I have to confess I was a bit concerned about all sorts of issues ahead of the return of the Championship, all the way from the new digital tickets and fans getting in ahead of the game to the fact we were back on Sky TV so soon, a situation which (more often than not) we do not excel.
On seeing the starting eleven with Danny Batth not starting, I also had a few slight concerns that the prolific Ipswich forwards may do well, especially young Chaplin who scored 26 last season.
On the upside, we had Luke in at centre back for Baath and wearing the skipper’s armband, which for me he deserves. We also had Mowbray backing Jobe in the middle of the park at the expense of Pritchard and others.
With all that and Hemir starting up front, I was nervous but optimistic ahead of kick-off.
So how did the first half fair?
Right from the start of the first half, we got out of the traps very well, and the story of the first half really was one of us bossing possession and oozing most of the creativity, but not really converting the chances we had.
Ekwah established himself as very hard tacking and physical from early on, and looked good alongside Neil and behind Jobe.
As early as 6 minutes in, after great play by Clarke, Bellingham and Roberts a chance was scrambled clear by Ipswich but the quality of the build-up was lovely to see for a setup that is very early in its establishment.
Ipswich looked shaken and prone to errors, and on trying to play out from the back almost put themselves in big trouble several times.
Even new man Hemir was firing in and winning the back back in the attacking third in the first 15 minutes, but chances from such great work were also spawned.
One of the main things that frustrated me in the first half despite some of the really good play was our continued poor form with set pieces. We won a number of free kicks and corners but time and again we failed to really test the opposition stopper.
This was the case throughout the first half and seemed to apply to most corners and free-kick openings. We have invested in physicality and height, but it is clear we are yet to work out how we make the most of that improved team attribute.
Ipswich came into the game a little more after the first 15 minutes, and an awesome clearance by skipper Luke O’Nien on 16 minutes (which may have gone wide, but he didn’t know that) and a good save from Patto a minute later showed that Ipswich may be willing to ride out a storm and maybe hit on the counter.
The best SAFC chance of the first half came on 22 minutes when Ekwah unleashed a thunderbolt of a shot from distance, which swerved and dipped and forced a desperate save from the Suffolk stopper.
The deflected save shot straight back out at Jobe Bellingham, who unfortunately for all failed to direct his shot into an open right hand side of the goal. Had that opportunity been taken, I can't help feeling that the end result may have been a very different story.
From that point on, the game opened up. It was more end-to-end, with Dan Neil having a chance that he pulled wide, and Trai Hume gathering a yellow just after the half-hour for a cynical and unnecessary tackle from behind, which would become a major factor later in the game.
In the last ten minutes of the first half we seemed to let them into it more, as shown by the chance they created on 34 minutes where their major goal threat from last season Chaplin had a shot deflected wide for corner.
A vital defensive touch from our defence was a key factor.
In the last 5 minutes of the first half, the rule changes in tolerance for physicality were made very clear to the Black Cats. On around 41 minutes Jack Clarke made a typical marauding run into the left corner of the box, only to be downed by a charge from behind. Unlike last season when he drew many free kicks and penalties from such scything runs, the ref waved the appeal away, leaving the commentators and audience assuming it was within the revised rules allowing more contact to be “okay”.
While I applaud the idea that we need to stop footballers rolling around akin to someone taken down by a champion sniper whenever someone stands on a big toe, I do have concerns about how referees will be able to apply this rule consistently. ‘Pretty badly’ is my expectation, and what was likely a penalty last season for skillful players like Clarke came to nothing, something Jack and others will have to learn from, and fast.
Post that, we were hit by a proper sucker punch. On 46 minutes, during the period of first half stoppage time, we really seemed to lose our shape and composure. As is often the case, along comes a deflected shot from outside the box which glanced off our old mate Nathan Broadhead, wrong-footing Patterson and putting Ipswich Town into a 1-0 lead.
