For the second time in five days, the Lads travelled to Milton Keynes, and brought back a point from an entertaining game that could have gone either way. Despite taking an early lead against the run of play, we were missing the closing down of the opposition near their penalty area to force a second. After the home side dominated the first half hour, we hauled ourselves back into it. The second half was fairly even until the later stages, when we really went for it and but for some inexplicable refereeing when, after he missed a handball in the box (which his assistant must have seen, but chose to ignore –but he wasn’t even giving throw-ins, so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised), and the keeper carrying the ball out of the box, he refused to pull back play for a foul on Sanderson then refused to allow the advantage when we were three on one moments later. Folks might say you need a big referee for those decisions, but you don’t - you just need one who isn’t either a coward or an idiot. Overall, especially in the second half, it was a proper game of football that went from one end to the other and was packed with incident and near things. We remain unbeaten away from home, and a point’s a point.
With the pitch being in reet claggy state on Tuesday, we hoped that the MKD ground staff had been working their little socks off in the inclement weather that we’ve had since the cup game to get it looking more like grass and less like a nature reserve. With the injury to McFadzdean seemingly precluding his involvement, we’d reckoned that if Southampton could resist recalling Vokins in the light of their injury and form crisis, he’d be making his debut at left back. Whether this means that Lee Johnson keeps O’9 in midfield, or goes with Leadbitter, Scowen, and Winchester was also a matter for internet debate. Start with the team (minus McFadz) that set the tone on Tuesday, or go for the team that settled it? Burge or Matthews? I’d tried to get some clues from the statement by Kristjan Speakman on Friday, but he lost me in his first or second sentence. Look, I try to keep up with modern sports-speak, but haway man – David Brent all awwa.
I could have fancied a dinner-time tipple in Newport Pagnell, as we’d established a decent rapport with the barstaff at the wasp pub – so called because it was full of wasps on our first visit, all of whom seemed determined to get into your pint - if only to see if they still ride that horse and carriage up the main street to make me feel at home. Mind, their horse and carriage is for newlyweds while those in Bishop are for doing the shopping. Actually, I could fancy a dinner-time tipple anywhere with my football family, most of whom I’ve not seen in close to a year – just like all football fans – and who I’ll probably not be seeing if (and it’s still a very big if) we should be lucky enough to get to Wembley. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t realise that last season’s final had yet to be played. Will the winners of the 2019-20 competition take home the Checkatrade Trophy while, 24 hours later after the double-header weekend, take home the Papa John’s Trophy? Anybody bothered? Thought not.
Like the rest of the Red and White army, there was no meet-ups at Tibshelf, no pre-match warm-up in Newport Pagnell, and no last-gasp beer in the stadium – they insisted on plastic glasses, like every ground, but happily handed over glass bottles of the local brew on previous visits. With my connection to BT sport malfunctioning today, I couldn’t watch any Prem football and had to make to with Coventry v Watford. For those of you who say that we’d struggle in the Championship, I’d say that on the evidence of that football match, we’d be fine. There was no more quality on show than in most of our games this season, and considerably less than some. Let’s just say I gave up before half time.
Roaring fire, Maxim, telly, lucky socks, off we go.
Power© Wright Willis Vokins
O’Nien Leadbitter Gooch
O’Brien Wyke McGeady
… were the names on the teamsheet following a warm-up injury to Flanagan and I wasn’t sure whether Power and O’9 would be right back, we had a specialist left back in debutant Vokins. As it was, there were six changes from Tuesday’s starting XI, with Matthews, Neil, Maguire, Scowen, Sanderson, Diamond, and Jones on a strong and varied bench. In theory, that meant that we could revert to the side that started the other night, but that there was no initial sign of Neil after his impressive game was a bit of a disappointment, nor Winchester. With commentary from Three Counties Radio no less, which guaranteed opinions that would differ from mine, we lined up in our dark blue shirts, red short, and blue socks, defending the goal to the left as the cameras looked. Just like Tuesday.
