After nearly two weeks of enforced inactivity, the Lads finally returned to action at Northampton, with the general feeling, at least in my house, that it seemed strange for the game to be going ahead. Lee Johnson gave us another insight into his lexicon, which was no doubt inspired by his ancestor Doctor Johnson, with the term “Monday morning quarterback.” This would appear to refer to someone who is wise after the event, rueing a wrong decision from the previous day’s game. In this case, of course, he was referring to our decision to play the Wimbledon game, and he would appear to be right in his opinion that it shouldn’t have taken place. Our players have been trained and coached via Zoom, which sounds like a recipe for much hilarity, but are ready to go at Sixfields (sorry, the PTS Academy Stadium) – apart from one individual, whose identity was shrouded in secrecy until the teams were announced. What we did know was that this would be our last game for another week and a bit, as next weekend’s fixture was postponed a few days ago because of the lurgy striking our opponents. Morgan Feeney is the latest players to depart the banks of the Wear, probably because we now only use two central defenders at a time, and, of his three club debuts, two (including his goalscoring one in the Papa John’s Trophy for us) ended with a pinged hamstring. While some might bemoan his departure after what looked a promising display, we have plenty of players in that position, he was never going to get ahead of Wright or Willis, (probably not Sanderson or Flanagan either) and we can ill-afford another injury-prone player in our squad. Good luck to him wherever he ends up. Probably tearing up trees at Boro, like Roadrunner Watmore….
With a fresh outbreak of snow meaning that I couldn’t vent any frustration at not being able to travel to the match, it was another day of wondering what to do on a Saturday – after nearly ten months, you’d have thought I’d be used to it by now. No chance. On our last visit to the Cobblers, at their old County Ground, second half goals from Paul Lemon and Gatesy gave us the win, while our last Roker encounter saw us win thanks to goals from Gatesy and Armstrong, and the customary McPhail penalty. Big John missed another spot-kick late in the game, but those two encounters in 87-88 were the last pair of our six league games against Northampton, although we did manage a 2-2 draw at the SoL in the League Cup in 2008, thanks to a brace in the last four minutes from sub Anthony Stokes. Although he missed his penalty in the resultant shoot-out, Chopra for once held his nerve and scored his, and successful conversions from Murphy, Reid, and Richardson saw us through as the visitors missed twice. Anyhow, back to today, and remembering that it’s a mere four years to the day since Defoe scored twice to help us to a 3-1 win over Villa, with Micah Richards knocking Van Aanholt’s shot into his own net for the opener – you’ve seen it often enough on recent MOTDs. How fortunes change.
Christmas cake? Check
Double Maxim/glass/bottle opener? Check
Lucky socks? Check
In our blue away shirts and socks, and red shorts, we lined up:
McLaughlin Wright Sanderson Flanagan (shuffle as appropriate)
Power© (plus sever haircut) Leadbitter Scowen
Diamond Wyke McGeady
…and the absence of McFadzean revealed that it was probably he who was still suffering the effects of the virus, and that meant Flan, as a left sided defender, was more than likely to be operating as left back. Matthews, Willis (who can’t be fully fit, otherwise he’d surely have started), Maguire, O’Brien, Gooch, Embleton, and Graham made up the bench which, even with seven spaces, didn’t have room for Grigg. Rather than the dulcet tones of our very own Barnesy and Benno, I had to put up with Northampton’s far inferior version. Mind, they did describe Flan and Wright as high-quality centre-backs, so there must be some footballing knowledge behind their unfamiliar, if slightly irritating, accents (he said, ironically). They were obviously treating the match as a giant-killing opportunity, constantly referring to our nine international players and saying it was “eleven against eleven so why not?” between updates on the fortunes of Kettering Town at St James Park(Brackley), adverts for the advantages of using the PTS Academy’s training facilities, and warnings/pleas not to use illegal streams to watch your team.
With no idea of where our fans would have been, as we’ve not played there before, I can only say that we were attacking the end behind which was the grassy knoll which was the day’s exercise area for a certain exiled Mackem. Apparently, a large number of Sunderland people emerged from the boardroom just before kick-off, much to the consternation of the commentary team, and included Donald and Methven. The arrival of a few dozen of our fans on the grassy knoll, apparently not wearing masks, precipitated police intervention and the dispersal of all on the mound. Shame.
Once Northampton had got the game underway, we could eventually work out who was playing where in our defence -which seemed to be Sanderson at left back and McLaughlin on the right. Disappointingly, the home side’s Danny Rose turned out not to be “our” Danny, which was probably just as well. Leadbitter settled into his usual position at the base of midfield, with Power and Scowen pushing forward. Most of the first five minutes was spent in our half as we struggled to maintain any sustained possession, and the first effort went to the home side as they whacked one well wide after that opening period. Grant broke up an attack and found McGeady, who ran into the box but carried it out of play before he could cross. The ref gave a free for a foul on Wyke that the linesman, a yard away, missed. Diamond put it in from the right and Wright won the header only for it to flash past the far post. Better stuff, Lads.
