On the possibly weirdest semi-final day in our history, Lincoln came to the SoL (yes, I had to check if it was home or away as well) to see which of us would be meeting Tranmere - saving Methven and Stewart the problem of divided loyalties - at Wembley in the final of the Papa John’s (EFL)Trophy, and lost out in dramatic style in a penalty shoot-out. After a fairly flat first half in which the two sides struggled to get the measure of each other in terms of creating real chances, another McGeady-Wyke combination cancelled out Lincoln’s 65th minute opener with a cracking leveller, and we ended the 90 minutes very much the team in the ascendency thanks to some astute substitutions. With Lincoln’s third penalty smacking off the bar, and our first four being successful, it fell to Grant Leadbitter to plant the decisive fifth into the North Stand net and send the team, if not the fans, to Wembley.
Cheesy Pizzas on Wembley Way it is, then.
Of course, the whole semi-final thing has been a bit overshadowed by the takeover ratification dragging on longer than a Rory Gallagher outro, as these things tend to. One accusation that can’t be levelled at our new-owner-in-waiting is lack of commitment. Look, we’ve all done some pretty daft things in order to get to a Sunderland game, but I for one have yet to voluntarily enter a period of quarantine to guarantee attendance at Shrewsbury on Tuesday night. He’ll be hiding on the luggage rack on the Durham bus next, singing songs about Charlie Wyke – and on that note (songs-note-geddit?), my apologies to Craig Russell for omitting him from the list, in Saturday’s musings, of those who’ve scored four Sunderland goals in my presence. Since Stan Cummings in 1980, four others have now gone one better than a hat-trick and I suspect there are clubs who’ve not had a single player achieve that feat in that time.
With the absence of Sanderson through being cup-tied, and Willis and Flanagan through being injured (they are Sunderland central defenders after all), it would by necessity be a bit of a shuffle at the back, with the sensible money being on McLaughlin moving to the middle and Power moving to defence – a shame for Max, as he showed at the weekend where his strengths lie. At least there was no “former player” threat, as Liam Bridcutt was out injured as well, and their other big name, Joe Walsh, had a gig with the Eagles. There should have been a celebratory and anticipatory nervousness about the build-up as we fans prepared to roar the Lads on the final, but it’s hard to get that excited in front of your own telly with only a soft toy (in Sunderland colours, ‘natch)to share your thoughts with. Under normal circumstances, we’d have been early to the Tree, early to Sunderland, and early to our usual haunts, as befitting a semi-final of any sort. There’d have been a carnival atmosphere, with the piper on the bridge serenading us with his versions of Sunderland classics, and there’d have been a buzz of nervous anticipation all over the shop. There’d have beeb Papa John’s promotional people outside the ground, handing out free slices of pizza, and Sky people interviewing fans. The Roker Roar would have awoken from its slumber once again to drown whatever token peeps of noise came from the away section, and the stadium would have been rocking off its foundations as the teams took to the field.
Lucky socks, soft toy in Sunderland colours, TV, nice roaring fire, bottle of Maxim, off we go….
Power Wright O’Nien McFadzean
McGeady Wyke Gooch
....which showed a couple of new starters from the weekend, with Leadbitter returning to midfield, Dan Neil stepping into midfield, and Power starting where he’d finished on Saturday- at right back. On the bench were Matthews, McLaughlin, Maguire, O’Brien, Almond, Jones, and Diamond – a canny few options there, especially with the pace and directness of the last two. A bit of a surprise start for young Dan, what with O’Nien’s versatility being tested to the limit as a central defender and McLaughlin being fit enough for the bench, but it’s another step in the Lad’s career. Starting with only two defenders on the field seems a bit of a risk….and we set up defending the North Stand, as per usual, before Scowen set things in motion. O’Nien and Wright managed to collide going for the first ball they had to defend, which didn’t bode well for our latest defensive partnership, but we got away with it – and most importantly, they didn’t repeat it. Gooch started on the right and Geads on the left, but it was O’Nien who was first into the real action, doing a bit of mopping up, which he did calmly by passing it out to Scowen from deep in our own box. Power scooped in an attempt sailing well over the bar.
Geads got onto the end of some nice passing by Gooch and Scowen, but just ran out of space to get his cross in from the left, as we started to get a few moves together. However, once we’d had that little spell, it was all Lincoln for the next few minutes, and O’9 had to concede a corner on our left to prevent it getting into the middle. Thankfully, when they won the header, they put it well over the top. The ref seemed to be letting some pretty scrappy tackles go unpunished in the centre circle, particularly on Wyke, with Lincoln benefitting more than us, and they continued to take advantage of this, drawing more good defensive work from O’9.
