Words by Marc Manning – @mmanning98
After a difficult run of fixtures against clubs battling it out for promotion, the visit of another former Premier League club to the Abbey in front of a sell-out crowd came at the end of a spell where a win would be vital for the U’s if they were to get any momentum going into a busy festive period. Sunderland and 2,551 of their fans were the visitors to CB5, fresh off the back of a disappointing 1-1 draw away to 10-man Shrewsbury Town.
After the Tuesday night tie with Wigan Athletic, United made the usual change of Wesley Hoolahan coming back into the side in place of Jensen Weir, unlucky to be the casualty after another impressive performance against his former club. Meanwhile, The Black Cats came into the game with somewhat of an injury crisis. No available fullbacks and the news that Netflix’s ‘Sunderland Til I Die’ stars Luke O’Nien and Aiden McGeady were out for an extended period meant the Mackems fielded a fairly makeshift XI with wingers at fullbacks and a Lee Cattermole impersonator in the midfield.
The first goal of the game was an early one, a regular occurrence when United are playing against seemingly any opposition this season. Ex-Premier League midfielder Alex Pritchard swung in a devastating wind-assisted corner which evaded everyone including the despairing Dimi in goal, cueing pandemonium in the packed away ends and a celebration from the former Norwich man that would be befitting of a winning goal in a Champions League final. Several of the travelling support got a little bit too excited, with one fan swiftly ejected. Lucky him, he wouldn’t have to watch James Brophy attempt to take it past his man for the next 75 minutes.
The U’s, backed from the off by the Amber Army, fired back not long after with Sunderland now on the back foot. Wesley Hoolahan was once again at the forefront of all the attacking efforts and looked dangerous with his clever linkup play with Sam Smith and Big Joe. And it was Smith who grabbed a deserved equaliser, sweeping the ball past the Sunderland keeper with thirty minutes on the clock.
Before kickoff, we all knew the typhoon-like conditions would affect the game massively throughout and they certainly played their part. Every goal kick from Dimi Mitov worryingly didn’t make the halfway line in the first half, with some kicks nearly ending up in the allotments behind the South Stand.
On the cusp of the half-time break, Sunderland hit back. Defensive mishaps were back on the agenda for the U’s with Nathan Broadhead being left in tonnes of space outside of the 18-yard box after some intricate play on the right side of the pitch pushed the ball into his path. After turning Adam May inside out on the edge of the area, Broadhead cut onto his left foot before firing an unstoppable rocket past Dimi. Deserved? Hardly. But The U’s again needed to find a way back against higher opposition who were under the cosh up until the second goal.
The second half started as the first half ended, as bitterly cold as if I was sitting in Martin Bain’s cryo-chamber (you’ll have to watch Sunderland Til I Die for that reference). The U’s were always looking likely to be the ones who were going to score first after the break with Big Joe coming the closest with a diving header that was inches away from increasing his goal tally to nine for the season and a step closer to getting that statue in front of the NRE.
Sunderland rarely threatened the United goal in the second half with Ross Stewart coming close to extending their lead in what was their only real chance. A real credit to the U’s defensive play throughout the day.
Changes were made not long after for the U’s. Shilow Tracey made a welcome return to the team, replacing an anonymous Adam May who didn’t have the best of games. He made an impact instantly with a weaving run past the Sunderland statues, only for the referee to blow for a foul against the ex-Tottenham man, a decision that summed up the officials’ performance throughout the day for both sides. Rumour has it the linesman in front of the Main Stand forgot to bring his flag to the game.
With the U’s desperate for an equaliser, Bonner turned to the subs bench and decided that Harvey Knibbs was the one who could score it… the game ended in defeat for the U’s.
Man of the match: Paul Digby. An impressive performance from the skipper who had arguably his best performance of the season.
Line up: Mitov; Williams, Masterson, Iredale, Dunk; Digby, May (Tracey, 77); Smith, Hoolahan, Brophy (Knibbs, 77); Big Joe.
Soundtrack of the match: Royal Blood – Typhoons