After ten minutes we sprung to life, with McGeady and Power getting involved but not able to fashion a shot, and ultimately winning a corner on the right as we asserted our authority. Diamond’s cross was partially headed clear, almost allowing McGeady to get away before Wyke was booked for charging down the keeper’s clearance – much to the delight of the commentary team, who reckon he was a thorn in their side. Mind, they just about blew a fuse every time their side got near our penalty area, making Benno sound virtually comatose by comparison. A late one by Northampton sent Grant into moany overdrive, and he eventually left off berating the ref to give their manager Keith Curle an impressive death stare on the quarter hour.
Leadbitter’s free on halfway, for a foul on himself, found Wyke in the box but it was taken off his toe, then it was Scowen’s turn to run the ball out before making the cross from the right. The first twenty minutes had been fairly even, with one chance each, on what looked like a pretty bumpy pitch. McGeady was picked out by Leadbitter again, but when he cut across from the left his shot was blocked. Power then hit one right-footed from way out which their keeper did well to palm down and collect at the near post. Good effort.
A couple of bits of decent defending by Sanderson prevented the home side from making anything of their attacks without us really being under pressure, which they followed with another long throw from the right by Hoskins. Diamond led an attack from the centre, but a loose pass took away the momentum, and young Jack gave away a free just in the opposition half. It was launched into our box, but they gave away a silly foul and their chance was gone. A gentle shoulder charge by Flanagan had Steve Phillips, the over-excitable and professional Cockney former Cobbler in the box shouting for a foul, but ha’way man – it’s Flan, who’s hardly beefy enough to barge his way into Mothercare. Well played, Tom.
A throw way up on our left was courtesy of a defender who can’t play football trying to play football, but when McGeady collected it he was dispossessed before Power committed a foul midway in their half. Wright tried to pass it out of defence but gave it away and McLaughlin had to be on his toes to break the threatened attack on our right. A foul thirty yards out gave them a chance to fire one in, and it was duly curled towards Burge’s right hand post – where he collected comfortably. They then charged down Burge’s clearance, which the ref decided was OK despite Wyke’s identical challenge earlier being deemed a foul, and they won the ball to fire over the top from distance on 34. McGeady got some space down the left and crossed to the back post, where Scowen was caught in two minds and used neither, letting the ball fly past him for a goal kick. Wyke kept the ball in with his head on the right, but went down holding his face and took a a while to get back up, despite Steve Phillips claiming “he’s a big lad, it can’t be a foul”. Straight from the Alex Ferguson book of silly claims - I didn’t know that was how it worked, Steve.
They were straight up our end and into the box, and when their number 8 went to ground as Burge came to meet him he flung himself to the ground and was booked. Even Steve Phillips didn’t moan about that one as we built an attack, but once again the ball trundled out for a goal kick as the final ball wasn’t quite right. A spot of head tennis outside our box ended when Rose half-heartedly poked a shot wide of Burge’s right hand post from the edge. We got the ball to Wyke’s feet in the box, but he was robbed before he could lay it off, and Scowen was booked for breaking up their resultant attempt to get forward as we entered the final two minutes of the half. We tried to move it down the left with Sanderson’s throw to McGeady being nicked by Northampton and they broke, conceding a free thirty yards out, which they had to retake as a single minute added time was announced. In it went, and the whistle for half time went before the resultant corner could be taken.
No goals at half time, and no real shape to the play from either side. They’d looked quicker to move the ball, while we’d looked more patient playing it out from the back but not quite getting a vital pass away at the right time. We’d had the best chance with Wright’s header, but could have created more had first McGeady then Scowen managed to get their crosses in rather than knocking the ball out of play. We’d lacked urgency, and our only player with any sort of pace, Diamond, had seen precious little of the ball. Perhaps the recent/current Covid outbreak was having a bigger effect on general fitness than the manager had thought, and when your side doesn’t have pace in the first place, you’d hope that the accuracy of passing would make up for any missing energy. In the first half, it hadn’t, despite over 60% of the possession being ours, and it needed to improve for the second period.
No changes for the second half for either team, and Diamond set things away. After a bit of to-ing and for-ing (code for loose play from both sides) we won a free on the left, but quickly gave it back to them with a throw of their own. It seemed if the half was being played exclusively on our left, the far side as the camera looked, and when their Watson broke down their inside right channel, he chose to shoot rather than lay it off – and was well wide. Thankfully, a bad choice. We failed to get the ball up the field from the goal kick, and had to do some defending when they got it to their right and thence into our box. When we did build a decent attack down our left, Scowen took a pass from Sanderson but his ball to the back post was way beyond it. Poor effort, Josh.
Diamond’s run on 52 minutes looked promising but he was robbed before winning it back and setting us away down the left again, with the final ball into the box going behind Power and they cleared. Another foul gave the Cobblers the chance to launch one in from 35 yards out, which we headed away but couldn’t build an attack before conceding yet another free, courtesy of Scowen – who was surely in danger of a second card, especially with the ref constantly putting his hand in his pocket. To be fair, it was probably cold and he was just warming his hands, but it was giving me palpitations. When we got up-field down the right, McLaughlin’s cross was met by Scowen, but the header went up and well over. When you’re as tall as Josh, that’s what tends to happen. Our next cross resulted in a clash of heads between Wyke and their defender, with a free kick awarded to the home side.
