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Finlay’s Report: Reasons to be optimistic after Sunderland’s 3-1 win over ‘The Heed’

“Were you happy with the performance that Sunderland displayed during their 3-1 victory over Gateshead on Saturday afternoon?” asks RR’s junior reporter Finlay Anderson.

Gateshead v Sunderland: Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Sunderland kicked off their 2020/2021 pre-season campaign with a hard-fought 3-1 victory over Gateshead at the Gateshead International Stadium on Saturday afternoon. Chris Maguire did give Sunderland the lead with a sublime free-kick, but Jordan Preston’s goal meant that Gateshead went into the break all level. Then, in the second half, goals from Will Grigg and Josh Scowen meant that the Black Cats claimed a 3-1 victory to kick off their pre-season.

The Team...

For Sunderland’s first pre-season friendly, Phil Parkinson selected a squad that fans were quite familiar with in the 2019/2020 season. Lee Burge began the game in goal, and having signed for the club earlier in the window, Bailey Wright started his first game back, whilst Elliot Embleton was provided with a start. New signings Aiden O’Brien and Morgan Feeney began the match on the bench, with goalkeeper Remi Matthews not in the squad due to the fact that he was unable to have a COVID-19 test beforehand.

Gateshead v Sunderland: Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

First Half Action

The Black Cats began the match in high attacking spirits from the off, and Elliot Embleton had the first attempt of the game when he tip-toed around the Gateshead defenders inside of the penalty area and unleashed his shot, but Gateshead’s trialist goalkeeper pulled off an easy save.

Gateshead had the best attempt of the opening 15 minutes of the game, and it came at the end of that period when Greg Olley skilfully twisted the ball onto his right foot before aiming to curl it into the top right corner, but a spectacular save from Lee Burge meant that the scoreline was kept goalless.

Not long after, Sunderland scored their first goal in a match since March when Chris Maguire gave the Black Cats the lead in marvellous fashion. When the visitors were given a free-kick from just outside the area, Maguire eyed up the opening and whipped it past the goalkeeper and cushioned into the back of the net.

Gateshead drew the next blood in the pre-season friendly as they levelled the match with around 25 minutes on the clock. In the middle of the park, Tom Flanagan gave the ball away, and an efficient counter-attack was finished with a lovely calm side-footed finish from Jordan Preston. The Black Cats may have had themselves back into the lead when an Embleton corner from the right was curved into the penalty area. The connecting header from Bailey Wright was denied by the Gateshead goalkeeper, before O’Nien somehow tapped the ball over the bar, not knowing that he was in an offside position.

Over midway through the first half, Sunderland were forced into making a substitution when Elliot Embleton came off the field injured, and youngster Dan Neil replaced him in attack. At the end of the first half, both sides went into the break level, with the score standing at Gateshead FC 1-1 Sunderland AFC.

Gateshead v Sunderland: Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Second Half Action

At the start of the second half, Sunderland brought on their only trialist - Arbenit Xhemajli - to show Parkinson 45 minutes on what he is able to do at the back, with Xhemajli coming on for Tom Flanagan.

The Black Cats were given a golden opportunity to re-take the lead at the Gateshead International Stadium when the Sunderland trialist met a cross from the right, but his header was guided onto the bottom of the post, and then moments later, the ball dropped for Charlie Wyke, who was one-on-one with the goalkeeper. The right boot of the Sunderland striker met with the ball, but the connection wasn’t clean, and it provided an easy save for the Gateshead goalie.

With the match reaching the 60 minute mark, Phil Parkinson rang the changes in order to give some matchday minutes to his players, as he brought on eight fresh additions to the game. Both Aiden O’Brien and Morgan Feeney were given their debuts for the Black Cats, whilst Jack Diamond, who impressed for Harrogate Town during his spell there in the last campaign, came on to make an impression on Phil Parkinson. Jordan Willis, Lynden Gooch, Max Power and Will Grigg came onto the field for their first minutes of the season.

Gateshead v Sunderland: Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Around 10 minutes after all eight substitutions were made, Sunderland retook the lead through Will Grigg, who began this new campaign with a goal. Jack Diamond whipped the ball into the penalty area from the right wing, and Will Grigg met the cross - nodding the ball into the left side of the net.

A couple of minutes later, Sunderland’s lead was doubled and Josh Scowen scored his first goal in a Sunderland shirt. Will Grigg turned scorer to provider, when he touched the ball down for Scowen who, from outside the area, rocketed the ball into the bottom left corner of the net.

The visitors should have extended their lead when Lynden Gooch’s corner was whipped into the penalty area and Jordan Willis connected with the American’s cross, but his header was arrowed just wide of the post.

With just over five minutes of the pre-season friendly left, Dan Neil was replaced with Jake Hackett, having a chance to stake a claim for a place in Parkinson’s starting 11 for the upcoming League One season.

After three minutes of additional time at the end of the match, the game ended Gateshead FC 1-3 Sunderland AFC.

Finlay’s Verdict

Normally, the penultimate weekend of August would signify the fifth match of the normal League One season - but, everyone understands that in the world, 2020 has been no ordinary year. August 22nd 2020 has resulted in Sunderland’s first pre-season friendly before a 2020/2021 season that begins at the start of September. Football for the Black Cats has been halted since the middle of March when the 2019/20 season was controversially stopped due to the coronavirus pandemic, and the health emergency has meant that there has been a huge change to the 2020/21 season.

There were no fans allowed in the ground, and that is how it will stand when the League One season starts in three weeks time. Precautions were taken before kick-off as all of the players had to undergo a COVID-19 test, with Remi Matthews unable to travel a couple of miles up the road to face the National League North side as he hadn’t been able to have a test.

Meanwhile, in the match itself, Sunderland began the match in a very attacking sense, but couldn’t find the finishing touch to credit the goal that they deserve for their play. A magnificent free-kick from Chris Maguire meant that the Black Cats took the lead, but a defensive error from Flanagan - losing the ball in the middle of the park - meant that Jordan Preston was given a chance to comfortably tuck it into the bottom right corner.

In the second half, Sunderland stepped up the pressure and began to get closer to re-taking their lead. Parkinson was able to give everyone some match minutes - helping to continue their development ahead of the season starting in a couple of weeks time.

For the second goal, Diamond produced some brilliant work on the right wing and the cross mirrored his hard work, with Grigg applying the finish. Then, Grigg kept the ball well inside of the area - feeding Scowen, who produced a composed finish into the bottom corner.

All in all, it was a content performance from the Black Cats, who still have some work to do before they finally get back into playing competitive fixtures. I have no doubt that they will be playing some more behind-closed-doors matches in the next two weeks, and hopefully they will be up to full fitness for the time competitive fixtures begin.

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