Tell me ma me ma, I'll still be home for tea, while Sunderland’s at Wemberlee…
Sunderland nipped down for an early kick-off at Milton Keynes in the quarter final – aye, two wins to Wembley – of the Papa John’s Trophy and ran out comfortable winners in the end. A repeat of the weekend’s display in a way, in that we started brightly and scored before the opposition grew into the game in the first half. Our subs were an important factor as they scored the second and third, making this one a victory for the squad as we limited Matthews to one real save by defending well when in the face of a bit of pressure. It was also a chance for Johnson to see what Jones, Neil, and Younger are made of, and none of those disappointed as we put together a display that showed a fair amount of confidence, especially (as you’d expect at two and three nil) towards the end of proceedings.
Having almost been caught out by the earlier than early start to tonight’s fresh air and fun, I was as badly prepared for kick-off as I hoped our hosts, the club that shouldn’t be in the league, would be. The time since our last game has seen the departure of Grigg and Embleton on loan, and the wandering off by mutual consent of Danny Graham. Incoming was Ross Stewart, a forward who we hope will give us something a bit different up front, but he wasn’t in the squad for tonight’s game, with “a minor injury” given as the reason. Let’s hope it is minor. Anyhow, the Lads lined up:
Power © Willis Flanagan McFadzean
Diamond Scowen O’Nien Jones
Or summat like that, anyway.
No place for cup-tied Vokins, Sanderson, or Winchester, so the bench was Patterson, Younger, Wyke, Leadbitter, Maguire, McGeady, and Neil. Very much a “let’s see how this one goes and hoy the big guns on if it’s not working” sort of side. Mind, if our line-up was experimental, the home side had two keepers on the bench – make of that what you will.
We defended the end to the left, with Gooch taking the kick-off and us in our blue tops and socks and red shorts and the pitch looking like it would take a three inch stud – at the very least. In the early stages at least, O’Nien tended to the right of the field before moving to a more central spot. We won a series of throws on either side of the pitch as the game stuttered along with no more than three passes being strung together by us and no more than one by the home side. Jones went on a decent run through the middle, showing good strength to get past three opponents, then Diamond cut in from the right in familiar style, with his low cross just evading Gooch as he stuck out a leg at the back post on five minutes. Nice play, Lads, and a close thing.
The Dons then got it into our box for the first time, in fact it was probably the first time they’d got within forty yards of Matthews, after a decent few passes, but Willis stuck to his task and got in a vital toe to clear the danger. Diamond’s ball through the inside left channel after taking a pass from Willis carried a yard too far for Gooch when I expected it to stick on the claggy turf, and the ball trickled for a goal kick. Then O’Brien took a clearance from Matthews on his chest and let Gooch take it out of the centre circle, and with options either way, Lynden chose to feed Diamond on the right. Young Jack took his usual route to the by-line and hit a low one across, but the keeper had decided to dive out before a MKD boot deflected the ball goalwards and it went in at the near post. Nice move, half-decent goal, and some work by the keeper that perhaps explained the presence of another two on the bench. Twelve minutes in, and we were ahead, a decent reward for a positive start to the game.
Diamond and Gooch were their usual energetic selves, which meant little time to think for the home defence and a bit more time for our midfield to pick their passes, but after fifteen McFadzean sat down in the centre and needed attention. The home side then moved forward, with a blocked shot falling nicely for a follow-up which Matthews was down to smother quite comfortably, but that signalled a spell of pressure in our half of the field as we were forced back. O’Nien was biting into the tackle, relishing the state of the pitch as it offered the chance to slide in every few minutes, and that helped prevent Dons progress down our right. Harrying by Scowen on the right eventually forced a loose pass and we were away, but this time the keeper dropped on the cut-back from Jones after Gooch had played him in. Play stopped on 24 when MzFadzean pulled up again, and he eventually limped off at the far side holding his groin with Dan Neil coming on.
