Well, that was weird. A game we should have had wrapped up by half-time was lost on penalties after the first spot-kick, from an otherwise decent Grigg, was saved and the rest all successfully converted – the last, to cap it off, by someone with a double-barrelled name. We had by far the majority of possession despite Hull getting back into it a bit more after the break- but Lee Burge didn’t have a shot to save until the shoot-out, unlike his opposite number. You don’t score, you don’t win. Please don’t make this a template for the season to come.
Since Spennymoor beat Hereford 4-0 in the National League North on March 14th, it was 172 days until Bishop Auckland beat Hall Road Rangers (of ‘Ull) 1-0 in the extra preliminary round of the FA Cup (in a torrential downpour, and thanks to a 93rd minute penalty). Not much a statistic, really, but they are the last two games of football I’ve seen. A record between games for me that stretches back until the year a certain team won their solitary Jules Rimet Trophy, but a record, as far as watching Sunderland is concerned, that has already been both broken and guaranteed to be stretched. With no return to watching the Lads in sight, I, like every other Sunderland person, have been wondering when it will all end.
The club have been doing admirable work in planning for a (very) restricted return for the faithful by assembling matchday “bubbles” and working out how folks can safely enter, populate, and leave the stadium. The plans are detailed, and look to have taken every aspect into consideration – but still rely on folks doing what they’re supposed to. Given that a large number of us have failed to differentiate between “in” and “out” as far as the toilets are concerned for the last 23 years, there’s one problem waiting to happen. My plan is to don a 1996 shirt, a pair of Ray Bans, a false beard and wig, and wave a wad of cash about outside the ground while carrying a can of energy drink (online sales only) – that should get me in no bother.
There’s been football on the telly, of course, with the added “oohs”, “aahs”, and generic, but muted, songs and celebrations as the players hugged and kissed. There was the surprise of seeing two former Sunderland keepers in the same pitch when Rangers played Livingston, at a ground we visited a couple of years back in pre-season - McLaughlin, Stryjek, and the Tony Macaroni Stadium, in case you’re wondering. In place of those two we’ve got Remi Matthews, while further up the field are Morgan Feeney, the returning Bailey Wright, Aiden O’Brien, a handful of youngsters and Arbenit Xhemajli. Given the problems I had/have spelling Thomas Myhre, I’ve got no chance with our new Kosovan defender, but Danny Graham is a doddle should he emerge from the wings to sign his second Wearside contract. As well as the well-documented player departures, Cookie the kitman has gone – Cookie, who has survived more managerial changes than just about any employee in the club’s history, a man so durable that tanks have been coated with Cooke to protect them from armour penetrating missiles. Another who is on his way is physio Craig Russell, “not brought back from furlough.” Read into that what you will.
As far as watching the Lads, there have been highlights of our three friendly wins, then the big decision for our first competitive match. The club offered a £10 stream, with the fans varying in their reaction to this from “it should be free” through “£10 is more than the ticket would have been” to “suck it up, it’s the only income we’ve got.” As the season ticket refunds went into the bank in the last couple of days, I suspect a canny few will move a tenner of that back to the club for the stream link. As it’s the Carabao Cup, many might well give it a miss, and join the (potential) 299 others at their nearest Northern League Ground. Bishop v Northallerton in real life or Sunderland v Hull on telly? It’s a rotten decision to have to make, and the last time I decided to watch the Lads on telly rather than in real life was Oxford away in 1999. A pay-per-view job in the Green Tree, it was a ditchwater-dull 0-0 – but I still felt guilty about not attending in person and potentially somehow making a difference.
I suppose I could have done both – turn up at the Bishop Auckland Brewery Stadium and watch the Lads on my phone. As it’s my birthday, and one that marks half a century to the day since my Sunderland journey started in earnest – and an early present (cheers, George!) was a link to the video of the first league game at the SoL, featuring ridiculously young versions of Simon O’Rourke and Jeff Brown. A good way to start the day. I wonder what happened to our opponents, who, like us, had aspirations of returning to the Premier League?
Anyway, I coughed up my tenner and settled down with a couple of bottles of Maxim and my new lucky red and white socks for the strangest start to any season we’ve known. Win our two cup games and we’re on a roll before the league starts, lose them both and we’re on a slide. Weird, just weird. Treat them as a continuation of the pre-season? All out to win? Who knows. What I do know is that it felt anything but right.
