Gillingham came to town, probably still with fond memories of their last visit when former Lad Mandron’s second equaliser, in injury time, effectively ended our interest in the sharp end of last season and repeated the scoreline and sequence of goals. McGeady’s sixth minute strike was deserved reward for a positive start, but it only served to inspire Gillingham to up their game and be a constant threat. Leadbitter’s follow-up to his own penalty gave us a half-time lead and something to defend in the second period. Despite showing much better than before the break, we couldn’t seal it and again conceded in the last minute to share the points.
With Wyke being the talk of the town, and rightly so, the transfer window has been creaking shut with Lee Johnson aiming to bring in another forward as Will Grigg looks to rediscover his mojo elsewhere on a temporary basis. Through the in-door have come Jake Volkins, already used to the red and white stripes, being a left back on loan from Southampton, and winger Jordan Jones on loan from Rangers. I’ll admit to knowing absolutely nowt about the former, and little about the latter apart from his being from sunny Redcar and having fallen out with Steven Gerrard after attending a party during lockdown last year. Hmmmm. Gossip about an actual forward remains just that, with fees of £500,000 being regarded as prohibitive - there was a time when we used to pay that as a signing on fee. With Baily Wright’s bang in the chops that forced his replacement on Tuesday still regarded as a problem, there was a return for Flanagan at the heart of the defence when I expected Sanderson to be drafted in.
Power © Willis Flanagan McFadzean
Leadbitter Scowen McGeady
Diamond Wyke O’Brien
…which looked a pretty attack-minded set-up to me, with effectively four forwards on show, and a display of positivity from Lee Johnson. With the visitors suspected to be planning a 10-0-0 formation, an early goal from us would make that redundant and open things up for us. Well, that was my thinking – but would we have to rely on the dancing feet of McGeady, the physical presence of Wyke, or the pace of Diamond to break through the vising defence? With Matthews, Gooch, O’Nien, Sanderson, Embleton, Winchester, and Vokins on the bench, we looked to have plenty of options to change things around tactically. Perhaps O’Brien or Diamond would play the “nine and a half” that Lee Johnson described Gooch as this week…and no, I have no idea what he meant.
Having attempted to replicate my usual match-day, I made a black coffee twenty minutes before kick-off and pretended it had come from the Roker End cafe and, with ten minutes to go, wandered around the yard and heading for the gate, waving my now-defunct season card at the latch, then shouting “alreet, marra” at my baffled better half and various household ornaments before taking my seat in front of the telly and offering a jelly baby to my invisible friend Brian. There followed the usual nervous wait for the live stream to do the decent thing and start working, and the afternoon’s fun began with Danny and Frankie extolling the virtues of Big Charlie, but inexplicably describing O’Brien as being physically similar. Opinions, eh?
We lined up defending the North Stand, which is the right thing to do, and we seemed to set up with O’Brien and Wyke up top and Diamond and McGeady out wide, with Gillingham setting things away. A bit of early forward play from the visitors down our left was broken up and we went down that side before having to turn back , with Flan trying a long one across the pitch to Diamond, who tried to get in front of his marker but could only clatter the poor feller as he ran past. Free to the Gills, but we managed to win the ball into the box, with Willis finding O’Brien, who in turn found Diamond, and Power then getting it inside to Leadbitter then taking the return but having to go back to Willis. He got it to Flan, who found Geads, and we won a throw on the left. Geads then saw his cross cleared, but only as far as Power, who played it for Diamond to chase but keeper got down comfortably onto the ball. He got it up the field and we had a spot of defending to do, getting it out to Wyke up the right. Charlie found O’Brien and he got it to Diamond, who saw his cross tipped away by the keeper. Geads picked up McFad’s pass and tried a right-foot shot from distance that hit a Gillingham toe and looped over the keeper and in at the back post with six minutes gone. Well deserved in terms of possession and attitude.
The visitors came straight back at us, and we could only clear it to halfway where Diamond knocked their man over to concede a throw. With the Gills continuing to look lively, we had to work hard to try and calm things down and not do anything daft like let them back into things. A McGeady foul meant another free out on our right, which Scowen headed away, but it eventually came back in from our left and needed a header from Willis to knock it away. When it came back from our right, we had to head it behind for the game’s first corner and defend that and the attacks that followed. Far from knock the stuffing out of the visitors, our goal seemed to have brought them to life, and they were a bit of a menace for a while. When we did get it up the left, we won a free thirty yards out, which Grant took. It dropped nicely in the goal area but was hoofed off Willis’s toe before Power’s ambitious effort - shot or dink into the box, I’m not sure which - made a mess of a flag at the back of the Roker.
