After another bad day at a damp office on Tuesday, Sunderland took on the mighty Shrews, and in a game of two halves (as always) managed to scrape home thanks to Charlie Wyke’s 18th minute conversion of a McGeady cross. After seriously dominating the first half, although without creating much in the way of chances but allowing three decent chances to the visitors, the second half descended into a scrappy affair in which we couldn’t settle into the pattern we’d established before the break. Still, we didn’t let the Shrews score, and we ended the day with three vital points, which is what it’s (nearly) all about.
There’s been much wailing and gnashing of teeth since our plodging around in the clarts and puddles on Tuesday – all of it entirely justifiable – and a few less than veiled threats to the futures of certain players by the manager/head coach – all of them entirely also justifiable. A proper “kick the bin down the back lane when I get home” game – although, in reality, it was just another “cuss at the telly” game. One player whose attitude can never be doubted was in line for a possible recall – Luke O’Nien, whose enthusiasm has been an infectious factor in previous seasons if not so much this one, although I fear that enthusiasm alone won’t be enough to turn us from our current status as mid-table fodder to table-toppers. Would Luke replace Power in midfield or at fullback? Mid-table obscurity is, either fortunately or unfortunately depending on your viewpoint, something we’ll never have for the simple reason that we’re still a huge fish in a pretty small pond – at least in terms of the size of the club and its fan-base. Hopefully we can use that to our advantage sooner rather than later, despite most teams still treating a visit to the SoL as a Very Big Day Out. Going back to the pitch, it was to be hoped that some of the hot air being vented about our disappointing midweek performance has been diverted onto the playing surface and that it resembles a professional football pitch rather than a Station Rec Sunday morning.
The prospect of facing Donald Love (the inclusion in the Wikipedia entry of their squad of Brendan Galloway surely being a Mag trying to wind us up) in a side managed by prolific scribbler and Wilko fall-guy Steve Cotterill, currently still suffering the effects of Covid (get well soon), shouldn’t have been as daunting as it was – but we’ve been here before. I had a go at recreating my match-day experience, but just got all maudlin about not being in the Peacock and thus having to make my own ham & pease pudding stottie and pour my own Maxim. Well, I tried – and at least I gave myself a discount despite no longer being a season ticket holder – and I also attempted to get the football juices flowing with the FA Cup tie between Southampton and Arsenal (1-0, and mostly falling over and crying) then Crusaders v Larne in the Northern Irish Premier (3-3, and mostly swearing at opponents and then being best mates after the match).
Having tried and failed to name the team, Lee Johnson did it for me:
Power Willis Wright McFadzean
Leadbitter Scowen O’Brien
Diamond Wyke McGeady
…and despite the threats to places from the gaffer, it looked like he was giving one or two a second (or third) chance), with a bench of Matthews, O’Nien, Sanderson, Embleton, Graham, and Winchester. No Gooch, as he’s still on the sick, and no Dobson, obviously, with our George having toddled off to Wimbledon for the rest of the season as the first victim of Lee’s purge – hardly surprising, given the arrival of Winchester last week, Scowen last January, and the return of Embleton after injuries. Dance of the Knights boomed out, I imagined my usual brisk walk to the turnstile, taking care not to spill my Roker End Café coffee, the jog up the steps to my seat, and the catch up with my SoL neighbours, then the usual thumping tune, and the teams jogged onto the pitch – well, Shrewsbury did, as the Lads seemed to be receiving extra advice before they appeared. We set up defending the North Stand, as usual for a first half at home, and Scowen set things away with a pass back to Leadbitter, and out to the right it came – and we attacked, but the ball went high and out for a goal kick. A positive start, and there followed a spell of the ball pinging about in front of the East Stand before a forward pass sailed straight to their keeper. When they got it up their left, Willis fouled to concede the usual dangerous free, which was headed away and we chased Wright’s long clearance all the way back to the visiting keeper. All with only three minutes gone, then O’Brien was away down the right, cutting it back to Leadbitter before we won a free which eventually went for a corner on the right when Power’s weak low cross was put to safety. Grant’s deep cross was won by a Shrew, but we picked up the ball in our own half and won another free kick a few yards deeper than the previous one, but this one went nowhere - unless you count their keeper as somewhere.
