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Sunderland 2 Watford 2 (29/04/2023) 30/04/2023

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1-  A few words of explanation are likely needed for context.

Yes, this was a bit bloody silly.  Nobody’s denying this.  But at the end of a second disappointing season on the hop of great concern to me personally is the resilience of Daughter 2 to All Of This.  I was fourteen by the time GT left the first time, when the wind changed direction and ushered in a decade or so of something quite different.  There were good times later of course but had I not been marinated in the relative successes of the eighties would I have been resilient to what followed?

Daughter 2 isn’t fourteen until the summer.  Kids grow up fast these days perhaps, and girls quicker than boys but still.  Seems harsh that she had so little of the good bit before enduring this. So when, whilst away over Easter, she demanded another away trip before the end of the season my instinct was to gratefully encourage this promising evidence of an ongoing commitment, to rolled eyes from my wife.

Taking the coaches added a new spin too.  I’ve rarely done so voluntarily and can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times in the last thirty years but…  one of the things about getting older is that long drives are no longer just a matter of bloody mindedness themselves.  I get tired at the wheel these days… and since Daughter 2 (let alone her mother) are hardly likely to entertain the attractions of a couple of beers on the train the coach it is, facilitated by an MK pick-up option that sees us stumble out of the car at the coachway at 7 on a bright, sunny morning.

And… it’s fine.  Better than fine, actually.  I’d been apprehensive, not that I’d shared these concerns beforehand…  claustrophobia, lack of freedom to go where and when I wanted, lack of space, air.  Being confined in a metal box with a load of people for two long hauls with the strong possibility of pathetic defeat as meat in the sandwich.  These fears proved ill founded;  it was a serene experience, older folk (in whose number I must count myself) and obedient daughters to the front, younger to the back – occasionally boisterous but mostly inconsequentially so.  And a shared sense of morbid curiosity as to what was to come.  After all, of all the people in the world to whom the merits of the trip need explaining least, half of them are on this coach. The other half are on Coach 1 including Luther Blissett in their number no less (who, as an aside, bears no small responsibility for my formative unreasonably optimistic grounding described above).  He looks dapper in a blue suit when the coaches coincide to overwhelm McDonalds at Tibshelf but is not, as Don Fraser conspiratorially speculates, planning a night out on the lash with Gary Porter since by all accounts he’s on the coach back too.

2- Sunderland rather than Hull, despite the added distance, partly for domestic logistical convenience and partly because this place, newish as the stadium is, holds a bit of history.  I’ve no real affinity with Sunderland particularly… but we came here twice for midweek August fixtures in the late nineties either side of our simultaneous promotion to the top flight and there was a palpable sense of Peter Reid’s side propelling the club on the crest of a wave.  It was noisy and positive and all but irrepressible.  More recent visits, the latest still a good fifteen years past, have found our hosts much gloomier and of course the last few years have largely been more difficult still.  Curious as to how we’ll find it…

We fall out of the coach on Wearside shortly after midday and wander around for a bit, though it’s much colder than where we’ve come from.  Apprehension about the outcome of the game is fuelled partly by our own miserable failure to come up with anything resembling a run of form (for all that our absence has been kind to us – my last two games the wins over Bristol City and Birmingham) but also by the sense that Sunderland might be finding that vibe again at a critical time.  We wander past the Wheat Sheaf, landmark of a particular memorable visit many years ago, and cut back towards the stadium where we overlook a Sunderland fan in a car park gently admonishing his young daughter for dropping her flag.  “You can’t drop that love, it’s a Sunderland flag!”.  He’s kind with his life lesson but not joking, and the incident fuelled by his strong local accent keeps Daughter 2 giggling to herself for a good ten minutes.