It was a lively affair, with both sides trying to win the ball and Jackson giving us problems with his long throws that landed near the penalty spot and caused havoc during a spell of Gillingham attacking play that ended with a lofted cross that went a yard too far for Oliver. Graham, on their right, was a constant threat, and his crosses needed constant attention, with one finding Lee, who turned on the end and shot wide. Far from being in control after our goal, we spent most of the following ten or twelve minutes being pressed back before we managed to settle things and get down the right and do a spot of passing across the field. We were forced back, but at least we’d maintained possession and taken the sting out of the visitors, if only for a couple of minutes. An awkward ball into our box bounced weirdly and had Burge coming and going before Willis managed to get a big boot on it. With us trying to play it out from the back, Gillingham were able to carry on their chasing us in our own half – a long way from the 10-0-0 formation I’d thought they’d play.
As has become a bit of a habit this season, we were conceding free kicks in the middle third, and when one was played forward, Ogilvie picked up the loose ball and somehow, after leaving his man for dead as he weaved goal wards, didn’t get his shot through to trouble Burge and we hacked it clear. After our little spell of possession, we’d had another five minutes of visiting pressure before McDonald picked up a clearance when our whole defence attacked the ball and thus left him unmarked on the edge of the area and sent a daisy-cutter bobbling beyond Burge’s right hand on 27 minutes. No more than they deserved, to be brutally honest, as we’d posed no real attacking threat since we scored.
Diamond and Wyke did have a bit of a go from the restart, combining for the former to see his cross blocked, but it came back down towards our end for Power to give away a free on halfway. This, again, found its way into our area and a second goal looked on but the shot smacked the face of the bar after Willis had got to the original ball to clear the immediate danger. A free for offside gave us a chance to draw breath and work out how to get the better of the physical battles, which we were losing all over the field.
When Diamond flicked a long ball over his man down the middle, that man just stopped moving and won a free when Jack ran into him – it would have been impossible for him to have done anything else, but it was another Gillingham free-kick, which was quickly followed by another. This one saw an attacker grab Wyke’s head in our box, but the ref ignored that and we let it run for a goal kick. The absence of Wright was painfully obvious at the back, with nobody taking on the shouting and organising and, consequently, two or more players going for the same ball on several occasions.
A little period of decent play saw Power put in a great cross that was nearly just right for Wyke and O’Brien, wining us a corner on the left. It dropped in the box and was shot, blocked, and shot again before getting kicked out to Flanagan, whose shot was tipped away for another corner for Grant to try. It was a bit better from us, but we were still forced to go all the way back to Burge to keep the ball. Scowen, Diamond, and Power played it well up the right side, but Diamond’s left-footed cross was overhit and bounced harmlessly for a goal kick. O’Brien and Wyke combined to win the ball on halfway and set McGeady away. He ran into the box, and as he tried to stop and turn back, Cundy just kept running and knocked him over. Up stepped Grant, who saw the keeper make a good save diving to his right, but as he tried to catch the loose ball from a prone position, our club captain was there to nod it home. Even the keeper laughed, if ironically. Two minutes to the break, and against the balance of play, but I’ll take that quite happily. Very happily, especially as we continued to look more than a bit nervy at the back and Burge not knowing whether to stay or come out. McGeady got the ball into the box and got in a cross but the visiting defence were up to it. As two minutes added time were announced, Wyke was pulled down twice without the ref seeing anything, then Willis was caught by Oliver’s flailing arm thirty-five yards up from our goal. Not a very pleasant challenge, but it gave us another welcome breather as we aimed to make it to the break in the lead.
Which we did, and I expect Lee Johnson would need the whole fifteen minutes to get his opinions across to the players. Gillingham had been the better side for most of the half, with our defensive shape being akin to a melting jelly. Power appeared to call visiting manager Steve Evans a divvy as the players left the field, but perhaps it was someone in the crowd who just sounded like Max. That’s the beauty of being able to hear everything, but perhaps Max would be better telling his fellow defenders where to be and which of them to do what and when. He is captain on the field, isn’t he? Perhaps we could sit Wright behind Burge and have him shout instructions – we could all hear him, after all.
I’d not have been surprised to see changes in our personnel, but there weren’t any, so I hoped that we’d taken on board whatever Johnson had told them.
It certainly looked like they had, with a cross coming in from the right which was headed onto the bar by Wyke from a central position, but after that bright start we were on the defensive again, and the ball bounced off some legs in our box and went for a corner which we cleared. Gillingham were quickly into a formation that meant they usually had nine or ten players in our half, but Burge comfortably took a ball into the box when they got into the danger area. McFadzean stayed down after a lumpy challenge, but once the attack had been repelled was up fairly sharpish and we had a throw. It was then Wyke’s turn to take a bang in our half, this time in the face – and had the replay been on VAR, there would surely have been a red for their man for a flying arm.
Five minutes in, they replaced their captain Dempsey with O’Keefe, a straight swap with Dempsey putting on a canny limp as he left the field. Wyke and Ogilvie clashed again, this time Charlie putting his man on the deck (revenge?) to upset Steve Evans, and Gooch came on to replace Diamond. Then came a very close one as they chased a ball into the box and Burge was down to put their man off and see the ball poked wide of the post – then was spoken to for taking too long with the goal kick. Another foul on Wyke was missed (ignored, more like) but it still got to Gooch, with Lynden getting into the box and changing feet to see an attempted cross go low for a goal kick. This went right up the field and they won a corner which Burge collected well, and we progressed down the right with Gooch winning a throw then a corner. Grant was on duty again as we massed in the front corner of the box – thankfully they charged into the middle as we took it short to Geads, who crossed to the back post – but just too far. Interesting but ineffective, as the hour approached.