The visitors were chasing everything at a pace that suggested that they’d blow up by half time or need extra illicit substances. Despite this, we got the ball forward and a rolled pass by Scowen to McGeady in the box was just foot too far in front of him. We had a shout for a pen (VAR, where are yer?) when McGeady was tackled in the box soon after, but a corner was awarded - probably correctly. Grant’s kick was half cleared and Scowen boomed in a shot from the edge that had no chance of finding a path through a crowded box and was blocked. Our next attack ended when McGeady’s right foot cross from the left went high and harmlessly beyond all our players for a goal kick – but at least the majority of the game was being played in front of the Roker End, with Diamond his usual nippy presence on the right. Wyke went down at the front post when a low cross came in from the right, but there was nothing untoward in the challenge and the visitors cleared. I was beginning to lose count of the number of frees we’d had, even with only quarter of an hour gone, and was wondering when we’d make one of them count. Then Grant and Scowen swapped passes in the middle, McFad played Geads down the left, and he put his head down and went for the line and crossed for Wyke to loop a lovely header up and over the keeper, with the ball dropping nicely into the net at the far post. Get in there! Seventeen gone, 70% possession, and a goal to the good – now what we needed was a second to settle the nerves and the game.
McGeady’s next cross was a low one, and this time tested the keeper (but not very much) at the near post as our game settled into some sort of pattern – Leadbitter to Scowen, brief scamper over halfway, then a ball out to either the directness of Diamond on the right or the jinkery of Geads on the left, with O’Brien grifting across behind Wyke. Ah, Charlie, man – it should have been two on 26 minutes when he got to the ball outside the area just before the keeper, and the bounce took it to the right, but, even with two defenders chasing back, he should have hit the target rather than screw it wide of the front post. Bad miss, I’m afraid.
Then it was O’Brien’s turn, chasing a short back pass, but this time the keeper arrived at the same moment and the challenge saw the ball fly north instead of south. Shrewsbury then had a little spell of passing the ball about on the half hour, probably glad of the chance to catch their breath, but could build nothing and we broke down the right again, but with Diamond’s cross way too high and deep for anyone to get to. There was a moment of worry when Burge’s clearance went low and to an opponent, albeit forty yards out, but they ran at us and got the ball into the box - like Tuesday night, from our left - and on the ground, from where they managed to fire just over the top after patiently waiting for space to shoot. Too close for comfort, Lads- get that second goal. Please.
Another few frees, then another corner on the right, again taken by Grant and bobbling around in the box before being crossed back in a couple more times – both times being cleared – and the visitors fashioned a chance with a deep cross from their right which dropped nicely at the back post but was shot just over the top. Again, too close for comfort, Lads – and a minute later they were close again, this time forcing Burge into a good save at his right hand post as they came in down the inside left channel. The corner was put behind for another on the opposite wing, and we had to thank O’Brien for a thumping headed clearance at the front as we entered the last four minutes of the half. Possession had swung slightly back towards the visitors, standing at 64% to 36% in our favour, but we need to make more of it. Same old same old.
A single added minute was announced as we attacked down the right, with Diamond almost getting into the box but the ball running behind for a goal kick, and the half ended with a Power clearance high in the air as we made sure we stayed ahead at the break. Like I said, same old same old – the majority of the ball, but we’d managed to allow them three passable chances (which, thankfully, they’d passed up) in a short period later in the half – to be honest, they were three better chances than we’d created. Had the possession stats been reversed and we’d converted three chances, we’d call it being clinical, but we’d been the dominant side for the majority of the first 45 and that single goal was scant reward – although they’d actually had one more shot than us, and twice as many on target. The half time stats also showed that we’d had McGeady booked – but I’d missed that, so can’t say how wrong how wrong the ref was to book him, although he undoubtedly was wrong. Deffo.
No changes for the second half, and once we’d won a throw from the Shrews’ long punt, we got a free when Scowen was knocked over near halfway. Wright slung it to the right corner of the box, where Wyke won it and the visitors did well to clear but conceded another free – which we got into the box but couldn’t turn into a chance. The first five minutes of the half saw the Shrews have a higher proportion of the ball, but that ended when they conceded another free (I’d definitely lost count) which Grant put in from distance and Wright headed over the top. Another Shrews chance came from their goal kick when they found acres of space in the box – McFadz, where were you? – and we did well to get in the way of the cross/shot and defend the subsequent corner.