O’Nien went across to left back, with Neil taking his place in the middle, and Luke was soon heading clear a dangerous cross, with young Dan helping the ball up the field on the left. As we passed the half hour, another MKD attack ended, this time with a shot way off target in what had been a fairly open game with both sides trying to play it out from the back and the pitch standing up better than I’d expected. We were having to defend a bit more than I was comfortable with, and, while Gooch was still hindering their efforts to get it away from their keeper, we tried a few hopeful long ones out of defence that didn’t find a blue shirt. Gooch must have got a bit sick of chasing up top without much back-up as his team-mates dropped a bit deeper, and their keeper was allowed to walk out of the area a few times, with the home side almost creating a chance before Flan got in the way of a cross to conceded the game’s first corner on 36 minutes.
O’Brien won the ball in the centre circle and fed Jones on the left, eventually got it to Diamond but the cross was slightly over-hit and thus beyond Jones’s reach. O’Brien was taking a deeper position, leaving Gooch to operate almost as a lone striker since the departure of McFadzean, and NKD almost got in again, but 0’9 was in the right place in the middle to get the ball away. With a lot of our problems coming down the Dons’ left, the pace of the game fluctuated between slow and measured and fast and frantic. Thankfully, we started to press them higher up the field again, which obviously eased things at the back, but still the home side got forward and this time it was Flan who was forced to concede the corner on our right. This was headed away by O’Brien then cleared by Power, who was fouled as he tried to get out of the box and we had time to catch our breath as we entered the final minute of the half. It looked like a case of getting to the break and then taking heed of that what Lee Johnson said, but there was still time for O’9 to concede at corner on our left. We cleared it and Neil got the ball up the field but the final ball wasn’t quite right and the move floundered. The half ended after a couple of added minutes.
Like Saturday, we’d started the brighter and taken the lead thanks to a deflection, then seen the opposition up their game and have the lion’s share of the attacking play. Thanks to their seeming reluctance to shoot, they’d only really had one chance, which they put over the top, but we needed to change something to reassert ourselves on proceedings. We’d looked more dangerous early and late in the half when we’d been closing their defence and preventing them passing it out, and consequently also looked more secure at the back. When we allowed their keeper to move out with the ball, we were already on the back foot when the ball came over halfway and there were a few hairy moments that I could have done without. Having said all that, in Jones, Gooch, and Diamond we had the pace to do damage to the opposition, and for all the opportunity to shoot they had, the Dons hadn’t troubled Matthews. However, I’d rather we weren’t relying on our defence to keep the opposition at bay, I’d much rather we weren’t allowing them up there in the first place.
No more changes for the second half, and NKD set things away, and we got the ball upfield from Matthews with Gooch feeding O’Brien and the home side happy to nick it off his toe at the expense of a corner on our right. Jones took it, O’9 flung his head at it, and it bounced off Willis and the keeper was relieved to pounce on it at the foot of his left-hand post. A decent start to the half, but we then conceded a free near halfway, and that found its way to Matthews without any real danger being created for him.
We were again allowing their keeper to walk out of his area with the ball, but his hoofs forward were usually going all the way to his opposite number. When they did play it through us, Willis forced their man wide to the left and his shot was no problem for Matthews. O’9 was on hand to put it out of danger for a corner, and a little spell of pressure ensued before we could carry it out of defence, only to find Gooch just offside. They broke again, with a shot flicking off the head of Willis for another corner on our left – which was well taken at the back by Matthews. He set Diamond away down the right, but no free kick was forthcoming when he was blocked and we had to start again, their keeper rushing out to get to the ball ahead of O’Brien. This precipitated a nice bit of Sunderland pressure as we increased our urgency levels and almost got through a couple of times, with Gooch in particular almost wriggling into a shooting position and Jones showing determination down the left. He was pulled down, with his marker earning a yellow – although whether that was for the foul or the very audible choice language that followed, I couldn’t tell.
