You can pay £62 to see Arsenal play Man City or for half of that you can go to Wigan, buy fish and chips followed by a round of drinks and then watch your team come away with the points.
You won’t necessarily see Barcelona-style passing, although the weather and playing conditions might have as much to do with that as the teams – Wigan can play attractive football, don’t you know? You won’t necessarily see the Sunderland team you expected, they can be skilful, hard as nails or disinterested and you can never tell what you’ll get on any given day. But in most away games you’ll get commitment, endeavour and grit and that’s what we got yesterday, along with the giving the ball away too cheaply and defending too deeply tendencies that have frustrated us all season and have made our lives interesting.
It was giving the ball away too cheaply that cost us the first goal. A misplaced pass left Wigan in possession in our half, some slick passing and running got the ball into and across the box and in came a shot that any one of four defenders would have cleared on another day. On this day the ball skidded off a hapless Vaughan and past a helpless Mingolet. 1-0 down, 4 minutes on the clock. Now which Sunderland would we see?
It didn’t take long to find out. Solid work moved us forward and we had a couple of good efforts before Johnson was fouled just outside the box. From where I was, at the far end of the ground, it looked like the free kick was poorly taken. I was wrong. The kick was good enough to need an arm to block it and Gardner duly tucked the penalty way.
We followed this with more decent play. Wigan’s attempts to come back at us were frustrated by O’Shea, imperious at the back and ably assisted by Bramble, who made his size count when it mattered. Sess ran about and fell over in midfield, which created a bit of space for newcomer N’Diaye to show that he could be a very good buy. His touches on the ball and movement off it generated counterplay that Wigan struggled to contain. This is one Alfie, I think, who knows what it’s all about. He fed Johnson and Fletcher and while the pair combined well it was Fletcher who came up with the goods and rattled in two goals that showed his class.
It wasn’t all sweetness and light, though. Ming’s distribution was atrocious and Colback looked out of place and desperately one-footed. Still, for all their huffing and puffing and their early goal Wigan had not been able to penetrate and there we were, 3-1 up at half-time.
Before the game I’d have taken a point but now I was confident we’d take three. I couldn’t see Wigan doing enough to claw back a two-goal deficit. In fact, I thought we’d get another couple ourselves. The second half, to paraphrase Wellington, was a much more close-run thing than that. We defended deep and tried to hit Wigan on the counter-attack. This let Wigan press but, like us, they were having problems in making passes count and in keeping possession, and when they did get through Ming showed his worth as a shot stopper.
Plus, we had a magnificent weapon in Fletcher. They had to keep defenders back because he moved from our box where he defended to the centre circle where he became a target for clearances and from where his hold-up play brought others into the game. He scores when he likes but there’s so much more to his game. Truly money well spent.
However, the trouble with defending deeply and having a keeper who can’t kick the ball to attackers (one magnificent throw did release Sess to play in a speeding-forward Larsson, whose shot went agonisingly close) is that you’re always under pressure and something is likely to give, especially when you’re facing a tricky winger. Thus it was that after a couple of narrow escapes, and with ten minutes to go, Maloney got in a cross which gave Henriquez, unmarked in the box, the easiest of chances.
But we hung on. Through the final minutes of the 90 and an extra five, added for good measure and I don’t know what else. We held the pressure and continued to counter attack, so much so that when the final whistle went the ball was a yard or two from the Wigan goal-line with Fletch and Larsson in attendance.
A well-deserved win, three well deserved points but please, MON, stop defending on the edge of box. Use Fletcher and AJ, and maybe our new midfield, to keep the ball upfield and the pressure on our opponents. Give us a break!