On 12 minutes Wright got his timing just right with a tackle and sent it over halfway with Power finding Gooch, but all we got was a throw that created nothing. Another Lincoln move down our left ended with a poorly hit shot over the top, but they were certainly getting to the edge of our box more than we were getting to theirs. Wright’s long one to the overlapping McFad was mis-controlled (for the second time so far) and bounced out for a throw – but at least this time it was closer to their corner flag than ours, unlike the first one. Gooch was penalised for making a back for the defender, when in reality he’d just stood his ground as his opponent climbed over him. Ah well, that was in Geads territory, and we could have done with a chance on goal to alleviate the pressure we were under. I say pressure, but it was more Lincoln having more of the ball and moving forward with it but not being allowed into dangerous places, although they did get caught offside when they had other passes available. Their next attack came when McGeady’s pass went astray, but a good run upfield by Johnson ended with another poor shot over the top by Scully. Shades of Doncaster.
Gooch turned his man on the right and was pulled down, thirty yards out, with the ref booking Edun for his misdemeanour. Geads curled it in right-footed, but when it dropped down off Wyke’s head it was deflected gently to the keeper rather than smashed into the net. Clever play by Neil got it out of defence to Gooch, but he ran into his man on chasing the return pass on the right. More their man stopping and waiting for Dan to run into him, but them’s the rules and that’s experience for you. Wright’s replication of it wasn’t though, but we defended the free effectively and got Geads away. Unfortunately, his cross was too strong for Chas.
Play stopped for a while when McFad clashed heads (“give him some smelling salts and tell him he’s Micky Gray” came to mind) but he was up and away after counting the physio’s fingers. Some great persistent defending by Wright and O’9 kept the visitors out, and we attacked down the right with Neil’s cross being cut out and the Lad then conceding a free-kick trying to win it back. Wyke go it to Geads who fed McFad, and he turned his man to fire in a low one that took a touch and went across the face of goal for a corner on our right. Grant took it, right across for O’9 to volley over the bar, but the whistle had gone for pushing in on the goal line – no surprise, as everybody but Grant and Luke seemed to be in there.
We had another break in play as their man needed his contact lens finding, and McFad took the opportunity for another check-up – probably because he was baffled as to how he’d actually gone past his marker. On the restart, O’Nien got it to Geads, who got his cross to Wyke, and Lincoln could only clear it as far as Grant, lurking well outside the box – but it was his left peg, and the volley landed up among the flags of the Roker End. Geads was obviously enthused by this, getting in the game’s first shot on target with his right foot after dancing in from the left, but the keeper was able to knock the dipping effort away from the foot of the near post. This was in the 40th minute, showing how effective the defences had been, and it preceded a little spell of pressure as Geads raised his game and teased his maker before creating a bit of havoc with a clever ball to McFadz and some desperate defending by Lincoln.
After McGeady’s cross was headed back in by Power, Grant was pulled up for blocking his opponent when advantage to Lincoln didn’t work out, and three added minutes were announced, presumably for their contact lens and McFad’s wobbly heid. Gooch was a tad lucky to escape a yellow when he lost his rag after an attack broke down and he flew into a tackle from behind, and both sides decided to go for broke in the final minute, with defenders having to be on their toes.
No scores at the break, and that was fair as there had only been the one shot on target – but Lincoln had made that statistic possible with a couple of wildly inaccurate efforts. We’d grown into a game in which Lincoln had dominated possession early on, and were on top in the latter stages, looking the more patient side in the final third in those latter stages. O’9 had been us his usual effective and effervescent self – if effervescence isn’t a necessary characteristic of central defenders, it should be – and despite McFadz seemingly unable to trap a bag of cement, our defence had looked comfortably effective. As had Lincoln’s, although they did let Geads get that shot away, meaning that their keeper had made the only save of the half. A slow burner, said the Sky commentary, and one they said would benefit from a crowd. You don’t say, chaps. Perhaps Johnson would be thinking of swapping Jones for Neil, who’d only performed in brief patches?
McLaughlin was on for the second half, with Wright going off with a calf injury that we can ill afford. Bugger. Lincoln went straight on the attack and drew a low save from Burge as they showed their intent to up the tempo against what had become our makeshift defence, but we built an attack of our own down the left only to run into a wall of defenders. O’9 overlapped, if a central defender can overlap, down the left and we kept the ball in their half for a decent while and looked more determined in attack. All of which won us a corner on the right, which Geads took right-footed, but our touch went for a goal kick. McLaughlin fouled on the right, but the free was headed wide with the ref blowing for a shirt-pull anyway as Lincoln looked to work our non-centre halves, and O’9 was booked for tangling with his man off the ball, giving the visitors a shooting chance from 25 or more in a central position. A blooter way over the top will have been a disappointment to their manager, but a relief for us, and O’9 did well to get in the way of Scully’s cross soon after, with Sanders then being replaced by Brammall as they lined up the resultant throw near the flag on our left.
