Sunderland took a trip to Lancashire on a Friday, just to spoil the fans’ night out, and brought back a point from the other Highbury against a home side which offered nothing in the first half and which we allowed back into the game after we scored in the second. To be honest, if you had to give that game marks out of ten in the Northern League, you’d struggle to get above 5 for entertainment – and you’d only give such a high mark if you’d been listening very carefully to the shouts from the benches. After taking what was probably a deserved lead when Wyke nodded over a hesitant keeper, we went into our shells and played like shellfish. I expect the manager will say a point away at a promotion rival (aye, right) is a good point; I can assure you that from my absolute non-expert perspective, it isn’t. They used all five subs, we didn't. That was an opportunity missed against a side who were nowhere near as good as we expected them to be – and that makes two 1-1 draws against sides who offered virtually nothing in terms of football. Not a good result at all.
There should have been time for a substantial meal with a pint before boarding the Durham bus, then a stop-off at Lancaster for an afternoon snifter or two, where last season, even though it was New Year’s Day, the place was welcoming and surprisingly un-hungover and lively. Unfortunately, the hospitality didn’t extend to Fleetwood, where they refused us entry to the spacious bar at the ground, for a bit craic with the local which we’d enjoyed the season before. Blame it on their manager – speaking of whom, match-day dawned today with not so much as a sarcastic peep from the enormous back-catalogue of caustic wit (his opinion, nobody else’s) of Fleetwood’s answer to Jean- Paul Sartre. As it was, instead of debating the starting line-up with mates over a quiet beer, we were reduced to sharing photos of our bevvy of choice via the magic of social media. Aint life great?
Nah. Anyway, while the takeover ticks over in the background, with the emergence of yet another hedge fund manager in Matthew Pauls (no, me neither) Goochy’s ankle has given in to expert advice, which should give Embleton a chance to shine. When one door closes, another one opens (other than that, it’s a good car) so players previously ignored need to take their chance when it comes along. Who knows what a bit of pace in the middle might do for our fortunes – although the continued, and likely lengthy absence (hamstrings again) of Kimpioka means that pace up front will have to remain a dream. Meanwhile, McGeady, for so long the black sheep of the squad, was allowed out to play an hour or so for the U23s this week – whether this means an unlikely return to the league squad depends a lot on how his wages will affect our adherence to the current (ludicrous) wage cap. Also, it might well depend on the accuracy of Monsieur Barton’s famous quote “only the guy who isn’t rowing has time to rock the boat”.
McLaughlin Wright © Flanagan
O’Nien Leadbitter Scowen Hume
Maguire Wyke Graham
So much for giving youth and pace a chance – Danny Graham is many things, but one thing he isn’t is within ten yards of Gooch in a twelve yard sprint. Embleton had to make do with a place on a crowded bench alongside Burge, Power, Sanderson, Diamond, Grigg, and McFadzean as we fans pondered the battering the home defence was going to (hopefully) get at the shoulders of Wyke and Graham. Up to five subs, remember, Parky! With St James wealth Management advertising on the Live Stream, you had to wonder who their target audience was – perhaps they’re after all that money we fans aren’t spending on going to the match. On a positive note, we’re unbeaten away from home and have scored in 11 of our 12 league games- and we got a point from the one we didn’t score in – and only Lincoln have let in less than us. In our dark blue tops and red shorts, we set up defending the end I think our fans would have been in, the Percy Ronson stand, and with Bobby Madely refereeing observed a minute’s silence. Danny Graham started proceedings, laying it back for a big launch up the field. Our early work kept the ball largely in the home half of the pitch, with a Scowen cross cleared and then Graham chasing their defender to the line. Barely two minutes in, and we conceded a free thirty yards out on our right – hopefully not the start of a lot of that stuff – which we sort of cleared but had to work again, with Wyke blocking the follow-up cross for a corner which went right out the back. Matthews was alive to the low shot which was wide anyway, getting it up the left for Hume to cut in from the by-line and try a right-foot curler that went wide. Graham pushed forward down the right, but his low cross was a foot behind Wyke. The clearance resulted in a yellow for Morris when Leadbitter took an elbow in the chops just in our half. Wyke did manage to win the ball and get it out to Hume, who drove forward and saw his shot from a narrow angle come off keeper’s foot at front post with seven minutes on the clock. Not a bad start, really.