After ten minutes, in which we’d looked far livelier, we had three subs warming up, perhaps to keep the Lads on the pitch on their toes, although it seemed to have the opposite effect as we sat back again. Anyhow, Cameron Jerome came on for them, as we replaced Jones with Younger, Willis with Leadbitter, Scowen with McGeady and O’Brien with Wyke. Work that out if you can, but it was basically more fresh legs than a caterpillar salad. Younger was in the centre of defence, and the rest were where they’d be expected, with McGeady’s first contribution winning us a corner on the left. Wyke got hold of the ball laid it to Neil, whose shot was deflected over for another corner, which was taken by the keeper at the front post. It was then Matthews rushing out to clear for a throw on our left, and we had to chase to clear - which we did, forcing the ball all the way back to the keeper. By this time the pitch was beginning to resemble the Baseball Ground circa 1974 (ask yer granddad) as large areas of grass turned brown, but it didn’t seem to affect the twinkling toes of McGeady, who cleverly played it through for Neil but the keeper was there first as we upped our pressing game again.
On 67, a low Fraser shot at the end of the home side’s best move brought a good save from Matthews down to his left, and we had to defend for a little while before clearing. Another yellow came when Diamond was through but chopped down thirty yards out and Grant took the dead ball, going square to Geads, who fed Gooch down the left, with O’9 chasing the ball into the box and forcing the corner. Leadbitter’s cross was headed behind for another, but this was easy for the keeper as the rain came down and the pitch showed it. Younger set Diamond away and he got it to Neil, but the cut-back couldn’t get past the keeper. We’d settled into a 4-3-3 with Neil alongside Leadbitter and Diamond, Wyke and McGeady up front, and Gooch dropping a bit deeper on the left to help O’9. Diamond was away again, getting it back to Neil who crossed deep. McGeady picked up the headed clearance on the edge, and fired it left-footed along the sodden turf, with what looked like another slight deflection seeming to make it easier for the keeper. The keeper had other ideas, and somehow contrived to let it go under him and into the net to his left. 2-0, fifteen to go, surely that was the game safe.
We stopped a break by putting it for a corner on our right, and the Dons made another substitution while the camera was looking elsewhere, watching the corner go right across and out beyond the back post. We got it up the field immediately, with Gooch taking McGeady’s pass and winning a corner on our right, taken by Grant, and that one being cleared for another. Again, this didn’t get past the first man, but Grant collected the clearance and crossed perfectly for a textbook header by Wyke, leaping highest in a central position, flicking into the net at the far post. Smashing goal, on 81 minutes, and if the second hadn’t sealed things, that third certainly had.
By this time, Geads and Gooch were taking turns in being the furthest up the field, swapping passes and winning another corner as the home heads sunk into their chests. Thankfully, our penalty area seemed to have avoided the worst of the clagginess, meaning Matthews didn’t have to worry too much about the ball sticking, and we could clear cleanly, getting it to Diamond. He cut inside and flicked it though to Geads in a central position, but we all knew he was offside before he slotted it away. Leadbitter’s ball over the top to Wyke was a hint too far forward, and the big fella could only stick out a hopeful toe, unable to do any more than poke it behind for a goal kick. Chas got to the next one forward, laying it off to Diamond who forced a decent save at the near post with a fierce drive, and we continued to control the game with confidence. Seven added minutes were announced, which was no surprise given all of those substitutions, and we were being clever with the ball, enticing a tired and despondent opposition, who just wanted to get in the shower, into needless fouls, then passing it about to repeat the trick. It wasn’t just that, we went for another when we could, but there was no real need to bust a gut.
There we go then, into the semi-final. Another game in which an early period of brightness had brought a goal before the opposition got back into the game, but this time keeping a clean sheet and increasing our lead before running out comfortable winners.
Man of the Match? You have to praise O’9’s versatility, and he certainly got in a few vital challenges, in the air and on the ground, after switching to left back. There was enough from Jones to show us that he’ll make a decent contribution in coming weeks, and Dan Neil showed that he’s well worth his place in the squad. Wyke and Geads were important coming off the bench as well, but for me Jack Diamond had a great opening spell, and was able to reproduce that in the second half after the home side had upped their game in the first, so he gets it.