Hull featured ten people and George Honeyman, still sporting his Owen Hargreaves lockdown barnet. We had:
O’Nien Flanagan Willis Wright Hume
Maguire Grigg O’Brien
We started brightly, with Parky’s favoured 5-2-3 formation, kicking off towards the Roker (South) and had one headed off the line and a “goal” by O’Nien chalked off for a foul within the first two minutes as Hull couldn’t get hold of the ball. At least the stream didn’t have the SKY/BT/BBC canned crowd noise, but it still sounded like it was being played in the baths. On five minutes there was yet another scramble as Hume cut in in from the left, but Maguire, in making sure his shot evaded defensive legs, went past the right hand post from twelve or so yards. Even Willis was getting in on the act, taking a pass from O9 but slicing his shot wide under pressure, as our wingbacks continued to pester the visitors.
Hull’s first attack came after ten minutes, when a free out on their right was headed well wide of the far post. We then won a throw well upfield on the right and it was worked across to Hume, with O’Brien getting to the near-post cross but his flick being saved at that front post. Another run by Hume was ended by a foul as he chased onto a through ball virtually on the goal line, but new dad O’Nien’s downward header at the back post was saved by the keeper’s foot.
Unlike last season, Power was the more forward of the central midfielders, with our George hanging deeper. O’Brien was drifting across behind Grigg, and bearing more than a passing resemblance to McGeady, looked very comfortable with the ball at his feet. Unlike Luke in the air, with a strange diving header back into the danger area from just outside our box, but Wright was strong enough to clear the unnecessary problem. Haway man Luke, less on!
Another Hull attack ended with Burge extending his arms to take a cross and then get it upfield, ending when Grigg’s cross from the left was a couple of inches away from O’Brien’s toe-end on 25 minutes. By this stage we’d dominated the game and had a handful of chances, at least one of which we should really have put away.
A drinks break (oh, give awwa) was had as their man-bunned number nine (Eaves) received treatment in the centre circle before limping off on 27 minutes, replaced by number 19. Some McGeady-esque play by O’Brien with a twazzle in our own half preceded a clever ball through to Grigg, and a corner ensued which was cleared. O’Brien was at it again soon after, chasing onto a good pass through in the inside right channel, but with the keeper closing him down, cut his shot wide of the left-hand post on 35. Should really have scored, Aiden. According to Benno and Barnsey, the sunshine had given way to clouds and coolishness, while it was perfectly warm in my front room. Pressure from O’Nien and Maguire down the right ended with a hoof into the air from the latter, with O’ Brien getting a shot away as it dropped, but high into the Roker End.
Hume’s thumping challenge saw the ball go too far for Grigg, but the seemingly re-invigorated Will charged down the keeper’s challenge without being able to get the ball away from the Hull stopper who gratefully picked it up. We then had to defend Hull’s first corner, on their right, which we did comfortably as we watched a tame header float wide of the far post.
Three added minutes were announced, presumably for the injury to Hull’s centre forward, and Hume put in another good ball that the keeper did well to take off Grigg’s head. A naughty foul on O’Nien as he tried to take Willis’s pass near the touchline saw Parky have a few words with their manager Grant McCann, just to add a bit of spice to the proceedings. The free came in from Maguire but hit what passed for a wall on the edge of their box and that was the first half. No goals, a good performance, but we could have had four and should have had two. I was quite happy with the overall showing, even if watching on the TV with a slightly wobbly-ish stream, but missed the traditional half-time sharing of boiled sweets with Bri in the next seat. At least Charlie in the row in front didn’t get the chance to nick any.
Instead of the usual half time challenge, with cubby lads and athletic dads chasing and tripping each other on the way to the North stand box, we were treated to a cessation of the commentary and a series of adverts for Carabao pop, Utilita whatever they are, and various SAFC things.
There were no changes for the second half, and Hull got things under way. Hume’s throw in found O’Brien, who wriggled through the defence to lay it back to Hume and his cross to the far post was knocked back nicely by Grigg, with Maguire’s shot hitting a defender and looping for a corner, which was cleared. A break down the right saw O’Nien and O’ Brien swap passes before the former slung in a cross which was headed over the bar. Yet another Hume cross, after sprinting onto a return pass virtually onto the line, was nicely cut back and ended with a half-clearance being fired into the keeper’s arms by Power form the edge of the box. Power, after having impressive five minutes, was fouled by Honeyman on the left of the box, and Maguire took the free, rolling back to Dobson in the D, but George took an extra touch and lost the chance to shoot. The Hull break ended with a free to them halfway into our area, which we eventually got away with O’Brien down the right. That ended with a good tackle, but O’Brien nearly got onto an O’Nien through ball straight afterwards, ten minutes into the half.
