They Come From A Land Down Sunder

I went to the game against Bristol Rovers last week. The ground was miserable, the weather was miserable, and the performance was sub-par miserable. Quite frankly, I didn’t want to do a blog about it, so consider that opening statement as good as one. To be honest, it would’ve been miserable, too.

I think what compounds the misery, though, was the fact that we have three big games in a week. As I touched upon during the Barnsley breakdown, this week serves as the barometer for our season going forward. If we can make a good account of ourselves here, and get a few points on the board in the process (I’d say anything totalling five points or more from these three games is a good job), then we should be more positive for the rest of our campaign. But then, we are Coventry City, and we don’t do things like that.

Our first boss fight of the three, was against our faux-rivals, Sunderland.

Coventry City vs. Sunderland – 29/09/18

The first two most notable things upon entering the stadium bowl, were some flat, wall-like objects. The first; our developing new scoreboard installation. The second; the away fans. 5,000 travelling supporters is always a lot, and although they were quiet at first, they soon made a bit of a ruckus. Thankfully, the Sky Blue Army more than held their own, and with a larger repertoire, too (even if we did seem to enjoy chanting about the exploits of a disgraced former Sunderland player the most).

It’s a weird rivalry we have with Sunderland. One that can be listed under the ‘Give it a Rest, Lads’ category of fan grudges. The home fans made no mistake in stoking the flames of whatever daft fire had been lit; wearing Jimmy Hill masks (which we should arguably do for many other games, regardless of the circumstances. It’s a little bit daft to do it just for this match, guys. He did far more for this club than keep us up at Sunderland’s expense), singing about how ‘Jimmy sent [them] down’, and even smuggling a few Newcastle shirt-clad fans into the ground, for a few cheap laughs.

Of course, the game itself was serious business. Sunderland were looking to maintain their expectedly good start to the league, and hopefully arrest a slightly wonky patch of recent results. On the other hand, we were desperate to bounce back from the staid ‘performance’ against Bristol Rovers, and what better way to do it than against the big boys?

The first half was a strange one. Both teams looked to impose themselves on proceedings, but failed to really control the game for too long. What didn’t help was the strange injury goings-on. Glenn Loovens came off injured for Sunderland early on, being replaced by Adam Matthews. Loovens’ departure was a welcome one in my eyes, as he is an experienced centre-half who I felt would have had the quality to keep the likes of Jonson Clarke-Harris very quiet. Not long after, a clash of heads from a corner between Clarke-Harris and Junior Brown led to a lengthy period of downtime as both players were checked and treated for concussion. Although Clarke-Harris was able to recover and continue, Brown wasn’t as lucky, and had to come off, forcing a reshuffle of our own. Tom Davies came on in his place, with Jordan Willis moving to right-back, and Dujon Sterling – still in the starting eleven despite a horrific first half last weekend – swapping flanks to play on the left. This was a concern; Davies hadn’t been playing at all well for the U23s, and was disappointing in the one game I saw him play for the senior squad this season – the utterly pointless fixture versus Arsenal’s U21s in the Checkatrade Trophy; a tournament we deem pointless seeing as we’ve already won it. (You can add a Jay Cartwright-esque ‘Completed it, mate’ joke here for your own amusement, if you so wish). Furthermore, it meant that Sterling, who is yet to win over the majority of our support, was now playing out-of-position, when he barely looks comfortable playing in-position. Denver Hume was the next to fall for Sunderland, and was taken off later in the half.

However, we were putting ourselves about well. Dom Hyam was excelling at the back, and Clarke-Harris was standing head-and-shoulders above those around him. Michael Doyle was grafting away in the middle, though Tom Bayliss and Jordan Shipley were otherwise quiet. The closest thing to a goal for either team came from Chris Maguire; the dead-ball specialist, remembered by many Cov fans for his free-kick exploits against MK Dons a few years back while on loan with us. Maguire found himself in behind the back line, twenty yards from goal, when Hyam made an attempt to win the ball back from behind. It wasn’t the worst challenge by any means, but certainly enough to warrant a free-kick. Of course, you’d have to be new to this football malarkey, to not know what was coming next. Maguire displayed his excellent dead-ball technique, to curl his shot around the wall. Burge had given himself a little too much to do, as although he scrambled across and dived well, he was still well-beaten. Fortunately though, the shot cannoned back off the near post. To a Sunderland player. Thankfully, George Honeyman didn’t feel like putting one away, so instead spooned the rebound well over. Cue a collective sigh of relief from the home contingent. That was about as exciting as it got in the first 45, in terms of chances. Eight minutes of stoppage time came and went, and we went into half-time feeling confident, and pleased with our exploits so far. Same again second half please, lads.

The Gillingham game and goal aside, we are almost becoming notoriously slow starters for the second half, and four minutes in, we were behind. Doyle had initially done well to win the ball on the left following a breakdown in Sunderland’s advance, but his ball to release Chaplin on the counter was awful, going straight to the Sunderland defender. Maguire then received the ball on the right flank, eased past Sterling, and drilled a cross across the box, which was luckily too hot for goalscoring prodigy Josh Maja to get anything on. However, arriving late into the box was none other than Lee Cattermole, who had a very easy task of stroking it home, completely unmarked. 0-1. Bugger.

