It’s important go into the playoffs with some confidence and a bit of form, isn’t it? That is the accepted norm, right? It’s just, it’s hard to fathom at the moment with this hazy head. Possibly brought on from Wearside only now awaking from a collective slumber, as Sunderland and Northampton Town competed for ‘dullest watch of the season’.
A talking point before the game was the absence of striker Ross Stewart. Is he injured and, if so, how bad? Such was the performance on Sunday, that interesting poser remains the match highlight. Not even in the squad, the assumption was the Scot had picked up a knock. This was later confirmed as a grade two hamstring injury and nothing too serious. Perhaps he’s fortunate he missed it. Stewart didn’t have to suffer the ignominy like the rest of us.
Yes, it was a dead rubber match. Northampton Town were relegated and the Lads already assured of a playoff spot, but it was so utterly devoid of excitement even the Bob Stokoe statue seemed more animated. Despite the context of the game, clearly there should have been reasons for Sunderland to compete with more urgency than that which was on display. A possible third place finish was on the cards as a starter for ten. The performance we all witnessed didn’t suggest there was any thought given to that whatsoever by those on the pitch.
More importantly, the match was also about finding our elusive friend – form. One win in nine matches suggests this old acquaintance has had one too many cans of Ace lager, left the party early and is unable to tell the taxi driver where he lives. It will be difficult to locate and then sober him up before the playoffs that’s for certain.
Were there any positives? Perhaps we started brightly for the first ten minutes. Jack Diamond caused some problems early on with his pace and there looked to be a degree of collective pressing from the front. Without McGeady in the starting eleven, creativity was sacrificed for that overall quicker press. Sadly though, like most peoples’ memory of the game, this faded fast.
Northampton sat back, banked up and were happy to let Sunderland have the ball. The problems began when it became apparent no one in a red and white shirt knew what to do with the ball when they had it.
Messers Miller and Marshall were bright for the Cobblers and it was in part due to the Black Cats’ lethargic ponderings that saw the two wingers drag their teammates away from what were their own shortcomings. They had a couple of attempts at an attack, mainly on the break, but Sunderland’s defence never really looked troubled, at that point.
To compound the issue, Charlie Wyke seems to have returned to the specimen we’d all become accustomed to watching early on in his Sunderland career, before this season’s transformation into ‘Wykeadona’. It’s like watching the Hulk turn back into Bruce Banner, the Ed Norton one. Even without the goals and, in fairness, the quality of service, his ability to hold the ball up and bring players into the game has been important in this side. Wyke now looks to have lost all powers entirely and at the worst time.
Mercifully, as supporters’ eyes began to droop and concentration levels approached ‘what’s-in-for-lunch?’ levels, the whistle blew for half time. Jack Diamond didn’t emerge for the second half, perhaps he to favoured a nap. The youngster caused the most problems in opening exchanges but lacked that cutting edge. A good example during the first 45mins was when he picked up the ball outside Northampton’s box. The best and simplest option was to slide it through for an expectant Jordan Jones. Unfortunately, he dwelled too long, caught in three minds, and ran quickly into trouble. Aiden McGeady came on his place and you’d assume, given his absence last week, this was about getting him a little bit of sharpness before the playoffs.
Conor McLaughlin didn’t last too long in the second half. His time was up after five minutes in fact. Again, presumably this was a predetermined move by Lee Johnson in order to manage the amount of game time McLaughlin gets. Gooch slotted in at right-back and Chris Maguire got a run out. There were calls for Maguire to start but in fairness he didn’t light up the match when he did come on, although there was a fractional improvement in play.
That is of course until Bailey Wright decided it would be smart to deliver a wayward pass across the edge of his own box and straight into the feet of the opposition. Luckily for the Australian, Luke O’Nien came to the rescue.
It was around this point that Johnson rang the changes. Leadbitter, Winchester and O’Brien came on for Scowen, Power and Wyke. O’Brien managed a shot following a press from Winchester to win back the ball. Jones, embarrassingly, skied one well over the bar from the edge of the box on 77mins, with the best chance of the game. At this point in proceedings, with all the hallmarks of a pre-season friendly, it seemed we were destined for a scoreless outcome.
“Come On Down Sam Hoskins!”
By now, with attention spans at all time low, game shows from the 80’s strangely came to mind. After realising the music played over SAFC TV’s stream sounded familiar, ‘name that tune’ became the distraction. Perhaps Sam Hoskins heard the ghost of Leslie Crowther shout, “come on down” too as he rifled a free kick under the hapless wall and passed Lee Burge. One nil down on 82mins and for Sunderland, the price was very much not right.
In fairness to Johnson’s men they pushed for the equaliser and some good work from Jones, with a shot from the right, led to the easiest of tap-ins for Winchester from two yards out a few moments later. Amusingly the ball had hit both posts before being prodded home.
However, as the embers of the season fizzled out, Lee Johnson is left with a huge job on his hands to ignite the team again ready for Lincoln on 19th May. There isn’t a single Sunderland player at the moment with anything approaching decent form. They’ve had nine games to find it. Is there anything to suggest it will appear by magic on the tenth? Based on this performance, it’s a resounding no.