To call that came pretty would be a bit like calling Charlie Hurley a dashing winger, but we scored, Tranmere didn’t, and we won the cup. Eee aye adio , we won the cup. Goochy’s nice finish on the end of McGeady’s delightful through ball early in the second half was not only the best chance of the game, it was the only one that went in. I’d been saying all week that if both teams played to the best of their abilities, we’d win. As it was, Tranmere probably did and we certainly didn’t, but – and here’s the most important comment on a less than moderate game – we took the game’s only clear-cut chance, which makes us the Papa John’s Trophy champions. Take no notice of those who claim that’s it’s a tiddly-aye trophy, it’s a trophy, and we won it.
It started on Thursday evening, the Cup Final nerves. I didn’t recognise them until Friday, when I became aware of the meaningless pacing about the house that is the precursor to a big game, but our lass’s comment of “are you OK? You seem a bit distracted” the previous evening was her noticing the nerves. Look, I know it’s not the FA Cup, or even the League Cup, and that we can’t be there, but it’s a trophy and as such I want it in our cabinet for the next year – presumably after last year/yesterday’s winners kept it for a whole day. The whole build-up has been surreal, what with virtual tickets raising loads of dosh for good causes, and spending Cup Final morning preparing the leek trench and having a spin on the bike before Sunday dinner. That’s just not right, is it? All the while the message notification on my phone was pinging away like a cardiograph on a particularly excitable cocaine addict who’d just washed down three bags of Haribo with a gallon of Red Bull (other energy drinks are available, according to Bill Storey) - at a microwave oven demonstration. One was even a message of good luck from a Pompey fan, which says a lot. It also has to be mentioned that the virtual ticket idea was approaching £158,000 at kick-off.
No Sanderson (shame), Winchester (shame), or Vokins (doesn’t really matter), and with Wright probably still not quite match-ready, we’d expected our defence to continue in its patched-up nature. Flan in for Sanderson seemed the obvious choice, and probably a patched-up Leadbitter for Winchester – but we have Neil and Younger who are more than capable of filling in if necessary. On the subject of Leadbitter, he’s probably the only one in the squad who remembers the antics of Tranmere in the FA Cup game in 2000, the day of the sending-off that didn’t happen and the invisible substitute. If there’s one thing we Sunderland fans are bloody good at it’s bearing a grudge, and we definitely owed Rovers for that injustice. With Tranmere shorn of Vaughan, there was no chance of the curse of the former player striking us, but in Max Power there was the potential for it to strike the opposition. Mind, we’d need to be on our toes to combat Tranmere’s direct style and good form. The pre-match nervousness that had been building in seriousness since Thursday reached a Sunday morning peak of hunger-like stomach fluttering, and then jumped up another notch once dinner was out of the way – and they wonder why football fans like a pint before the game. Cleaning the cooker an hour before a Cup Final is just ridiculous, and when Judith played that clip of us singing Wise Men Say at Wembley, I just went to pieces. Soft clarts.
Oh, let’s just get on with it….
Power ©Flanagan O’Nien McFadzean
Gooch Maguire Wyke McGeady
No sign of either O’Brien or Jones, both injured - but on the bench were Kimpioka and Stewart, along with Matthews, McLaughlin, Neil, Diamond, and Younger. Two outright forwards as options, which was nice, as was Maguire in the starting line-up on the big stage – and Dan Neil, who was at the 2014 League Cup Final as a 12-year-old fan, had the chance to make that big step up. Maguire could take the wide role, with Gooch in the centre, or it could be the other way round. The cameras showed that we did have fans in the ground – as Sanderson and O’Brien were acting exactly like we’d have done had we been sat where they were. There was still the giant screen with somebody singing the national anthem as the teams lined up, with us attacking the goal to the right of the camera, as we did on Tuesday at Pompey and Tranmere kicked off.
For the first couple of minutes, it looked like we were going to assert our status as the Big Team, but Tranmere closed us down and ran at us, which rather threatened to spoil the Wembley party. Thankfully, O’9 was scampering all over the place at the back to get ahead of whatever Rovers had to offer and thus keep us safe. Somehow, Flan came off worse in a challenge and had to leave the field with an early bang on the nose with Leadbitter dropping back to fill in whilst things were stitched back in place. The opposition picked up the pace, as we’d been warned that they would, and fashioned a move that got them into our box, where Burge did very well to stop that looped up off Leadbitter’s block, and was threatening to drop under the bar, cleverly dropping the ball to prevent himself carrying it over the line.
From the clearance, Maguire low shot a yard wide of the keeper’s right hand post with our first real chance of the game as Tranmere continued to deny us the space to move forward when we wanted to by doubling up on Geads and Gooch. Having said that, when we did manage to get the ball out on the left, the combo nearly worked when Gead’s turn and cross low to Wyke was put behind for a corner when the big fella’s scooped attempt from the near post was blocked with a tad more than 22 on the clock. That corner, from our left, was cleared, with Tranmere threatening to break and McFadz putting in a saving tackle, after his wayward pass out to Geads had been intercepted. He took a boot to the neb as their man flew over him, necessitating a lengthy stoppage as us fans began to wonder just how many defensive injuries a team could sustain in a season. At 28th minute foul on Geads relieved the pressure, but it was 35 yards out in the centre, meaning that a shot on goal would require something special. Maguire set it up as Wyke became our third player to be bloodied., leaving the field to have copious amounts of Vaseline applied to the hole in his scalp.