The graphics had us as 4-4-2 but the commentary team had us as 4-2-2-2 as the teams joined in a minute’s applause for Captain Tom – which sounded strange with only about forty folks being able to take part. The home side set things away and we did indeed start with Gooch on the right and McGeady on the left of midfield and Power at fullback, and we won an early free kick which allowed us to get hold of the ball. Mind, we didn’t do much with it and ended up having to clear it from the box twice. We got forward and O’Brien won a throw, which Power took to Wyke in the box, but he could only tickle it from the line to the keeper. The pitch was looking better than it had on Tuesday, probably because it wasn’t raining, and the Dons passed it about to get it towards our end for us to defend. Our first attack on five minutes saw O’Brien control a forward pass and get it nicely to McGeady on the left, and he rolled in down the inside left channel in the box for Wyke to clip it low across the keeper and inside the far post. Yeehah! That’s the way to do it – one shot, one goal, and as the commentator said, you don’t give a chance to someone in Wyke’s rich vein of form.
The home side continued to dominate possession and won a corner off Gooch’s head, then somehow contrived to rill the ball right across our goal, but they got is back in and despite a couple of great saves by Burge from Jerome, we were all lover the place, couldn’t clear and Mason stabbed it home on eight minutes. Buggerbuggerbugger, but in reality it was no more than they deserved based on the amount of the ball they’d had….and they won another corner off O’9 on our left, but over-ran it when they carried it into the box.
A ball over the top could have brought their second four minutes later, but Willis got in a vital challenge as the home side stayed in control of things, and we had to work hard to get it out of the box. Gooch got a free when he was climbed on near halfway, and Grant sent it to the edge of the box, with the home defence winning the ball in the air to clear, but we couldn’t effectively pick up the pieces, our final pass running for a goal kick on the far side. Vokins and Geads swapped passes, with the former’s cross causing some consternation in the box, but there was a white shirt there first. At least, as we passed the twenty minute mark, we were starting to make some inroads, but it was Jerome who put away the Dons’ next chance to make it 1-2.
If that wasn’t bad enough, Burge gave us a fright when he dropped a shoulder to dribble away from a forward before clearing. Footballing goalkeepers, eh?
Wyke did well to get away a shot from a similar position to his goal but the keeper was up to it this time, before their Mason scuffed a great chance to score their third. Come on Lads, this defending is awful! Wyke won the ball on the right and got it to Gooch, but he wasn’t quite in the right place when Vokins crossed and the ball ran for a goal-kick. Power’s pass to O’Brien allowed Aiden to win a corner on our right, at the end of a little (very little) period of possession. Grant’s kick ended with a throw near the flag, which Power took an age to take. Perhaps he was waiting for a half-time reshuffle, but all he got was another throw in the same place, and all he got from that was a goal-kick. After that first 25 minutes, it was a relief to be playing football in the Dons’ defensive area, and Wyke had time to work space for a shot that he put way over the top. He was looking confident, which makes a huge difference to a player, especially a forward. Not quite as far over the bar as Leadbitter’s effort a few minutes later, though, when the ball fell on the edge of the box after a cross was headed away from goal. At least (he said, again) we were getting the shots away, and the more you have the more likely you are to score.
Gooch then ran at the corner of the box before cutting inside and firing in a left-footer that the keeper fielded comfortably, but it was Willis again at the other end who was the next Sunderland player to touch the ball, heading away a dangerous cross for a corner on our right - their fifth of the day. As we entered the final five minutes of the half, we got a breather when their Thompson needed treatment on the far side, when he could have rolled the two yards to the touchline. Apparently, he’s injury prone, so it was no surprise when he took an age to get back to his feet and amble off, to be replaced by Surman
Geads then cut back from the left to unleash a decent effort, but the keeper was perfectly positioned at the near post to take it at head height, then Power’s curling ball in found the same player in the right place again as three added minutes was announced – probably added for their injured player taking so long to walk off. Gooch again cut in from the right and was allowed to run across the edge of the box, but his left-foot shot had the sting taken off it and it bobbled to the keeper, and that was the half over.
We’d had twice as many shots as the home side, which wasn’t surprising after Tuesday, but they’d put half of theirs away while we’d put half of our wide. The mathematicians amongst you will have worked out that means we’d had five on and four off, while all of their four had been on target. While the home side had undoubtedly been the dominant side for the first 25, we’d worked our way back into things and ended the half with 47% possession, having been down at just above 30% at the half hour. Being a 2-1 down is never a pleasant experience or a good place to be, but we had upped our game – not difficult (well, it probably was) considering where we’d been – and were getting the shots in. Half time would be important on the head coach’s part – changes in formation, personnel, or tactics were needed. A simple change to revert to Tuesday’s tactic of running at defenders, which they really struggled with, could be the way to go – Gooch, McGeady usually have that at the forefront of their game, so why not today?