After Diamond ran out of space on 57, the Shrews broke and after their man won the ball in our box, he could only hold his head in his hands (Lee Camp’s party trick, apparently, and one which often ended in failure) after he could do no more than fire the weakest of efforts at Burge. An injury to a visitor allowed time for a bit of a break as the hour approached, and we were a bit miffed when a throw was wawrded the wrong way, allowing the visitors to work a path down their right with a further string of throws. We were spending far less time in the opponents’ half than before the break, which was quite worrying with only the one goal to our name and us being Sunderland, so Maguire got his tracky top off and watched as we defended a deep free kick from halfway, then conceded another as Wyke clattered another opponent to the deck. To be fair to Charlie, he’d obviously taken heed of comments and decided to dish it out as well as take it. On came Maguire, replacing Diamond with 67 minutes gone.
That the possession stats now indicated a 56/43 balance showed how things had sort of swung in towards the visitors, and we had to defend yet another free-kick to regain the ball but only held on to it briefly on the right before it was back with the opposition. Their number 2 was booked for a clatter on Scowen in our box - why a clatter, he’s only half your size, man?
To say that our first half’s standards had not been met in the second were an understatement with fifteen to go, as we failed to build anything and upped our foul rate. A mad scramble in our box saw two shots blocked , with a big shout for handball from the second (it wasn’t) and we eventually hacked it clear and built and attack down the right. It came across to McGeady, who dropped a shoulder (another Lee Camp party trick, but one that rarely went wrong) and shot left-footed from the edge of the area, but a yard over the top. This seemed to give us a bit of heart, and Maguire crossed from the right, with it going back across and being crossed again, Wyke winning it when all seemed lost, then Power picking it up to shoot into the side netting when hard’n’low along the ground would probably have yielded better results.
With ten to go, Winchester replaced McGeady, and we got in a shot from distance which was saved, then we got another free out on the left, which Grant took. Unfortunately, and with eight red and white shirts to aim at, he curled it over the bar. More than a bit of a waste. My nerves were getting as shredded as if I’d actually been there, with us not being able to get hold of the ball for any significant period, and the visitors threatening to do something – well, not really threatening, more just being expected to do something by me, and as we entered those dangerous final three minutes, O’Nien was on for Scowen, which was a bit of a surprise as I thought Josh had been one of our better players. Four added minutes were announced, and I felt forced to settle for defending a slender lead rather than doubling it. McFadz was caught late as he hoofed it clear, with an inevitable yellow for his assailant and a chance to use up some dangerous seconds. When we got the ball up the field, it eventually came to Maguire who ran a few yards down the inside right channel and scudded a shot a yard wide of the far upright from the edge of the box. A free out on the right was taken short, we faffed about with it to win a corner, and as we took that one short as well the whistle went and I, and I expect many others, heaved a huge sigh of relief. A win’s a win but playing Shout To The Top as the teams left the field was being a bit too upbeat. Let’s just say the crowd wouldn’t have been dancing along to it as they headed home.
Like I said, a win’s a win and the three points are the most important thing – and an ultimately scrappy 1-0 is infinitely better than another scrappy 1-1. After the sort of first half that we’ve become accustomed to – you know, lots of possession but not enough goals as a result – the second was, by comparison, not very good at all. We managed only one effort on target in each half, and the second was from sub Maguire who didn’t do much else in his twenty-odd minutes on the field. The defence was ultimately grateful that Shrewsbury offered little quality up front, as we looked a bit iffy, if effective, at the back. That’s hardly surprising as we didn’t have a right back, and our left back is decidedly attack-minded rather than defence-minded, so the two in the middle had to be very careful when trying to play it out. All of which leaves us one point and one place off the paly-offs, and with two games in hand on sixth-placed Charlton – which is exactly what we’d been aiming for at five to three, so in that respect, it’s a case of job done, even if not done that well.
Man of the Match? As usual I’ll make the standard comment about Leadbitter doing his job, although he wasted a great opportunity to set something up with that late free-kick, and Diamond being a hard-working pest out on the right. McGeady’s cross was the vital component in Big Chas’s fourteenth strike of the season, and without our number nine’s goals we’d be nowhere. For me, most of our good play, which was almost entirely before 3:45pm, came when Scowen scampered over halfway and fed one of our wide players, so I’ll give it to him.