On the hour, a Sanderson throw was easily won by Northampton meaning that we had to battle to regain possession and get it safely back to Burge. The home side replaced Sheehan with Horsfall, much to the bafflement of the commentary team, as they waited to take a corner on our left. Leadbitter prevented the cross from the short corner, meaning they got another go. Flanagan met it at the front post and headed clear, the ball flying out for another long throw. A quick counter attack ended on the edge of the box as Diamond sprinted away but was well tackled. With Gooch warming up, I had young Jack as the likely one to be replaced. With this in mind, Diamond upped his input and helped the ball up the right, where Power fed McLaughlin – whose cross was comfy for their keeper at the back post.
Diamond did well to get it to McGeady on the left, but he ran into two defenders in the box and lost out. Having said that, we were looking more lively, and when Sanderson shot over on 67, on came Maguire for Power and Gooch for Diamond. That’s four up front in my book, so hopefully the increased liveliness could be continued with fresher legs. Wyke was nearly through after battling to win the ball on the edge of the box, but there were too many maroon socks in the way. Our best period of passing around 70 minutes ended with McLaughlin’s cross being charged down for a corner, and when it bobbled around in the box, Wyke was falling back as he got his boot to the ball and it went over the top from a few yards out. Maguire was booked - I think – for a sort of revenge tackle after Scowen was caught on 74 when the home side broke up our next attack in the middle.
The next home attack brought the game’s first offside ruling, with only quarter of an hour to go, but we could build nothing - as usual- and I began to wonder if we’d ever fashion a decent scoring chance. McGeady managed to work space for a right-footed shot from the left, but for the second time he hit Gooch’s arse rather than the target. That was Aiden’s last contribution, as he was replaced by Aiden. That’s O’Brien on, as his namesake trudged around the pitch before very obviously complaining to his manager. Jesus man, Geads - dinnet fall out with another one!
As the commentary team claimed that it was a good game, I was thinking the opposite as we continued to shine in only brief periods and fail to threaten the home goal. Leadbitter flung in a free from 40 yards out, but it was headed clear and when McLaughln got it back in, O’Brien volleyed goalwards from a couple of yards to bring a great save out of the home keeper – but was called offside. Another free from Northampton caused all sorts of bother in our box, and Burge saved, down to his right, when a bit of a soppy shot eventually came in. O’Brein shot from distance, bringing a standard save from their keeper, after we did well to break down our left, then Wyke had the long walk when Graham replaced him with three to go. Dinnet you get a pet lip on as well, Charlie. The Cobblers brought on Harriman for Adams as the last minute arrived, and I for one accepted that there’d be no goals – at least from us. I never trust our defence, however well they’ve played, to keep things tight in the dying embers of any game.
Three added minutes were announced, reinforcing my fears of anything daft happening at our end rather than ours, and we did nowt to allay those fears by conceding another free out on our left. Thankfully, when they got to the ball first at the near post, they headed it well wide. With the seconds ticking away, we attacked down the right, winning a throw that found its way to Sanderson on the other side, and he at least got a right-footed shot away after turning inside, but it was comfortably saved.
Then the whistle went, the commentary team praised the home side for “going toe to toe against their illustrious opponents” and Sunderland fans, I’d imagine, were thoroughly unimpressed with the overall performance, despite remaining unbeaten away from home. Probably a fair result over the ninety minutes, but it’s only a point when we really needed three to get back up the table. Who knows how much the recent Covid business has affected the overall fitness and energy, but we got a point, we didn’t lose, and we’re unbeaten in 2021.
Man of the Match? Difficult, with such a lethargic performance, to pick out somebody who did much positive – if there had been such a player, it wouldn’t have been such a lethargic performance. Defensively, we were generally sound – Burge had nowt to do, really, and that has to be down to the effectiveness of the four immediately in front of him. I’d love to pick a midfielder or an attacker, but you only have to see the first part of this paragraph to see that I couldn’t really do that. Leadbitter had his moments, but he’s only just in front of the defence, and it’s Power and Scowen who we need a bit of zip from – but we didn’t get it, and this meant that McGeady, and in particular Diamond, didn’t get the ball in enough dangerous positions. This is turn left Wyke, battling manfully (can I still say that?) as he undoubtedly did, having nobody in close proximity to pick up the pieces when he either held it up or was dispossessed in the box.
Sanderson showed his flexibility as a right-footed left back, McLaughlin defended effectively and got forward, even if his crosses were generally hit in front of the defence rather than behind it. Flan was OK – they didn’t score - despite giving away his usual allowance of free kicks, while Wright did his job at the back and almost scored when he went up for a free kick. So Bailey gets my vote.
Now we have another ten days off before the magic of the Papa John’s Trophy. Enjoy them.