Into Sixer’s shoes once again steps Bob Chapman‘s, our star writer having maintained his pickiness with long away trips (and even a few short home ones). Jon Keen, who writes for the Reading pages at ESPN, thought Sunderland ‘the worst team to visit the MadStad this season’. Supersub Bob could not see us losing from the moment Gardner struck home his penalty equaliser, just as many expected a comfortable Chelsea cruise once they went ahead at St James’ Park. Instead, characteristic defensive lapses and unconvincing finishing by SAFC, and Chelsea’s surrender on Tyneside, left him fearing the worst for his ‘Sunderland eighth, NUFC relegated’ pre-season wager …
Sunderland first played Reading in the 4th round of the FA Cup in 1973. After a 1-1 draw at Roker Park, Sunderland won the Elm Park replay 3-1 and the rest is a slice of history (fondly remembered by older supporters whose offspring yearn for something in which they, too, may glory – ed).
I missed that game so my first visit to Elm Park was in 1990 for a 3rd round tie. Standing on an open terrace I got absolutely drenched in the process and we lost 2-1. Elm Park certainly had character but could only best be described as a dump.
But then, I have never enjoyed going to Reading. With the move to Madjeski Stadium in 1998 Sunderland have had mixed fortunes, but my opinion hasn’t changed that much. Built on the outskirts of town, it’s located in an industrial estate just off the M4. There are no facilities nearby and getting in and out can take up to an hour whether coming by road or rail.
This year I travelled by rail with my brother Tim. Every year for my birthday in August he buys me a bet. This season the bet was a double – Sunderland to finish in the top eight, Newcastle to be relegated. The betting slip was nearly thrown away just before Christmas but I retained it and it was once again a topic of discussion in the pub beforehand. Ever the optimist, I saw a Sunderland Chelsea double as a bank certainty for the day.
This was a match we should never have lost. Two poor defensive mistakes cost us at least a point.
As early as the fourth minute a warning could be seen. A ball was played in behind Craig Gardner, flat footing the back four. Fortunately nothing came of it, except that the same thing happened two minutes later with disastrous results. Once Larsson was beaten the cross was driven in to the edge of the box where Kebe beat O’Shea too easily to drive in past Mignolet.
Larsson came close to equalising soon after, being fouled from behind he managed to get his shot on target only for Frederici to make a good save. To the ever vocal Larsson, Lee Mason played advantage and didn’t sanction a penalty. However moments later he awarded us what seemed a soft one, though the replay clearly showed O’Shea being felled needlessly by Pogrebnyak. Craig Gardner duly stuck it away in typical Gary Rowell fashion with a firm shot just inside the post.
Once we had clawed our way back into the game I couldn’t see us getting beaten. We were not playing particularly well but never seemed under much of a threat. Similarly we were unable to get support up for the isolated Fletcher.
A mundane 1- 1 draw seemed on the cards for much of the game until we introduced Danny Graham and started to play with two up front. I am sure he will do well for us and it was good that he received a warm reception from the fans. He came close with two headers within minutes of each other and probably should have done better with the latter one.
In addition, N’Diaye should have at least hit the target with a great chance from only five yards out. We definitely had the best chances in the last quarter of the game and should have gone on to win.
But don’t we ever learn? Concentration is so important and top players don’t concede unnecessary free kicks around the box. Needless to say we gave one away with just five minutes to go. I suspected what was coming and, as with all penalties, I quickly crossed my fingers in the hope it might have some effect. It had certainly worked with Gardner’s penalty so why not now! No such luck and we had lost a game which we could so easily have won.
So what did we learn from the game. Once again Mignolet didn’t have much to do but pulled off a great save to further his reputation as one of the best keepers in the division. I wonder whether we can hold onto him for next season? N’Diaye needs shooting practice. Danny Rose did well when he came on and will surely start next week against Arsenal. From being a small side we now have some bigger players and need to start using this to our advantage. Graham and Fletcher could be a formidable force if supplied properly.
Getting away from the industrial estate was the usual calamity. Having witnessed another needless defeat I needed instant refreshment. Having to wait 50 minutes for such therapy is one of the reasons I dislike many of these out of town stadiums. At least when you get thrashed at places like Everton you can always get something to eat and drink afterwards to cheer yourself up.
Back at the pub with my brother we reflected on the match and that ongoing bet. With Chelsea and ourselves losing it was a bad day for us both and probably a good day for the bookies, come the end of the season.