Back down our defensive end, a hopeful Shot cannoned of O’Nien for a corner on our right which was retaken after the ref took a dislike to something in our box, but this time Mulgrew climbed all over O’Nien and we could take a breath. Wyke chased a long one and forced a corner on our right, which Scowen put to the front post, but which was cleared off Wyke’s brow. On 13, Graham forced an error in the home box, but when he touched it to Wyke, Charlie switched feet for some reason, and his shot was blocked. The eventual goal-kick sailed towards his head near halfway, where he was fouled and Grant sent the free into the box. A bout of head tennis followed, and ended with Scowen squirming back into the box but running out of space. As we asserted our authority for a while, O’Nien fired Scowen’s pass into the goal area only to see it headed off Wyke’s toe six yards out. Getting closer, Lads, but in typical fashion, Fleetwood built an attack only to see it end with a free-kick after Madden dived onto O’Nien trying to get to a cross. With Maguire screaming for handball when we got the ball forward, the ref decided Chris’s boot had been high and gave the free the other way. A penalty would have been nice, Bobby, and probably given by VAR.
As we ticked past the twenty minute mark, O’Nien fouled their man out wide in a dangerous position twenty yards up the field. It came in low and Grant was first there, with his clearance being looped back into Remi’s hands. Three minutes later, a foul on halfway earned Scowen a yellow, which we could well do without. Fleetwood had to defend crosses from Maguire on our left and Scowen on our right as we had a real go – but we needed to be attacking those crosses with more conviction. Scowen had two shots blocked in the same move after Graham’s effort was blocked, with the home defence having to throw bodies about in a manner that suggested that an error might be not too far away.
The game was going along with us seeming to have settled, then after a few minutes allowing a scrappy period of play to dominate, but O’9’s enthusiasm usually got us out of those doldrums only for us to concede possession as we went patiently from side to side rather than directly forward – thankfully, that was almost always in the Fleetwood half. Flanagan did well to get his head to a long pass towards our box, but couldn’t get back quickly enough to prevent the corner on our left, which Wyke headed away. Speaking of Wyke, he seemed to be taking more than a few whack that the ref allowed when many wouldn’t – none would in the Prem – and when another was missed, Flan gave away another daft free fifteen yards from the by-line which Mulgrew fired in –and we were glad for Wright’s intervention at the front post, although I don’t think he knew much about it. Matthews punched away the corner for O’Nien to chase up the pitch, and calm things down by playing it back to Leadbitter for a little bit of possession which ended with a throw taken by Hume. Maguire’s low ball saw Scowen run onto it in the box, but the ref decided that the tackle wasn’t a foul despite Scowen very obviously getting there first – a definite free outside the box, and a VAR penalty all day long.
O’9’s cross was headed off Wyke’s brow (yes, again) at the front post again and Fleetwood cleared the corner as we entered the final five of the half. One single minute of added time was announced, a danger sign for us under normal circumstances, but we avoided anything daft.
An average half in which we’d had the better part of possession (63%, actually)and some pretty but lateral rather than forward passing, but not backed that up with any real intent, especially in that mythical final third. I suppose Parky would be the happier of the two managers (isn’t he always?) but while we protected Matthews reasonably well, we need killer instinct to see the opposition off. Eight shots, one on target, to the homesters’ three and none – but they’d had six corners to our four.
Anyway, while the half-time break allowed Parky to sort out our second half winning game and Barton to swear at his players, I made the missus a cuppa, as she’s been relegated to the upstairs telly, and replenish my glass – look, it’s Friday, I should be out anyway.
Guess what? No changes for us, while they’d brought on Evans for Morris when we really needed to inject some urgency to the game and Fleetwood – well, I don’t care what they do as long as it doesn’t do us any harm. The first action of the half was a cracking volley from the edge of the box from Madden, which Matthews did really well to tip onto the bar then drop onto with Evans threatening. We got it straight up the other end and won a corner on the right, with the ref having a good old chat with the Fleetwood defence who thought it was a goal kick. In it came from Scowen, right into the middle but onto a home head, and when we tried to carry it back towards their goal Evans pulled back Leadbitter in the centre circle. Another elbow on Grant’s nose brought only a drop-ball, and when it was given to O’9, he passed it to Grant, who hadn’t yet come back onto the pitch – how very Sunderland - and yet another flying elbow hit Flan as he went for a long Fleetwood ball. Getting a bit naughty, with Evans obviously carrying Barton’s instructions onto the pitch. Get a grip, please, Bobby.