Jordan Willis proceeded to go postal, aiming an onslaught at Bayliss for leaving his man unattended. However, replays show that Luke Thomas was the man more guilty than any other, as he could actually see the run Cattermole made, and did practically nothing about it.

What was pleasant to see, was the way in which we played after going behind. We kept our heads, continued to graft, and arguably outplay Sunderland in phases. After his somewhat-unjustified bollocking, Bayliss grew into the game, with a series of trademark flicks and driving runs. He managed at one point to produce the pass of the game; a brilliant 30-yard driven ball through to the run of Thomas, who got into the box before having the ball smothered by goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin.

Next, a move down the left resulted in Clarke-Harris squaring a ball on the turn for Conor Chaplin, who couldn’t quite get lined up with the pace of the ball, and scuffed his shot wide, when he really should be testing the keeper. Perhaps more unfortunate than unskilled with the finish, but having been our best chance of the game so far, it started to feel as though despite our endeavour, the game was slipping slowly away.

But then, a move down the left fell to the overlapping Sterling, who dribbled through one defender, before another made an unsuccessful tackle attempt, though the ball ran loose. Neither of the two remaining defenders on that side could decide who should go for the ball, so Sterling, almost in shock, picked the ball back up, and then played it across for Clarke Harris, who tucked in a lovely finish to the far post with his first touch. 1-1, and a bloody well-deserved goal for Clarke-Harris, who played out of his skin on the day.

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Wright-Hassall: Because law can be a right hassle.

Sunderland then tried to take the lead again. Willis, now at right-back, was constantly being found a few yards too forward, allowing Honeyman and Costa Rica international Bryan Oviedo to frequently exploit the space in behind. Willis was also finding that his pace wasn’t getting him out of these situations this time around, either. Fortunately, he wasn’t punished for this any further, as Sunderland couldn’t make anything of their crosses, save for two occasions.

The first, saw a ball from the right evade everyone again (although this time it didn’t help that Willis slipped), and fall to Oviedo, whose sweet half-volley was well saved by Lee Burge.

Next, a cross from the left this time caused some mild havoc amongst our defenders, resulting in Doyle playing a strange defensive header, down into the ground from eight yards. The ball was scrambled out to Honeyman at the edge of the box, and he hit another good shot. Burge then pulled out the save of the match, getting down to his right quickly to palm the ball away. A good goalkeeper can win a team as many points as some strikers do, and Burge once again proved his worth.

After putting up with a fair bit of Sunderland pressure, the nature of football denotes that the best chance to win the game would fall to us, and so it did. A big clearance from Willis was catastrophically misjudged by the Sunderland defender, leaving Chaplin free to bear down on goal. As he got into the box, the keeper was positioned well to narrow the angle, forcing Chaplin into trying a cute dink over him. McLaughlin managed to take the pace off of the shot, which trickled towards the line before being cleared by the retreating defender. A huge opportunity squandered, before the game played itself out.

Full time: Coventry 1-1 Sunderland


Post-Mortem

So we come away from a very difficult fixture, with a draw that feels like a win, yet we could have ended up winning but for a lack of a little more fortune in front of goal.

One thing that stood out from out performance, was how well we coped despite some adversity in the game. First of all was the big defensive shuffle following Brown’s substitution. Despite my misgivings, Tom Davies was reliably solid alongside Hyam, who is turning into a very competent centre-half at this level. Perhaps it should be argued however, that Davies was tested a little less often than Hyam, but he still was able to head it and kick it, as is his wont, when he was called upon. Furthermore, the performance delivered by Sterling was an excellent riposte to his half-time hauling last weekend. Although he is still learning, and could still improve on preventing crosses from coming into the box, he put in a solid defensive showing, on the opposite flank to his natural berth, and even had the confidence to break forward and provide the assist for the equalising goal. On any other day, he wouldn’t have stood out as much as he did, but given how his performance from last week to this was like night and day, he deserved the added attention.

Jonson Clarke-Harris earned his Man of the Match accolade. It was an archetypal performance for a powerful forward. I would like to argue that the game could have been completely different had Loovens lasted the course, but that seems unfair on a player who has managed to claw his way in front of the dearth of strikers that were ahead of him in the pecking order at the beginning of the season. He is also starting to form a gradually-blossoming partnership with Conor Chaplin, who conversely needs to get his name on the scoresheet to get a bit more confidence.

We move on to Portsmouth at home on Tuesday. Pompey have a greater goal threat than Sunderland do, aided in no small part by the swashbuckling goal-getting exploits of Brett (‘The Hitman’?) Pitman, and we need to cut out the defensive lax that set in for the Sunderland goal. That aside, we made a very good account of ourselves, and other teams are now wary of going to the Ricoh this season. Of course, that could all change if we don’t leave every ounce of ourselves on the pitch again on Tuesday, so while we come out of the Sunderland match with a good result, it doesn’t give us a free pass to a win against Portsmouth. Whatever prize we are aiming for this season, we need to keep at least one eye on it, and not get carried away after one good performance, as we all saw what happened following our last good showing. With Conor Chaplin ineligible due to the terms of the initial loan agreement, a possible change in system with Andreu the most likely introduction to the XI challenges our consistency further, but we shouldn’t look for excuses. We just need to continue to perform.

Onwards and upwards.

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