It’s a new one on me, but apparently means a little dink over the keeper – which it was, and whether or not the term includes the ball bouncing slowly but inexorably over the line I neither know nor care. A clever finish, another lovely goal, and most certainly game over.
From there, it was just a case of us making sure we won throw -ins until the ref blew his final blow.
While we never quite turned periods of possession into clear-cut chances until the final minutes, you simply can’t argue about a 3-0 win, especially when it shows that, as at Lincoln, if you’re ruthless in this division, you’re good enough. While the home side had plenty of attacking play, we were never scrambling or backs-to-the-wall in repelling them and they really only got through once – and hit the post.
Man of the Match? Well, to save time and to use the age-old logic that if a player get three goals it has to be him, it’s Charlie Wyke. His hold-up play might not have been enough to bring in team-mates on many occasions, but that’s probably as much down to them not being in close proximity as it is to his lay-off accuracy – and you can’t argue with his goal contribution. Our defence performed satisfactorily, generally keeping the Dons at bay and allowing only a few decisive interventions by Burge – in short, all five did their jobs. Leadbitter was his usual self, while Scowen scampered but tended to release the ball at the wrong time or to the wrong person. Embleton tried to get forward, and while McGeady popped up all across the apart of the field behind Wyke, as he tends to do, O’Brien gave away more free-kicks than is to my liking, but, like McGeady, did his fair share of chasing back. From the subs point of view, we know what Diamond can do, and he nearly did on a couple of occasions, while Maguire didn’t really get into things other than to break up home possession. Winchester looked better than half-decent and willing to get stuck in.
Si senor, give the ball to Wyke and he will score.