Inside, there’s what seems to be a north-east thing of a long ascent to a high vantage point behind the goal.  It’s not quite the climb of St James Park which demands sherpas and crampons but it’s a long way up; we’d been warned that prompted by some unpleasantness on Burnley’s visit, coins top a list of items no longer permitted for fear of missile assaults on the family area below us.  No chance of being given the bottle of coke in anything other than a flimsy plastic pint glass in the circumstances, or of buying a programme since all potential missiles were carefully stashed on the coach and breaking up a note would merely have created new ones.

3- Two main notes from the teamsheet were the absence of both João Pedro and of any of the kids that Chris Wilder had once again talked of blooding but once again failed to bring in. In the former case…  it’s a choking shame, an indictment of our failure to harness our resources this season that such a special talent is being sold on.  Nonetheless surely no surprise and if it must be so then to a likeable club where he’ll be allowed to grow whilst already being a level of special, and seemingly done early in the window to boot are surely both good things.  No argument against cocooning him in bubble wrap and putting him on the out-tray given that needs must.

On the second point, looked at purely in terms of output Chris Wilder has gotten off surprisingly lightly given that his two wins in ten represent a pretty poor return despite the circumstances.  This easy ride reflects appreciation both of said circumstances and his candour in discussing both them and his team’s failings.  There’s no bullshit, he calls it as everyone sees it and in so doing demonstrates the leeway that a bit of honest interaction buys you.

The injuries to Adeyemo and Grieves, surely the next cabs off the rank alongside Andrews, are likely to have been significant in his decision not to blood the kids again… along perhaps with the knowledge that whatever the handsome contract being offered Adrian Blake has fancier proposals on the table.  That’s not Wilder or even Watford’s fault, and if Blake’s ship has sailed then there’s no value in giving him a run either.  On top of which…  there’s something to be said for not chucking kids that he doesn’t deem ready into a potentially difficult atmosphere.  A humiliation if things go against us.  Comment on this has implied that there’s no risk of losing anything by doing so;  that simply isn’t true.  As an aside, if anyone’s due a humiliation, a booing off, it’s not the kids.  Which doesn’t mean that Wilder’s right necessarily to withhold them but as with so much else you can see what he’s thinking.

In any case we start pretty punchily.  Hemel-born Luke O’Nien is a poster boy for our recent failure to bring through our own talent, a casualty of the earliest influxes of imports under the Pozzo ownership.  His Watford career amounted to two minutes plus injury time of a win over Barnsley nine years ago but he’s made a decent career for himself since and here looks combative, energetic and abrasive – plenty likeable enough if he’s wearing your shirt.

What he’s not is tall, and in the absence of at least two senior centre backs, his employment in the middle of the back four is an invitation evidenced not only by our two goals but by our readiness to hump the ball long at the earliest opportunity (which, if it’s a Wilder thing, hasn’t been evident in dispatches).  By the time we take the lead the approach is already well employed, Keinan Davis in particular eager to battle for high balls against physically inferior opponents and adept at doing so, turning and surging in the way that promised so much more than we managed to get out of him when he first arrived.  Sunderland’s defenders crumbled in his wake;  when we took the lead 20-odd minutes in, Christian Kabasele outmuscling his marker to thump his forehead through Imran Louza’s left wing corner, an unlikely win immediately felt possible.

4- The intimidating racket that greeted the start of the game waned immediately into quiet anxiety, and the 1.5% of the official attendance underneath the low roof in the top tier behind the goal were able to make a disproportionate amount of noise.  Been a while since we’d enjoyed a stupid celebration like that… you don’t forget exactly, but being reminded how fun it was was tremendous.  

For the rest of the half we did a very decent job of it.  Sunderland’s Gelhardt has something about him but he isn’t a target man, and as we sat deep and demanded more invention off Sunderland than the home side’s many fleet-footed midfielders were able to deliver we began to see an inversion of traditional roles this season.  This is what a very large proportion of visitors have enjoyed doing to us…  they dominated possession and it was never either easy or comfortable, but such chances as there were were typified by Amad Diallo’s crisp shot.  Fair effort, could have got a nick but otherwise needed to be a worldy to beat Bachmann, who pushed the left footed effort away to his left.