Off we went with no changes, and tried an attack down the left which ended with what the commentary team described as a very “Premier League” falling down by a home defender to win a free kick from a McGeady challenge. With O’9 chasing back over halfway in pursuit of an opponent a couple of minutes in, he decided to remove the feller’s shirt and was booked, but he was there to help Vokins defend soon after, albeit at the expense of a corner. Burge took than one comfortably, but ran into Jerome, who took offence and barged into our keeper, earning the second silly yellow of the afternoon. Gooch and O’Brien worked down the right, with the former getting to the line in the box but seeing his cut-back blocked and no Sunderland player around to pick up the loose ball as it ran to the edge of the box. After a home attack was broken up, O’Brien came to the left to win a corner –which Grant took, and O’9 was able to get to the ball when Geads got the vital touch, and in it went for 2-2 in what the MKD commentary team referred to as a “slightly fortuitous fashion.” Don’t care, mate, it went in.
Willis did well to get his head to our free from the right which went way too deep, and won a corner on the left. Again, Grant slung it in, and this one went deep before coming back in and being cleared before Geads won it back and tried to attack the left wing again. We broke through the middle, with Geads finding Wyke who was fouled thirty yards from goal as we looked the side more likely to win. The free was put behind for a corner on the right – yet again – and Grant was on duty – yet again – with another corner the result. This one went way too deep and out for a goal kick – presumably that’s what raising your right arm before taking it means. Speaking of arms, the ref chose not to see a handball by the home side soon after, one of those decisions which makes you wonder which bookmaker the officials use, and exactly what the linesman was looking at.
Geads and O’Brien had swapped sides, presumably to give their defenders a different set of things to worry about. Jones came on for Gooch on 68, and our new winger wasted no time in getting a couple of crosses in from the left. Power’s hanging cross was tipped over the bar after good work by Geads and O’Brien, with their keeper taking the corner under pressure. The ref was at it again as the keeper clearly had hold of the ball outside the box, but a free went to the home side on the edge for some offence I missed. Geads fed Wyke again, but he had to turn back when challenged, and got it to Power, and our captain’s ball across deserved the little touch that would have brought our third goal. On 77, O’9, who’d been attracting a bit too much attention from the ref, was replaced by Scowen, and Vokins by Sanderson. A tackle from Wright as Jerome bore down on our area looked like it could have been illegal (he said tactfully), and while the linesman signalled a foul, the ref waved play on – phew. A few retaliatory bumps and barges followed as “it all got a bit Benny Hill” – their next attempt certainly was, being blazed way over the top from a few yards out. An awful miss on 81 minutes.
The game had been going from one end to the other for most of the second half, which probably made for good viewing for a neutral, and another yellow arrived as we attacked down the inside left channel and Geads was brought won. While the free was being set up, Maguire came on for O’Brien for last seven minutes, but we had Wright’s head to thank when he put it in the way of a shot and we had to endure a little spell of frantic defending. Jones jinked towards the box on the left, saw his initial cross clocked before getting it to Wyke – and a VAR would probably have given a pen as the big man went down chasing the ball towards the keeper. One of those that’s never a penalty, but that you get in the Prem “because there was contact” even if we’d have wet ourselves laughing had it been given. All we got was a corner, and that signalled a period of Sunderland pressure with their keeper taking two goes at saving a low shot with two minutes to go. Five added minutes were announced as the home side gratefully cleared the ball and forged an attack of their own for the first time in quite a while. The ref then allowed play on when Sanderson was fouled but didn’t take play back when he lost it, then did pull play back after we had a clear run on goal. What a pudding. Power hit it from way out and was only a yard or so off the target as the home side heaved a sigh of relief. A free to them thirty yards out had my nerves on edge, but they put it beyond all of their attackers for a goal-kick as the final minute arrived. The last few seconds saw three shots blocked as Geads cut inside from the left and let fly, Wyke had a go, then Maguire hit legs from the edge in a breathless end to proceedings.
2-2 was probably a fair result, but we were right on top for the last fifteen or so and the home side are probably a tad happier than us with the point although either side could have won it.
Man of the Match? O’9 was all over, but his general rattiness meant that we had to take him off to prevent him giving the ref the chance to find a second yellow. Our defence was all over the shop at times, but thankfully stood firm in the second half so some credit has to go to Wright for organising that. Wyke looked full of himself, and while he should have done better with his third chance of the game, it took some pretty frantic defending to keep him out in the later stages. I’ll give it to Geads, who had a hand in both goals and was at the heart of our late period of dominance.