Gooch, getting a bit upset by a few decisions, like he does, was spoken to for yet another moan on the hour, as we replaced Scowen and Neil with Maguire and Diamond. However, it was Brammall who got the ball in from the left after they were awarded a throw that looked like it should have gone our way, and when Burge couldn’t hold the shot, it was an easy tap-in for Scully. Bugger, but still 25 to go, although it was pretty galling to see the replays clearly showing that it was a Sunderland throw as the ball had bounced off Scully when he was tackled. What is the linesman there for?
McLaughlin was booked for chopping down his opponent when he threatened to break away – taking one for the team, I think it’s called. Thankfully, O’9 was there to be fouled and break up the attack. Clever play, Luke.
This was the time when a crowd would really have made a difference, urging the Lads on, and Diamond’s cross from the right saw Wyke challenged by two defenders, but we kept the pressure on. O’9, up on the edge of the box for some reason, set up Gooch for a decent strike that was saved without too much bother for the keeper. Maguire played it wide, in came the cross from the right, and Wyke flew in to head it down – and it bounced up for the keeper to tip over for a corner on our right. When it eventually came in from the right, after we’d played it around a bit, Wyke hit one of his low near-post specials, which the keeper did well to keep out. Promising, and a minute later, Geads clipped it to the big man from the right and his header, as he was actually diving away from goal, flew into the net past the keeper’s despairing right hand. No more than we deserved, and a lovely goal with fifteen to go.
Our pressure was beginning to tell on the visiting defence, as they gave away a string of fouls with one wrestle on Wyke what should have resulted in a spot kick, but the ref wasn’t about to change his opinion on wrestling on the field of play this late in proceedings. A McGeady drive from distance was only parried but Wyke wasn’t close enough to take advantage, and had KLD on his feet in appreciation as we were very much on top of things. Another free kick was cleared by the Imps’ defence, but we soon won another deep in our own half, and while we were setting that up, O’Brien replaced Gooch, then Geads got away another shot on the turn only to see the keeper take it comfortably. Four added minutes were announced as both sides went for a quick finish. We looked the more likely until an Imps break ended with a Sunderland toe getting in the way of a shot at the expense of a corner which we cleared. As we entered the final added minute, Burge launched a free forward and the whistle went.
Bloody penalties, after a dull first half in terms of shots, and an exciting second in terms of just about everything. We’d looked more likely to score the vital second, and Lincoln had been dangerous on the break, our substitutions had changed things in our favour in terms of possession in the opposition’s half. The directness of Diamond out the Imps on the back foot, and that allowed Geads to move about a bit more as they deployed defenders in other areas. Maguire, even with no crowd, was more like his old self, and his strutting cameo helped take the sting out of Lincoln. O’Brien’s time on the field had been gainfully taking the ball towards the opposition box and retaining possession in their half, so job done.
Bloody penalties. Which they took at the North end, the keepers chatting as they made their way there. Power lined up to take the first, and he planted it high in the top right corner with the keeper going the other way. Perfect start, 1-0
Burge did well to get to the next pen, knocking it up but not over. Nearly but not quite, 1-1
O’9’s was a pretty duff affair, but the keeper let it under him, diving to his left. I’ll take that, 2-1
Burge again got to the next effort, diving to his left, but couldn’t keep it out. Unlucky again, 2-2
Maguire’s was low to the keeper’s right, and it was in off his glove. Nicely done, 3-2
Howard then smashed his effort off the middle of the bar, giving us the mental and numerical advantage. Haway, Lads. Do the simple things right and we’re though. Still 3-2
Geads placed his exactly where he wanted with the keeper going the wrong way. Simple but efficient, and another point proved with the new owner elect looking on.4-2
Burge couldn’t get near the next one. 4-3
Grant Leadbitter. Sunderland fan. One of our own. Crucial fifth penalty. Nee pressure, son, score this and there’s no point them taking another. So he sent the keeper diving to his right while placing it firmly to his left. 5-3. Gerrinnnnnnn!
Yeehah! – that’s a shootout that we’ve won! Wemberlee, Wemberlee
Man of the Match? After a start that any watcher will acknowledge was slower than the opposition, we grew into the game to end the first half on top, then had to match Lincoln in a much livelier second period. Our changes made a big difference, as they carried the game to the visitors, and allowing O’9 to become an attacking centre half, as he turned up on the edge of the Lincoln box on several second half occasions. Add this to his typically gung-ho but effective defending, and you have to wonder if there’s anything this Lad can’t do. Wyke had a good game in terms of holding up and laying off, once we’d got a grip of things, and scored with a beaut of a header –has anybody ever scored five consecutive headers? Set up by the same player? Which brings me nicely to Geads. After a fairly frustrating opening period when he was understandably well marked, he burst to life late in the first half, providing that period’s only dangerous shot, then calmly worked his magic in the second. Had there been extra time, I’m firmly of the opinion that he’d have set up at least another goal for Wyke, as he spent the last ten minutes tormenting Lincoln’s left side, who were looking decidedly sick to death of him by then.
So it’s McGeady for me, but well done to the lot of them.