Much of the home side’s assault came through Roberts and Clarke down the flanks, with an apparent emphasis on testing Ryan Andrews at right back.  It was an examination that yielded the Black Cats absolutely nothing, and whilst I’ve only caught two of his five starts consensus would suggest that he’s the real deal.  A kid in the team after all this time is a great thing anyway of course.  Doesn’t hurt that he’s terrific as well.  Disciplined, aggressive, confident, punchy, our other on-target effort of the half came when he surged onto a loose ball and pumped a left-footed shot through a crowd which bounced off the body of the perhaps fortunate and seemingly unwitting goalkeeper.  Add to this two narrow-looking offside calls that called back first Sarr and then Davis and you had good portents for the second half.

5- If Sunderland’s attack lacked a bit of variety there was a renewed conviction about their play in the second half without which they wouldn’t have got back into the game.  Our centre-backs would grab our goals, but they also did a fine line in blocks, interceptions, bellows, fist punches, high fives, more interceptions.  In the absence of much of a rudder, the return of Kabasele to the fold was particularly welcome on this occasion.  His biggest failing as a defender is an occasional poor decision making but here the job was to react and to compete, no time for the luxury of thought.   Meanwhile his strength of personality, which is beyond dispute, complemented the brash aggression of Ryan Porteous well.

Midway through the half, another Louza corner showcased the lack of presence and experience in the middle of Sunderland’s defence as Porteous’ run towards the near post lost Luke O’Nien who resorted to a fruitless push in his opponent’s back as the Scot doubled our lead with an angled header.  He might as well have been trying to shoulder barge a lamp post.

More excited silliness in the away end.  Had we held sway for a few minutes, calmed everything down, that might have been that;  instead Sunderland had the presence of mind to push onto us straight away.  O’Nien flicked a right wing corner onto the bar, Leandro Bacuna headed the follow up away….  it was to be a goal borne of attrition and persistence, Luke O’Nien eventually tucking home from a position that many, including Daniel Bachmann, your correspondent, and several on the coach were convinced was an offside position but wasn’t remotely close to being so.

The ball was retrieved, the stadium exploded into noise once more and whilst the margin had merely reverted to the single goal of minutes earlier it felt like a much bigger job suddenly.  In the wake of what happened in the 95th minute it’s easy to overlook the resilience that defied the home side for twenty minutes and subdued the crowd once more.  This wasn’t simply another capitulation.

However the other characteristic of so many of our (particularly) home failings this season has been blind frustration at the apparent complicity of officials with the agonising hand fate has been dealing us.  Here Gavin Ward played his part to perfection, contributing to the home side’s plight with a pedantic refusal to ease their suffering with helpful decisions.  The sting in the tail came with the surprising decision to award seven minutes of added time;  in the fifth of these the home side got a bizarre throw-in decision but neither the generous added time nor the generous throw-in decision justifies the amount of time Patrick Roberts was afforded on the edge of the box before curling home an exquisite equaliser.  Decisions happen.  You’ve still got to defend.

6- A brief suggestion that it might get worse still, before it ended.  The possibility of that glorious thing, an away mugging, stolen away but not a great result for the home side either – they needed a win to go into the final weekend with much optimism, and look like falling squarely into the “not really good enough to go up” box with us, a position which given respective divisions last season they should be much the happier with.

If there’s criticism to be levelled based on this game in particular, Chris Wilder’s ultra-conservative substitutions…  Bacuna for Asprilla, Ngakia for Sarr, Hoedt for Andrews… bear consideration.  The last quarter of the game saw a now exhausted and isolated Davis as our only outlet, pressure invited further as Sunderland chased the game.  Much easier to assess those decisions after the match of course.  We were two minutes from a fine and unexpected win… and it wasn’t as if the bench (or the squad, given availability) was overburdened with viable attacking options.  Aráujo would surely have required Davis to stay on the pitch to have a chance of being worthwhile.

