The previous regime’s favourite team came to the SoL, making us TV watchers wonder if the pair would be present and, if so, which way their scarves would flutter. As it was, Oxford possibly had the better of a first half and scored with their only shot, while we - as is customary – eventually got ourselves back on top of things and drew level right on half-time through Gooch, added a crucial second with ten to go through McGeady, and put the icing on the cake through Power deep into added time. An energetic Oxford side had stifled our play for much of the first half, and kept going despite a red card on the hour, remaining a threat on the break right up to the last minute. The eventual win was a victory for persistence and determination to prevail despite not being allowed to play the game we wanted to play. As they say, just keep winning, and 3-1 is a perfectly acceptable score-line that reflects a ruthlessness that will serve us well for the rest of the season.
They say a week’s a long time in football, and while we haven’t quite had seven days since our last match – the exorcising of several demons in Bristol – it’s been a welcome rest from things. England filled the gap nicely, keeping our football fixes up to date, and the season tickets went on sale. When I initially found my seat, occupied since the ground opened, unavailable, I thought my worst fears were being realised. Having spat my dummy out last April and not renewed, then claimed my money back for the outstanding fixtures, I wondered if I’d been cast aside.
Of course, I hadn’t. Trying again, I was immediately directed to my seat that the little beauties at SAFC had kept safe and warm for me – hopefully to be warmed by my backside when next season begins. Ticket purchased, I once again felt like a proper Sunderland supporter, planning to clear out my away-game bag of the ticket stubs that are a truncated reminder of last season – and any bits of uneaten bait that came back from that fruitless trip to Bristol Rovers just over a year ago. Next season will be in the Championship, if all goes according to plan and our form is maintained. To which end the return of Jones to the squad, if not Wright, Flanagan, or Hume just yet, is a bit of a boost as we settled into being the form team in our division. A win, and other results going our way, could have seen us top the pile by tea-time, and with Lincoln suffering more covid-related postponements, any charge up the table they might wish to muster will have to wait. Behind the scenes, we continue to build, with the arrival of Stuart Harvey as Head of Recruitment, fresh from the same role at Blackburn. He joins the week’s other arrival, Head of Analysis and Data James Young as our backroom gets stronger by the minute – and no, I’ve no idea what the Head of Analysis and Data will do, but if he ever needs help with some conditional formatting on any spread-sheets, I’d be more than happy to help.
...and there was no messing about with Jones, as he was straight back into the starting eleven
McLaughlin Sanderson O’Nien McFadzean
Jones Gooch Wyke McGeady
...and despite his match-winning antics at Bristol, O’Brien was demoted to the bench, alongside Matthews, Maguire, Winchester, Leadbitter, Diamond (completer with new contract), and Stewart. Strong bench, that.
I’m guessing that Gooch would be the man to accompany Wyke, with Geads and Jones supplying the bullets as well as firing in a few of their own.
No last-minute panic with the live stream this week, as I watched the hint end of the Donny v Charlton game to make sure all the wires were connected, with the Addicks moving up to fifth and making a serious dent in Donny’s play-off hopes thanks to their 1-0 win. Anyhow, enough about other teams, it’s in our own hands now…
The visitors were out well before us, presumably eager to get their misery over with as soon as possible, then we setup defending the North Stand, as is the way of things and won the right to kick off. Gooch set things in motion, with the sun shining and casting a shadow over the near side of the field, and Power laying it to McLaughlin with Wyke winning the day’s first header just outside the opposition box. Jones was back defending after Power conceded the first free of the day out on the right in the Oxford half, and we won a free of our own when we went back up the left. Thirty five yards out, Geads set Gooch down the wing and took the return, but the attack ran out of space and we had to defend again when the visitors broke, conceding a couple of throws on our left, and eventually a corner on that side on five minutes. Wyke was on hand to bonk it away with his head, and we got the ball up the field for a while. A Geads corner came in low and found Jones, but it was on his wrong foot and he could only scuff at it, not really producing a shot at all.
As it became apparent that Gooch was playing a bit too deep to be a real partner for Wyke, but that was obviously our game plan, and he was doing a decent enough job there anyway. Another free came our way when Jones cut in from the right and was simply run over by a defender. This time Jones floated it into the edge of the box, where there was a bit of confusion before the ball was hacked clear, with Oxford winning a throw up on their left. We won a corner on thirteen minutes when Wyke knocked it down the left and the cross was knocked behind as Gooch tried to turn his man at the near post, but the keeper caught McGeady’s cross from the left. Much like the latter stages of the Donny v Charlton game, the ref was happy to keep his whistle quiet for all but the most obvious of fouls – so far. That would change.