Another Hull injury saw the drinks bottles out again, but no substitution, and we had to defend after a Honeyman cross was headed goalwards, with Burge collecting the effort as Samuelson and Willis clashed heids. A bit of ice to the respective craniums sorted those two out, with things restarting once their man had counted, successfully, the physio’s fingers.
Lots of good passing saw us break down the left, then play it in the middle, to the right, and back to the middle from whence Power’s hopeful scoop to O’Nien was a few yards to strong and sailed out for a goal kick as we passed 64 minutes. O’ Brien’s clever play got it to Hume, and his deep cross was headed straight to the keeper by O’Nien. Luke was at it again almost immediately, bursting into the box onto Maguire’s pass, and finding Grigg with a low cross, but Will was deemed offside as he poked the ball home. Damn blast and bugger, that move deserved a goal. Wright and Wilks had a bit of a tussle off the ball, earning a chat with the ref, but the battle continued immediately play had resumed, resulting in a free to Hull out left and thirty-odd yards out. Honeyman fired it in, and a corner resulted as it was knocked to safety at the back post. The ball in was headed over as their back appeared to take a hefty shove in the back/was the subject of a solid but entirely fair challenge.
With 15 to go, Hull almost got through but missed the ball across the field, and Parky too the opportunity to change things with O’Brien and Maguire making way for Gooch and Wyke. Flanagan got a toe in to concede a corner on our right as Hull threatened to get a cross in, and we half-cleared it giving Honeyman the chance to sky a shot from 25 yards out. Gooch collected the hoof up-field to find Hume, who in turn found O’Nien with a deep cross, but we couldn’t create a chance. Hull had at last started to string a few passes together, but with 11 minutes to go still hadn’t forced a save from Burge – which is always a dangerous situation for us.
Wyke chased onto a pass to the edge of the area after some smart passing between Power and Hume, but his shot was saved low to the keeper’s right. At this stage, penalties looked the likeliest outcome, what with the illegalisation of extra time, England kicking off at five, and us unable to turn our advantage into goals. Which was more than a bit disappointing. If only I’d been there, I’d have been able to scream that little bit of advice (sorry, hold up a board with the requisite instructions) that would have created the crucial opening and deadly finish.
Four minutes of added time were announced, which we began by misplacing a pass down the left which gave Hull a throw deep in their own half before our George chased back to end a Hull attack by conceding a corner which Wyke hoofed to safety after it was headed back in. George was there again immediately after, thinking he’d conceded another corner on the other side but the ref thought otherwise, awarding a free which Burge did well to punch away. Another corner on our right for Hull followed, which Burge took out of the air – and the whistle went. Is there anything less dramatic than the real thing than a penalty shoot-out with no crowd to chew their fingernails? I doubt it. It seems so mechanical and dispassionate, with none of that looking through your fingers and sticking pins in imaginary George Honeyman dolls. I still went through my usual ritual rubbing of the earring as we things took place at the North End. Grigg had the ball on the spot well before their keeper, Ingram, was inclined to take up his position. No repeat of Oxford, please, Will. Were you not listening, man? Straight down the middle and saved. Bugger.
Wilks rolled it to Burge’s left as Lee dived to his right.
Power placed his to the keeper’s left with a well-placed shot.
Smallwood hit it low to Burge’s right, beyond the keeper’s outstretched hand.
O’Nien’s short run-up left the keeper on his knees as the ball rolled to his left.
Samuelson took a long run-up and stroked it in to Burge’s right again.
Gooch dinked his into the top corner
Honeyman – oh, George, make a mess of it, please. He didn’t, putting into the corner to Burge’s right yet again.
Wyke – blasted our fifth effort home.
Lewis-Potter - fires Hull’s fifth into the net low to Burge’s right again.
Bugger. We should have won that, and we shouldn’t start churning out that we’re not that bothered about the League Cup. There’s little point dominating the game if you don’t score, and I’d rather have 10% possession and win than 70% and lose.
Man of the Match? Probably O’Brien, but with a good showing from Hume, who’s added some beefy tacking to his game. In fact, apart from not scoring, the only real negatives I could see were Flanagan’s continued flakiness out left when under pressure and facing his own keeper, and O’Nien getting a bit raggy in the second half.