We had to show some resolute defending ten minutes in, as the home side, who’d upped their game since the break, launched a series of balls into the box. When we did clear it, McLaughlin took a pass from Grant, advanced up the field and put in a great cross which Wyke got to first, but the header from the penalty spot went a foot beyond the far post. Ched Evans was next to receiving a dab of the magic sponge after bumping into Wright, which resulted in another drop ball. A pass into our box brought penalty claims from the virtual Cod Army, but there was nothing wrong with our tackle. Not that I’m biased – there just wasn’t, even if it would have taken at least ten minutes to dismiss on MOTD. A few seconds later, a bouncing ball forwards tempted their keeper off his line, but not far enough, and Wyke nodded it over him and into the net – no hint of worry about getting clattered, which is the way it should be.58 minutes gone, and a lead that we might do well to protect by injecting a bit of pace up front – keep moving it forward, please, and don’t try to sit on such a narrow advantage. Oh, and well done Charlie. Nice goal, even if it did have more than a hint of the Sunday mornings about it.
Another corner on our right was cleared by the home defence, who must have been getting sick of heading it away by now, as we looked to add to our advantage, although Danny Graham’s next bit of action was getting right back to help O’9. Leadbitter got a bit aggrieved with the ref for not giving a free for a foul on Graham, and must have been close to a yellow judging but the amount of verbals he was hoying the official’s way. A Fleetwood corner on our left, thanks to O’9s intervention, was cleared but came back, and the pressure only abated when we won a throw. A foul by Maguire gave a free to Fleetwood on 69 minutes, and that signalled the end of Graham’s shift, as Grigg replaced him. Well, let’s see if getting the ball to Will’s feet can give the home defence any new problems in the last twenty minutes. Let’s hope so.
It looked Fleetwood had got something, but Wright’s toe made the shot fly past the post as things got a bit frantic – and Connolly whipped home just inside the near post when we couldn’t clear properly and it came back into the box. And we had to endure that bloody Captain Pugwash music before they brought on three subs – check the papers for the names (Mackay, Coutts, and Duffy, I reckon), but while they were finding their feet, Wright was booked for a foul a couple of yards outside the box as the home side continued to look livelier. Thankfully the wall did its job, and then Gregg nearly did his, but was already on his way down when heading Scowen’s cross over the bar. Ha’way man, Will, either lowp a bit higher or time it better. That’s rustiness for you.
O’9’s fall to the turf on 79 was way too predictable for the ref to fall for, so not even the most biased Sunderland fan would have shouted for a pen, and then Glen Whelan came on for the home side, despite being at least fifty by my reckoning. Ten minutes to go – ha’way Parky, get Embleton and Diamond on and go for the win, I’ve got a quid on us and could do with a nice return, although I do think you’re programmed to think any point is a good point. Mebbe he was hoping for extra time. There was a nice move across the pitch, but Scowen’s cross went straight to the keeper as we wondered how the home side had managed to keep Hume from making any forward runs. All over the field we were looking a bit tired, so (eventually) McFadzean and Power replaced Hume and Maguire. Cheers, Parky, I might as well stop watching now, as you’ve obviously settled for the draw rather than win me £25. A yellow for Whelan for a fairly cynical pull back on Scowen gave us a chance – but Josh’s free was way beyond any of our players and straight into the keeper’s hands. An awful effort, and just before four added minutes were announced and Evans was booked for getting in the way of our next free-kick.
And it was over – it was almost as if we didn’t want to win.
Man of the Match? Oh dear, it’s one of those choices. Look the defence did OK. Wyke scored, which is his job, although as far as holding the ball up goes, I don’t think it’d stick to him if he was covered in glue. His strike partner and I use the word “strike” ironically, Graham, got stuck in but simply doesn’t have the burst of pace we so obviously lack in the box. Hume had a good first half but, attacking-wise, vanished in the second. Our lack of pace up front and through central midfield just makes everybody in those areas look a bit below par. Scowen, whose crosses and dead balls in that EFL Trophy game against Villa are now a distant, if happy, memory, was OK in open play, but the accuracy of his delivery tonight was summed up in that awful free-kick in the dying seconds.
At least O’Nien didn’t give up. So he gets it. Please feel free to differ. I’m now going to watch the Good, The Bad, and The Ugly on telly – I’ve watched latter two since so I kick-off, might as well see what The Good looks like.