We needed O’9 to be sharp in nicking it off their man’s toes in our box as Oxford tried to build an attack, and we got the ball back up their end and away from trouble, then a timely intervention from Jones knocked it for a throw as the visitors almost broke into our box again on seventeen minutes. They were getting more of the ball in our half, and won a corner on our left, but we were alert to the short one and got it clear, but our attack was broken up on the right and Oxford came again, getting to the edge of the area, from where Henry fired low across Burge - and inside his right-hand post, on twenty minutes. Bugger, but they’d been threatening to get a shot in for a while, and that was one we should have prevented them getting away.
Gooch took a short pass from Wyke in the box and tried to clip it back onto Charlie’s head from the right side of the area, but a defender got there first and then we couldn’t get to the return as the ball bounced out for a goal kick. As another cross from the left dropped from on high, Jones produced one of those silly pushes that was so obvious that you could have spotted it from the toilets, and Oxford had a free kick and a chance to catch their breath. Charlie chased Luke’s long ball to the edge of the box and nodded it back, but the shot was wayward enough to go for a throw in front of the South West corner. It might have been well wide, and there might have been about 27 minutes gone, but it was our first shot of the afternoon. Mind, Oxford had only had the one, even if it had gone in.
Wyke was first to McLaughlin’s long clearance, carrying the ball from centre to left, and finding Geads who carried it forward before lashing a shot, left-footed, onto the roof of the Roker End. I’m not sure what he was trying to do with that effort, as he seemed set up all wrong when striking it. Two shots in 36 minutes wasn’t much of a return, especially when the keeper had no hope of getting near either of them thanks to their inaccuracy. The next one was closer, at last forcing a save, but the follow-up was bundled wide of the keeper’s right-hand post as we wound things up at long last. There was a foul on Wyke in a central position 25 yards out – McGeady territory, as we call it. O’9 whispered words of advice before jogging into the box, and Jones left the dead- ball to Geads, while the ref sprayed his white line about 15 yards from the ball. Very generous, and the keeper did very well to get up to his left to save. Oxford chased about like mad things and seemed to have significantly more than eleven players on the field, even if we were having much more of the possession than in the early stages. As the final minute of the half passed, we punted one long towards the Oxford box, and Gooch was pulled over as he waited for the ball to drop. Free on the right, not far from the corner of the box and with three minutes of being announced we lined up the dead ball. In it went, being cleared but only as far as O’9, who sent a lovely ball across the field to Jones, who burst through the defensive line and rolled it onto the proverbial plate for Gooch to extract the sweetest type of revenge by tapping it in from a foot or two. A very timely equaliser, and with us having more than evened up the possession stats, a just reward as well as a proper kick in the teeth of the visitors.
As the players left the field, the opposing back-room folks got themselves in a bit of a to-do, and the ref had to give them a bit of a talking to. Interesting stuff, which added to the intensity of the game.
I don’t think Johnson will have been very happy with the lack of efforts on goal, especially when the only shot of any kind that Oxford had produced had gone in, or McLaughlin’s yellow card. It had been a fairly disjointed half from our point of view – while the defence had restricted the Os to just the one shot, it had been a shot that counted, the midfield just hadn’t settled into any sort of pattern. This was largely down to Oxford chasing everything and closing the space, earning a couple of yellows for over-enthusiasm, but preventing us from being able to find the right spaces from which to cross. While Geads and McLaughlin had brought saves from their keeper, we’d not put a great deal of pressure on the visiting defence – perhaps some alternative thinking from Maguire might open things up in the second half, or perhaps Oxford will simply get tired and start leaving gaps and making mistakes. Nothing to panic about, but we needed to up our creativity to get the better of the opposition.
We were back out first, presumably eager to carry on where we’d left off, and, with no personnel changes, we were straight on the attack, winning the ball and playing forward for Wyke to chase into the box, only for their keeper to get there first by a considerable margin. Oxford’s first foray forward, after we’d tried another attack, ended when a cross from our left was hoofed away by Sanderson for a corner on that side. Sanderson dealt with that one as well, but Oxford came back at us and won a throw on their right – the side they seemed to be targeting, but when they worked it across the field and back in, they sliced their shot horribly (or nicely, depending on the colour of your shirt) high and wide as Scowen flung himself in the way of things.