The visitors replaced goalscorer McDonald with Akinde soon after this, as Burge launched a long one forward and Scowen got it to Power. The deep cross was headed it back nicely by Wyke, but McGeady couldn’t get right over the ball and consequently the shot wasn’t too much of a problem for the keeper. Another long throw caused us problems before Lee shot from distance for Burge to take comfortably and Scowen was fouled just in their half as we tried to get it forward. Grant’s free went to Wyke who missed out on the header but won the loose ball back and set up Geads for a run and cross from the left which was cleared for a throw. Come on Lads, we need another one here. Geads received the ball but was fouled as he turned, and Grant put it into the box, only for the clearance to set up a Gills attack. We broke that up, with Power finding Gooch’s run behind, and a corner the outcome. In it came, with Willis missing his touch and possibly putting off O’Brien, who hit it horribly off target. Gooch danced past a few opponents, but was pulled back and we created havoc from the free kick, with Geads seeing his low cross cleared. Much brighter stuff from the Lads, with Gooch playing a big role in this improvement, but the visitors were still keeping us on our toes and the killer third goal just wouldn’t come.
For what seemed like the tenth time, one of ours - Flan this time – took an arm to the face and enraged Steve Evans by being hurt. Imagine the entirely justifiable grief that chubby grumbler would be getting from a SoL crowd. Wyke then had a decent run into the box but shot wide of the near post after we played the free forward, when perhaps a pass to McGeady might have been on.
A ball into their box saw Wyke leave his mark on Cundy, once again bringing vociferous comments from Evans, and some of their players having a go at our head coach as things got a bit feisty. A promising move ended when O’Brien’s touch was heavier than their manager, but we won the ball back and went forward with Geads sending in a low shot that was comfortably saved. This was followed by a really scary moment as an overhead kick in a crowded home area hit the post, then came back in to cause another mad scramble of the sort more commonly seen in the Station Rec of a Sunday morning. The game had now settled into a proper contest with both sides going for it and action in both boxes, which promised a fairly nervy final ten minutes. Leadbitter did well to get in the way of a free into the box in front of Akinde, and that preceded their sub getting into the box again but being forced wide by Burge.
With seven to go, another free for a foul in Scowen allowed us a breather, and we warmed up Sanderson and O’Nien as they hoyed in another long throw. We cleared this, with Power setting Gooch away down the right and their man getting a yellow for pulling him back. That allowed our subs on at the expense of Leadbitter and Wyke, with Power moving up to midfield. O’9’s persistence on the left saw the visiting defence almost dribble it into their own net, then when McGeady got it to O’Brien the shot was blocked. Down the Roker End it came, and Akinde got the vital first touch which allowed Graham to take it wide of Burge and fire it into the roof of the net bang on 90 minutes. What a stinker, especially after we’d managed to get back into the game football-wise, but there were five added minutes to play. Gooch drove in from the right from the restart and I (and others, I reckon) saw he had nowt to pass to and prayed for a foul which didn’t come.
And so it ended 2-2, and a neutral would probably say that was a fair result as the visitors used their physical size to their best advantage and we didn’t handle that comfortably, especially in our box and especially for their second goal. Having said that, once we upped our game in the second half, especially after the arrival of Gooch, we should really have increased our lead or at least hung on to what we had. The visitors had reacted much more positively than us after our early goal, and that we ended the first half ahead was down to their indiscipline as much as our attacking play. We forced our way into the game, football-wise, after the break with a much more positive showing, but couldn’t get that vital third goal and let Gillingham snatch a second consecutive 2-2 draw with two equalisers, the second at the very death. We did have confirmed our strong suspicion that Steve Evans is a whiney bugger, and I doubt if hands would have been shaken after the match even if they had been allowed. On the positive side, we had nobody booked and somehow find ourselves in the play-off places.
Man of the Match? Definitely not a fullback, as Power simply isn’t one and McFadzean stayed down while the opposition continued their attack but got straight up when play stopped. That’s just not on, Cal. The two in the middle didn’t look comfortable at any stage, in a scrambly, disorganised way because of the lack of instruction from its usual source – Mr Wright. Wyke had a better second half, mainly because he started putting himself about once he realised the ref would give him nowt when he was fouled, as the official had shown in the first half. I still remain unconvinced by O’Brien, who seemed unsure of where he was supposed to be until the departure of Wyke. Leadbitter was the pick of the midfield, with Scowen a bit behind, as he did his usual job and stayed calm to finish off his own penalty. I’ll give it to McGeady – for a goal and an assist of sorts, and for still being a threat in the final stages.