The free went wide to Geads, who returned it and Maguire’s shot from the edge took a deflection and bobbled just past the post for a corner. We played it short, and eventually found Power with a deep cross, but his downward header, at the keeper’s right hand post, bounced up and over the bar as we started to dictate things – for a wee while at least.
That dictatorship didn’t last long, as Burge had to drop down well amongst feet to claim a low cross at the near post 37. He sensibly took a deep breath and punted it up to Geads, who found Wyke - who was tripped in a central position 25 yards out – Geads and Maguire territory, in fact, but as it was Maguire got underneath it and the ball curled well over the top. A bit of a wasted opportunity there, Lads.
O’Nien had to be sharp yet again when dealing nonchalantly with a cross that clipped Flan, heading it instinctively back to Burge. Our keeper played it to O’9k who showed tremendous (over)confidence to pass it across our area and set us away on an attack, which ended when Geads shot low from edge of the box, but it was a yard wide of keeper’s right hand post and we had five minutes to sort it out before the break.
Which we didn’t.
The game had ebbed and flowed from one end to the other, with Maguire eventually getting into the box on the right when a rebound left him in space, but the cut-back from the line evaded Geads, when a more accurate pass would have given Aiden the chance to at least hit the target. Flan went down, this time getting treatment on his left ankle. It obviously didn’t do the trick, as he limped off to be replaced by McLaughlin. Bugger, yet another central defensive injury, with McLaughlin coming on with a minute of normal time to go. With only one defender (out of the two on show) in his natural habitat (McFadz), we immediately conceded a corner to defend – which Leadbitter did, and three added minutes were announced. A left wing break by Tranmere needed a great block by Leadbitter, but thankfully the loose ball was blasted yards over the bar from distance
Glad to see the end of the half? Too right I was, as we’d failed to get going, simple as that. It had been a fairly frantic opening 45, with Tranmere quickly overcoming our lively start to force most of the play to be in our half, and O’9 mopping up with all the authority of someone who’d spent a decade as a central defender. Burge had made the only real save, while those in front of him hadn’t really got into gear, showing only brief flashes of cohesive play while the opposition’s willingness to be quick into the tackle, and their formation of two lines of four behind the ball, forced us back. With that in mind, level pegging was about what the game deserved.
While we hadn’t quite “got away with it” in the first half, we’d been far from the professionally efficient team we’d been on Tuesday, and the game was only half done. Johnson’s half-time chat would surely be about changing things while Tranmere’s would have been “more of the same”, so hopefully we’d produce something new that the opponents would be less able to deal with.
We started with the same enthusiasm as we’d started the first, but this time we managed to produce some productive play, and with a bit over ten minutes gone, McGeady produced the game’s best pass. It takes a special player to see that sort of pass, especially when he’d been so well shacked for nigh on an hour, but Geads saw Gooch and slotted a beaut through the middle. Lynden took it in his stride, stayed calm, and clipped it over the keeper for 1-0 and what turned out to be the crucial goal. I imagine that the stupidity in my front room would have been magnified several thousandfold at Wembly had we been there, but we weren’t so we had to be content with a few laps of the living room with a bottle of Macim held aloft. How long to go? Thirty-odd minutes? Oh well, it’s down to you, Luke
Fives later, Maguire was off and Diamond was on, and a minute later Tranmere brought on Nugent (aye, that one) and Blackett-Taylor for Lloyd and Lewis. The latter proved a real pest, but we managed to restrict him to a few blocked crosses, and when those crosses did get in (which they did, fairly frequently) we got our heads to the ball and knocked it away.
Being perfectly honest, I was more than a bit worried with our game plan of allowing Tranmere to have the ball and attack us as will. Thankfully, our defence soaked up everything that Rovers hoyed at us, with Burge battering his way through any opponents that happened to be in his way to claim anything in the air.
With Tranmere still pressing forward but running out of steam in all but their left flank, which was giving us a whole load of pain, we had to stay calm and win the ball in the middle. Which we did, but I’d far rather that we didn’t let the crosses come in in the first place.
Power received the game’s only yellow bang on 90 minutes for a “taking one for the team” clip on Blackett-Taylor as he burst down the wing again, and then three added minutes were added. Typically, these lasted at least an hour in my world, but in reality we got the ball up the field and held it up there with Wyke and McGeady doing the professional thing and winning a couple of throws – then it was over. Forty eight years of hurt, and we had a trophy from a game at Wembley.
In summary, we’ve played much better in several previous Wembley appearances, but in playing pretty poorly, we got our best result at the national stadium in nearly half a century, and that’ll do for me. Very nicely, and my Man of the Match goes to lucky Luke, who marshalled the defence like an old pro, swept up bits where his marras couldn’t, generally did what had to be done to make Tranmere’s forward options founder, and smiled like a bairn in a sweet shop throughout.
We’re on our way.