They say every trip to Port Vale should be cherished.
In usual circumstances, a night in Burslem could very well be one of lasts. But, after over a year without the chance to watch Sunderland away, this felt very much like a night of firsts.
The first pint of highly questionable Carling, after a twenty-minute wait to be served in the illustrious Vale Social.
The first chance to let the home fans know about our garden sheds, or their support.
The first reminder of the wonderful sh*teness of going away for a First Round tie in the League Cup, instead of half-watching an iFollow stream.
Between the failing floodlights, the warm Coors Light, and the Vale Park quarter-full of half-awake home fans, the match offered everything you thought you hated but actually loved about real football.
Make no mistakes, this was in no way a classic game. Had I been watching on a stream instead of in the ground, I doubt I’d have properly paid attention to more than twenty minutes. But I don’t think that many of the Sunderland contingent cared too much about the quality of play or even the result.
Given the strength of team put out by Lee Johnson, it would have been a surprise had we witnessed a free-flowing attacking display, but sufficient glimmers of individual quality shone through from our youngsters to give plenty of cause for optimism.
As often seems to happen with a tie like this, the Lads seemed to be pulled down to League Two quality, rather than looking like an absolute cut above throughout.
The game settled into a rhythm quite quickly, with possession very marginally in our favour and the ball seemingly spending most its time in the air. Bar an unlucky miss of what was essentially an open goal from Jack Diamond, we struggled to cause any real goal threat before the opener.
Whenever we got the ball to their final third, very tidy one-touch play and take-ons would offer a tantalising glimpse of what the likes of Taylor, Neil, Diamond and Hawkes are capable of when their confidence is high, but too often the final product was lacking.
The opening goal came from the kind of efficient and incisive attack we’ve seen far too little of under previous managers.
Following a Port Vale shot off target, Patterson rolled the ball about two inches to Bailey Wright. Before we could finish our rants about modern goal kicks, the ball had been carried up the pitch by Pritchard and tidily slotted home by Hawkes.
The move to win the penalty just after half-time was similar. Instead of the slow, ponderous passing in possession we’d all grown used to over the past three seasons, the pace and intelligence of Diamond’s running and an incredibly impressive through ball by Dan Neil secured the penalty that won us the game.
Following O’Brien’s successful penalty, the game shifted quite decisively in Port Vale’s favour. Whether due to tiredness or complacency – or both – the Lads seemingly lost the ability to retain the ball and move it forwards.
This resulted in a succession of threatening Port Vale attacks and set-pieces, including a scruffy Jamie Proctor goal that Patterson cannot reasonably be blamed for, and a world-class save from a Proctor header that he should take all the credit for.
In terms of on-pitch performances, it was impressive how comfortably our young players, largely new to non-pizza related men’s football, slotted into the side, especially against an unsurprisingly physical Port Vale.
Hawkes was the most likely contender for man-of-the-match, and could have scored a hat trick on another day. Taylor struggled at times defensively, but given he is most definitely not a left-back it would be harsh to let this detract from the clear quality and composure he showed on the ball throughout. Dan Neil also looked confident and competent in midfield, and showed a willingness to risk forward passes rather than recycle the ball sideways and backwards that was refreshing to see.
Defensively, Ollie Younger was reassuringly unnoticeable at right-back, and Patterson gave a goalkeeping performance that wouldn’t compare unfavourably to an average Lee Burge display.
Lee Johnson had said just last week he’d like to put midfielders all over the pitch, and see what happens. Judging by this performance, you’d probably say we shouldn’t push our luck, and should absolutely sign some full-backs.
But let’s leave the transfer anxiety for another day, and appreciate how lucky we are to be free to travel to a place like Burslem, to watch some quite shocking football.