Seven minutes into the half we got going down the right, but Gooch couldn’t catch the hopeful ball over the fullback. Geads took advantage of a slip to skip past a couple of defenders down the left, winning a free when the ref pulled play back, quite rightly, for a clip as he did so. Another Oxford booking as the game threatened got a bit fractious – well, Oxford got a bit fractious. That produced another free came on the other side when Gooch was bundled over, and this time Jones decided he was the one to knock it in. He took a short pass from Power and ran at the defence, unfortunately losing out at the first twist, and Oxford got it away. On the hour, Wyke looked to be away, running onto McGeady’s precise ball into the box, but the tackle was good and he couldn’t get a shot away. In keeping with what had become a quite interesting second period, Oxford poured forward and fired in a cross. O’9 was there first, but Sykes splattered into him as he made the clearance and the ref had a pretty easy decision to make in issuing the Oxford man a second yellow. This gave us half an hour with a man advantage, but we really needed to give Wyke more support in the form of another player getting close to him, as Gooch’s role was somewhere wider and deeper. Either a change in that role or a change in personnel was necessary – just give the big fella a hand, please. Five minutes later, the change came, with McLaughlin making way for Stewart and a change in formation that came with having one less defender on the pitch. With Oxford being an attacker light, it was a change that made sense. The visitors responded by replacing Shodipo, Taylor, and Henry with Lee, Kelly, and Agyei. Gooch managed a shot that went wide before dropping deeper to shore up the defence and allowing our formation to maintain its shape.
Stewart used his height to get to a high ball at the front stick, but his header was saved comfortably and we were still only level. Jones almost got us ahead when he chose to shoot rather than feed the speeding Gooch, but his effort smacked off the bar and Oxford had survived again.
A patient move down the right saw Power loop a cross to the back post, but the keeper stretched his arms above Stewart to collect, and we had to start again after Burge collected his long punt up the field. Jones made way for Maguire as we replaced pace with guile, McFadz got it up from the left, and we were awarded another free in a central position, 35 yards out. Maguire took it, finding Power running in from the right, but our skipper couldn’t get his foot around the bouncing ball and it went for a goal kick, leaving us with a quarter of an hour to find a winner.
A couple of minutes later, Geads was the man on the spot. Or rather the edge of the penalty area. Yet another free came our way as the visitors did start to run out of steam, and again it was on the right side, with Gooch collecting the pass and driving into the corner of box, wriggling past a couple of defenders before rolling it back to Geads on the edge, from where Aiden placed a right-footer into the far corner of the net. Great finish, and nice work from Gooch for resisting the temptation to shoot and setting it up. Something about the goal, perhaps the fact that we took the free-kick quickly, got right up Oxford manager Karl Robinson’s nose, and he went a bit radged and got himself sent to the stands. He didn’t go until he’d finished having a go at the ref, so I expect he’ll be in a bit of bother. At least they’re nice seats anyway, and there were lots of them to choose from.
Oxford gave it a go down their left, and Luke did well to get in the way of the eventual cross, with Burge gathering the resultant loose ball. With time running out, Oxford brought on Grayson and Winnall (win nowt, more like) for Forde and Brannagan and five added minutes were announced. We had to defend another corner from our left as the visitors tried to get something from the game – and they did, but it was only a corner on the other side, which we watched sail way beyond the back post, where O’9 and Maguire closed the attackers down before Wyke headed away the cross. As we chased the ball out of defence, Power got in the way of an attempted pass back towards our goal, and we broke northwards. Wyke charged up the field, and played it to Power, who had kept going up the field, and was on hand to shoot home despite the keeper’s best efforts. He unwisely chose to celebrate in front of the visitors’ bench, earning a silly yellow – but still, I love it when a worky-ticket opposing manager gets his comeuppance. Let’s face it, if Lee hadn’t done it, Maguire probably would have, and social media was abuzz with Oxford fans getting all tetchy with Power, but tough luck, and suck it up, losers.
Then the five minutes were up, and we had another three points in the bag. As the players shook hands, “We’re on our way” boomed out across the ground, just to capture the current mood at the club and make us feel even sorrier that we weren’t able to attend. Unfortunately, Hull and Peterborough both won, so we stay third, but still justifiably pleased with ourselves. While we conceded seven corners and only won four, our defence dealt with every one, and, after a pretty turgid first half, attacking-wise, we managed thirteen shots by the end of proceedings and were worthy winners.
Man of the Match? Well, a goal and an assist from Gooch has to put him in contention, and with solid rather than spectacular performances throughout the team, he’s a contender. Mind, so is Jones, as he set one up and was only a crossbar away from putting us ahead. On the basis that Gooch also dug in at the back when necessary as we swapped personnel to get the winner, I’ll give it to him.
Bring on Peterborough.
In other news, a get well soon message to fan Ian Bowater, who’s recovering from a particularly nasty bout of covid, and who’s been kept informed on the Lads’ progress by his daughter to keep his spirits up. Best wishes for a continued recovery, Ian.