But our season has gone, analysis of the match rather moot despite all the waffle you’ve waded through.  This was all about the experience and this was a fine one despite the late punch in the guts (and the traditional gestures of friendship offered from behind a window to the exiting home hordes from the lads at the back of the coach – at least until first a mounted policeman and then a driver concerned with tiresome retribution offered admonishment).

Above all, the game reminded Daughter 2 of some of the good things about Doing This.  Days out.  People watching.  Balti pies. Jumping around like an idiot.  Clutching your hair between your fingers.

All good. 

See you Monday.


Bachmann 3, Andrews 4, Kamara 3, *Porteous 4*, Kabasele 4, Choudhury 3, Louza 4, Sarr 3, Sema 3, Asprilla 2, Davis 4
Subs: Bacuna (for Asprilla, 58) 3, Ngakia (for Sarr, 82) NA, Hoedt (for Andrews, 88) NA, Aráujo, Koné, Morris, Hamer



1. Lincoln Hornet - 30/04/2023

Good on daughter 2 I say, it’s in her blood now and no turning back. I have a similar situation with one of my girls who attended her first game at Forest about 2000 at the age of 5ish. A 0-2 away win, 2 sublime Micah finishes, yellow balloons in the away end and that’s it, she’s never looked back!! She’s now nearly 28, has seen the good, bad and the ugly but still comes back for more. You ‘Orns

Matt Rowson - 30/04/2023

Good choice of first game. Closest we came to total football. Robbo popping up everywhere.

2. grahamsmith - 30/04/2023

All the very best to Joao Pedro in the next leg of his career. Regardless of whether or not Watford were promoted this season he belongs in the top half of the PL. Early days to say that could be the very top but top half definitely. Brighton are both a well run club and a terrific footballing side I would imagine he’s thrilled with the move. They also recruit exceptionally well and I imagine see as bright a footballing future for him as I do.

3. Fez - 30/04/2023

As away days go that was right up there for me:
An expect nothing game with a 05:30 departure from home; the lottery of the coach trip (as you touched on); a selfie with Luther; a fantastic lunchtime sesh in the pub – the average Sunderland fan’s glass is way less than half empty! – meeting old friends and making new ones; and Hell’s bells, even the football was worth the watch despite the inevitability of the result.
Heck, I even bumped into you, literally, after the game in the facilities. Shame there wasn’t the chance of a chat, I was on a bit of a mission.
After the long, occasionally irritating, journey back I ventured into O’Neills where I met a couple of Americans who generously shared their round of Tequila shots with me, a karma reward perhaps for biting my tongue over the aforementioned younger generation towards the rear… I’m getting old, I guess!
One goal shy of being a perfect day!

Harefield Hornet - 01/05/2023

I think I might recall seeing you at one point !

Fez - 01/05/2023

We had a chat in the stand at half-time!

4. Harefield Hornet - 30/04/2023

I’d never visited Sunderland to see Watford play before, despite many trips visiting the area years ago to visit my mothers family who originated from
the Durham coal mining villages just to the South. A sort of semi home coming and I enjoyed every single bit of it bar the late equaliser – from the train journey up to the drinks in the pub beforehand with friendly local fans – the stadium atmosphere – the daft singing with a load of young Hibs fans pre match who’d decided to turn up and support Ryan Porteous for the day – no idea how they got tickets for the away end unless they were provided by Ryan himself . A great day out which reminded me just how much I love away matches !

5. Michael - 01/05/2023

From a Sunderland supporter, this is a truly wonderful article – beautifully written and a real joy to read. Thank you so much, and the best of luck to you and your beloved Watford for next season.

Matt Rowson - 01/05/2023

Thanks Michael, that’s very kind of you. Best of luck if you do manage to nick sixth.

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