In the week of St George’s Day, Accrington Stanley arrived at a sunny Stadium of Light, very on-brand with their ‘Wham’ emblazoned shirts. Sunderland seemingly didn’t get the memo. Instead, they channelled their inner Andrew Ridgeley. The Lads were certainly as effective as his solo career.
Pre-match Lee Johnson had made clear 4-3-3 was his side’s preferred formation. Odd then that on paper the personnel suggested 4-4-2. Based on the EFL cameraman’s handywork it wasn’t initially clear how they lined up. However the team shaped up; it worked. This was going to be a comfortable afternoon in the sun. We could all enjoy the beer garden later. Or so we thought…
The signs for what would come later were present from the beginning, of course. Those defensive frailties, which had begun to creep into our game towards the end of Dion Sanderson’s run in the side, have now revealed themselves to be a significant concern. Bailey Wright was simply horrendous. But, we’ll come back to him later. Lucky you.
Bring Me Sunshine? No.
At times this season Sanderson and O’Nien looked solid. The clean sheets and 14 game unbeaten run alone prove this. Previously, however ‘make-do-and-mend’ their pairing may have been, the team could be confident there was every chance of winning matches. Instead, O’Nien and Wright’s partnership is a comedy of errors – the Morecambe and Wise of League One. What do you think of it so far? Well, quite frankly, rubbish.
We’d accepted before the game that automatic promotion was off the agenda. But, it was vitally important to build confidence going into the playoffs. To that end, the early exchanges looked to be promising. Accrington Stanley appeared to play into our hands by going three at the back and having a go. The first half saw the Lads knock the ball around effectively and we exploited the spaces well. Accrington Stanley struggled to cope with our quick movement and slick passing. His assist aside, Dion Charles in particular, who we knew was their goal threat, looked as menacing as an empty bag of crisps.
Lynden Gooch was lively in the first half. Plenty of crosses into the box looking to feed Charlie Wyke and the former easily beat two opponents to fizz a cross into the box after the first few minutes, setting the tone nicely. It was a return to the impressive approach play that saw Lee Johnson get the best from the former Bradford City man.
Such was the effectiveness of the partnership it wasn’t long before Accrington’s goal was breached. Six minutes in fact. Gooch looped a cross in from just outside the box and Wyke rose to head home from a couple of yards out. Here we go, we collectively thought, metaphorically already in the beer garden with masked shouts of, ‘mine’s a pint of Guinness!’
Denver Hume, who started today after being eased back following injury, was a highlight in the first half. Perhaps that’s just because his performances are so stark when compared to Callum McFadzean. Hume’s pace caused problems and positionally, well, let’s just say he is an improvement on his deputy.
With Gooch getting the first assist, Aiden McGeady was obviously getting jealous and notched up yet another assist for his preferred strike partner. An early cross from the left, Charlie Wyke gets a run on his man and nudges home for his 30th of the season (in all competitions).
Sunderland two nil up and cruising. Both strange and cruel then that things began to unravel for us.
Should’ve Made It Three
Yet, there were chances to make it three. Aiden O’Brien, who appeared to play in the hole just behind Wyke, had a chance when we were 3v2 just outside the opposition box. O’Brien failed to take advantage and Accrington, appearing to be buoyed by our failure to put chances away, looked to counter as quickly and as often as they could.
It wasn’t all Accrington though. Not by any stretch. Wyke nearly had his hat trick just before the 20-minute mark, again from that man McGeady. We couldn’t put the game to bed though and Bailey Wright became the architect of our demise. Caught square-on too many times, Accrington could smell their chance was coming. The boy McConville in particular was a thorn down our right hand side and just as our wide men proved a threat, so too did the Accy midfielder.
The whistle blew and for Sunderland, who were the better side to this point but had rode their luck at times, a chance to regroup. More of the same you might say? Sadly, it was. More of the fragility we’ve come to expect as the season peters out.
As the second half got underway Sunderland had the better moments early on. Both sides were unchanged in personnel and the Black Cats pinged it around nicely.
If we looked brittle at the back first half, things finally snapped. O’Nien was easily beaten in the box and Colby Bishop slotted home. Against the run of play? Perhaps. Accrington had been knocking at the door though. Unfortunately, Sunderland’s defence kindly let them in and made a brew.
Again it was McConville down the right who looked the most threatening. Max Power at right back again today for Sunderland, struggled to stop the crosses coming into the box. Wright again looked nervy and seemed to often panic instead of easily clear.
Such was the concern at this point from the bench that Lee Johnson introduced Grant Leadbitter just before the hour mark, to calm things down. It was perhaps sensible to try and get him to dictate play from just in front of the anxiety stricken back four so that they game wouldn’t run away from us. That was presumably the plan any way.
F**ing Fork Handles
It was at this point that Luke O’Nien scored in his own net. He and Lee Burge conspired to break away and start their own comedy duo. The Two Ronnies of League One, only the f***ing fork handles could’ve been put to better use after that display of ineptitude. Burge charged forward to collect the incoming ball just as O’Nien headed it back to him on the line, which was coolly done. Sadly for Sunderland the goalkeeper wasn’t on his line.
More substitutions followed with Winchester coming off for Diamond and Jones for Aiden O’Brien. McGeady moved more centrally and began to spray the balls wide when he could. A positive change from Johnson, eventually leading to Sunderland’s third goal. Diamond in particular caused problems with his pace. Max Power knocked a ball into the box on the 80 minute mark and the young Diamond should’ve done better.
It was Diamond who charged forward though as the Black Cats countered. Max Power had made a run into the box and from Diamond’s pass netted home. 3-2. Just see the game out lads.
Who Are They?
It wasn’t to be. McConville again popped up for Accrington. A free kick by McGeady on the edge of the Sunderland box, which didn’t on first glance appear to be a foul, led to the Accy man scoring a peach of a set-piece. Sometimes you have to accept those when they are placed so accurately. 3-3.
Enter Ross Stewart, on for McGeady, and the game had gone by that point. McGeady did have a chance before his substitution, which was headed off the line but truth be told it was a sorry afternoon for Sunderland as we limp into the playoffs. An embarrassment of a performance, especially in the second half.
Accrington Stanley? Well, exactly.