Where do I start with yesterday? Sometimes, even with more source material than I usually have, I struggle to find an adequate place to begin summing up a game.
I would do myself a huge disservice if I started going on about their size and ours, because it annoyed me a little going into the game. I know they were Premier League a couple of years ago and I know we hosted Dover and Bromley around the same time, but football grows, evolves and shifts quickly. This season we’re both in League One and merely being a big club isn’t enough, in my opinion, to start fawning over their visit.
It’s similar to Coventry’s visit back in 2017/18; sure, they were a big club but on that afternoon we were both in League Two and their class showed through in their win. My fear was the respect we were piling on Sunderland for their previous achievements might be matched by the players. I know under he-who-must-not-be-named we were strong against the bigger opposition, but this is the new era and much has yet to be defined.
I didn’t see the 6-0 mauling by Oxford, but I know Sunderland’s squad is, pound for pound, much better than Oxford’s. I know we were strong against Man Utd kids in the week, but we didn’t put the ball in the net. It’s no good playing nice football but getting beat and with so much still to discover about our new management team, I felt we couldn’t have had a worse game.
I was wrong.
My Dad commented to me ahead of the match that he didn’t think there was a great atmosphere around the ground, but I felt much better about this fixture than a lot of others. Maybe it’s because we were in a ‘win/win’ situation. If we lost, it was expected. Get anything else from the game and we’d done well. To that end, it felt a bit more like Everton in the EFL Cup and a lot less like Oxford, Bristol Rovers or any other run of the mill league encounter.
Perhaps that is to Sunderland’s detriment. They won’t want to be everyone’s cup final, but in the main they are. The biggest crowd of our all-seater age at Sincil Bank is a testament to that, as was the buzz on social media all morning, the comparisons and the tweets about how far we’d climbed and how far they’d fallen. I couldn’t buy into that but I do understand why people did.
Michael Appleton made a couple of bold changes to the side, one widely expected and one perhaps not so much. I did call Harry being dropped and Jorge Grant coming in, but I got Michael O’Connor’s return wrong. I’m delighted he came back into the side though, I felt we needed a leader in the middle of the park, someone with the experience of fighting at this level. Mickey played for Scunthorpe and Rotherham in League One and both sides had to scrap for every ball. No matter how talented Callum Connolly is, he’s not been at that level to fully adjust, not yet. Balanced with Joe Morrell, a midfielder likely to be a Bristol City regular next season, we had a midfield once again.
As for Sunderland, we couldn’t have faced a better starting XI. With McGeady and McNulty not trusted in terms of fitness and Grigg still woefully off the pace, their front four had a distinctly average look about it. I’m not sure Gooch and Maguire would get in our side ahead of Andrade and Grant, Payne would certainly play instead of O’Nien and as for Charlie Wyke; big John would have done more.
I said in the week the key was not conceding early doors and for the first five or ten minutes, we took the game to them. I expected the opposite, a bit of dogged defending and the odd break from us, but like a pretty girl surrounded by sweaty men in a nightclub, we weren’t going to let them come on to us. We went in hard and the performance looked much more like Southend or Accrington at home than it did Oxford or Bristol Rovers.
My big concern ahead of the fixture was the referee, Brett Huxtable. He’s a lumbering giant of an official, not just with a Dad bod but carrying enough extra timber for me to heat my house over the winter. That’s not body-shaming, I’m a tubby man myself, but in a referee I expect more. He did struggle to keep up with play at times and by the time seven minutes had elapsed I was concerned; Gooch had cut down Andrade and not been punished, then O’Connor clearly fouled with the same outcome. Overall, the ref didn’t have a good game but his decisions favoured us rather than them. He did get his card out as early as the 12th minute, Andrade clearly the player Sunderland had earmarked as a threat. Chris Maguire’s crude challenge rightly punished.
This game was all about the first goal; if they got it they’d sink back and defend, if we got it we’d get their fans almost on our side. On 17 minutes, we got it. Neal Eardley’s delivery was spot on. taking four players out of the equation. Tyler made the run a good striker would make, to the near post. Jon McLaughlin took a risk but got beat to the ball by our leading scorer and the game swung towards Lincoln City.
Obviously, the ground erupted. Having seen us win one in 11 few expected us to take an early lead; in fact the odds were firmly stacked against us. In six of our last seven matches, we’ve been one down by the 17th-minute mark. To be 1-0 up at the same stage finally gave us the advantage to hold on to. It was a classic poacher’s goal, a gamble on a run that paid off. That’s why Tyler Walker will get 20 this season for us; he’s a natural striker who finds the right place at the right time.
Surely, with us on such a horrible run and them with an embarrassment of riches, we’d now be defending for 73 minutes? That was what my Dad thought; he leaned down and said ‘I’d take this at half time’. ‘I’d take it at full time,’ was my response. Neither of us expected it to be the case.
Why? Not because we don’t believe in our team, that’s not the case at all. I think we bought into the whole ‘Premier League club down on their luck’ angle. I write a lot about Sunderland and I know the players they have are talented. Max Power can conjure up goals from 25-yards, their bench had more value on it than our last eight season’s squads combined, and then some. It wasn’t going to all go our way.
It did carry on in our favour though. We didn’t shrink back and defend, although we did start to drag our feet at dead ball situations. We dictated the pace of the game, breaking with chances for Shackell and Payne, but ensuring the time in between was as protracted as possible. I chuckled at Josh Vickers, telling a supporter in the stands not to throw the ball back to him before half and hour had elapsed.
On the half-hour mark, the visitors got their best chance. A Curling Lauren De Bock effort brought a superb save out of Vickers. I said it last week and I’ll say it again; there are few better shot-stoppers at this level than our keeper. He’s had a rough ride of late but his head hasn’t dropped, something I think applies to most of the squad. Even that effort didn’t knock us off our stride and Walker would have had two, was his goalward-bound effort not deflected wide by Payne.
Half time eventually arrived and my Dad got his wish: the Imps were 1-0 to the good and we’d been playing some good football. It felt like the myth of Sunderland’s supremacy had been well and truly banished.