Nobody was in any doubt about the size of the task today, especially with Sunderland in as much need of the points as us. It felt rather like for the first time this season we were truly the underdogs, although in our favour was the knowledge that we had produced our best performances in tough circumstances away from home against promotion contenders: Portsmouth, Ipswich, Doncaster. And glory be that group now includes Sunderland with a massive win, sweetened by the failure of Lincoln, Portsmouth Ipswich and Doncaster to win home games.
Did we deserve the win? Perhaps yes, perhaps no, depends how you read the game and what you focus on. It was not the same sort of dogged display as against some others, incidents and chances were aplenty, for both teams. We led at the break thanks to outstanding Amos saves and their guy’s decision to hack the ball into the roof of his own net rather than clear. Sure at times it was backs to the wall, Sunderland showed why they are fighting it out for automatic promotion, but everyone put in a massive shift and we could have added more goals to Gilbey’s second-half effort, either side of Sunderland’s one goal. A neutral would probably say a draw would have been a fair result, but a late leveller would have been cruel. And it didn’t happen, we got the points, who cares?
There was no surprise to hear that the team was unchanged from Doncaster, meaning a repeat of the 4-3-3/4-5-1 set-up with Maatsen and Jaiyesimi either side of Stockley up front, Forster-Caskey and Gilbey flanking Pratley in central midfield, in front of a back four of Matthews, Inniss, Pearce and Purrington. The surprise was on the bench, with Aneke not appearing, apparently injured, Schwartz taking his place. With Washington still out, it did indicate a limitation of our options if we ended up having to chase the game (and no jokes please about playing with none up front if Schwartz came on).
We started the game well, looked up for the task, only for Sunderland to almost take the lead with their first real attack, a long ball finding their guy between defenders and he turned it goalwards. Really expected it to land in the net but it went just wide. A narrow escape. And the next one came not long after as Pratley badly blotted his copybook. He seemed to be caught in two minds what to do with the ball at his feet and ended up giving it away to their guy, who was in on goal. He tried a chip but Amos stuck out a big hand to block it.
Just after that it was us almost scoring as a free kick was floated in and their defender diverted it back past his keeper and against the post, followed by a decent shout for a penalty as Gilbey seemed to be taken out in the box, the ref unmoved. Still inside the first 20 minutes and a Sunderland cross from their left saw their guy get to it only for Amos to pull off another blinder, although it seems he tried to punch it into the net. Two more penalty shouts were to follow as Jaiyesimi turned in the box and seemed to be clipped, then Pratley took the ball off their guy, advanced into the area, and was about to shoot when their defender took his foot away (or got the ball, have to see a replay of that one). None of the appeals were stonewall, but you’d have thought the ref might have given one of them on the balance of probabilities.
No mater, on the half-hour we did take the lead, in curious circumstances. Jaiyesimi won a corner on the left and Inniss got his head to it. Seems the keeper smothered it but it ran loose on the goalline, only for their guy to slice the clearance and send it into the roof of the net. Probably has to go down as an own goal, unless replays indicate it had already crossed the line.
The rest of the first half saw another Amos save, another Charlton penalty appeal (this time Stockley challenged and indicated the ball hit a defender’s arm), but no more goals. At the break we were probably fortunate to be ahead, but there were enough chances and incidents at both ends for either side to have been in front. The abiding thought was, however, that it was going to be bloody hard to keep a clean sheet.
The first phase of the second half we did manage to keep pretty scrappy, defending well in the face of Sunderland possession and pressure but with few opportunities to get forward. We were already playing if not on the break then conservatively, with Stockley winning every ball in the air but that seldom resulting in us keeping hold of the ball.
That all changed just before the hour as we created a golden opportunity to get some breathing space. A Sunderland defender failed to cut out a ball down the line and Jaiyesimi had it in space, curled in a cross, and Stockley was all on his own about a yard from goal. It had to go in, but instead he seemed to try to guide it home and ended up heading it against a post and out. It was a bad miss and at the time we wondered if that would cost us.
Sunderland reacted by making four substitutions, but whether or not as a result of their confusion we did indeed extend our lead. A throw on the right side was flicked on by Stockley and Gilbey made it his with a well-timed run. It was a poor first touch but he kept going and the second was much better as he fired home from close range. Sunderland might see it as a bad goal to give away, for us it seemed to bring victory close to hand. But still at least another 30 minutes left.
Millar came on for Maatsen, who picked up a knock, taking up his position on the left and Jaiyesimi switching to the right. And we coped with the next 15 minutes or so pretty well, might even have grabbed a third as poor defending let in Gilbey but his shot was well saved. Gunter came on for Jaiyesimi, with Matthews taking up a more advance position, although by now we were not surprisingly being penned back.
The game took a massive turn for the worse with about 15 minutes left as Sunderland pulled one back. A ball over the top looked like finding their guy. Amos came out for it but wasn’t going to get to it first. He did manage to block their forward’s effort, a second shot was also blocked, but when the ball came out the goal was open and at the third attempt a Sunderland guy cleverly stooped to head it into an unguarded net. Should Amos have come for it? Should defenders have got back on the line once it was clear he was coming out? Couldn’t have turned out any worse, now there was going to be a very nailbiting end to the game.
With hindsight we actually saw out the final 15 minutes and five of added time without major alarm, we might even have scored a third on the break, but of course it didn’t seem so comfortable at the time. I remember cheering when Purrington won a goal kick. Sunderland had a final free kick, but when that was cleared and Millar headed for the corner flag the game was up.
Just how massive a win this proves to be will only become clear at the end of the season. Not going to tempt fate by suggesting Sunderland’s dismay at the end was down to ‘surely not them again at Wembley’. To say that there are more tough tests to come is an understatement, with Ipswich up next. But there’s no doubt that this win puts us right in the play-off mix, a position which didn’t look likely at the end of March when we failed to beat Wimbledon. So we sit back and watch another round of games for others on Tuesday and prepare for the weekend. More of the same please.
Amos – 8/10. Almost a perfect performance, tremendous saves in the first half, just that decision to come out for a ball he couldn’t gather. Still leaves him, for me, as man of the match.
Matthews – 7/10. Decent enough game, especially after a tough opening period when Sunderland seemed to be targeting his side.
Innis – 8/10. Another towering performance against good opposition. Hope he gets credited with the goal.
Pearce – 8/10. Captain’s performance, up to and including the time-wasting injuries.
Purrington – 7/10. No complaints, played his part in what was overall a solid defensive display.
Forster-Caskey – 7/10. Put in a shift, as against Doncaster not much opportunity to shine on the ball.
Pratley – 6/10. Has to lose a mark for the early error which but for Amos would have gifted Sunderland the lead. The game would have been very different if they’d scored then. Otherwise decent.
Gilbey – 8/10. When he came back in this role ahead of Shinnie it was a surprise, but today he showed signs of what he can do, took his goal well and might have notched another.
Jaiyesimi – 7/10. Thought he started poorly but very much grew into the game as it progressed, some great stuff including the cross which Stockley should have buried.
Stockley – 7/10. Harsh mark for a guy who ran his socks off, won everything in the air (to the extent that, as Steve Brown pointed out, three centre-backs gave up competing against him), but the miss was a bad one and might have cost us.
Maatsen – 7/10. Played his part at both ends of the pitch.
Millar – 6/10. Didn’t always choose the best option to relieve the pressure and hit them on the break.
Gunter – 6/10. Thought he was absent from his position a few times late in the game, with Matthews having to cover.