I was gutted. We should have gone in ahead and were now behind to a deflected goal.
One of those days were coming…
Second half thoughts
No subs were made by either side after oranges, but to be fair to Ipswich they came out with a different mojo which they soon used to build on their fortunate lead gained in first half stoppage time.
Sunderland were still in it early in the second period, but they visibly lacked the swagger and energy they showed earlier in the match. Hemir was put through on 49 minutes, but didn’t get the shot away as well as he did pre-season before being closed down. We showed good vision to even put him into that position though.
Shortly after Dan Neil headed over (to the frustration of Patrick Roberts who was just behind him waiting to shoot) after good overlap running from Cirkin, SAFC went down 2-0. As the clock approached 52 minutes, a decent through ball from the respectful deflection-claimer Broadhead put Hurst through, and he smashed a shot powerfully past Patterson to double the visitors' lead.
The score almost went to 3-0 very soon after, when a speculative shot from range tried to catch Patterson off his line and hit the bar. Anthony was very happy to dive on a loose ball in the resulting melee, as were all red and white fans.
For the next 10-15 minutes the game returned to an end-to-end affair, with subs Ba and Pritchard (on for Hemir and Jobe) trying their best to get us back in the game. Roberts continued to take on and beat Ipswich players time and again, but on occasions like his mazy 64th-minute run, I was left wishing he shot rather than trying to play in a clearly offside Pritchard. This left me wondering whether it would be worth Tony throwing in Bennette or Rigg, to overload Ipswich. After all at this point what did we have to lose?
The answer was a man, as we found out on 72 minutes when Hume took a second yellow for bringing down a man who had clearly done him for pace. His second yellow brought out the red card and we were down to 10 men for at least 18 minutes, plus stoppage time.
The next 15 minutes returned to “to and fro” mode, with attacks for us not being converted, and our ten men doing well to retain the two goal deficit when Ipswich broke our stride and tried to counterattack. Then with about 5 minutes of proper time to go, we found a way to score a goal despite having a man disadvantage. Ba and Cirkin combined down our attacking left and a cut back from Cirkin found Dan Neil who stroked the ball left footed into the bottom corner. The place went mad, as did my living room in Cambridgeshire. We had a lifeline.
As Gooch came on with a few minutes of normal time left, almost watching Tony Mowbray take a coach’s yellow card as he came on, our American wide man carried on where others left off, overloading the touchlines and taking on Ipswich to try and create another opportunity. And create chances we did as the ref gave fans another shred of hope by adding on 13 minutes of stoppage time.
Cirkin headed wide on 88 minutes, and we created further sniffs on goal through Roberts and Clarke. On 90 minutes, an almost criminal missed opportunity occurred for Ipswich, when Ladapo fired high and wide rather than squaring to a man with a tap in.
Could we find a way to get an equaliser?
We did everything we possibly could with ten men versus 11 for what ended up being over 40 minutes, but after Dan Neil hit the post with a great shot in the 104th minute, which I am pretty sure the keeper got a touch on, we had to accept a 2-1 loss.
- The new rules were a mixed bag for me.
The extra physicality allowed before awarding a free kick will be interesting to see develop, but I was over the moon on the stoppage time changes.
We finished that game with a man less but looking the more likely to score, and the graft the lads put in to even be in it in the 103rd minute was an immense performance.
Hopefully we can adjust to the tolerances now relevant for fouls, and can get way more points than we have in the past with more active football playing minutes, and way less time-wasting antics being used by visitors to the SOL.
- I really don’t get why we had to go down to 10 men for us to really fight back. The start of the second period wasn't a good enough effort from SAFC today, and it wasn't until way too late in the game and when at a man disadvantage that we showed the fight and spirit that was so prevalent last season.
It will take time for the likes of Hemir, Jobe and others to bed into the team, and while this happens the lads that did so well last season need to really step up and show them how we work.
There were lots of lessons to take from this one, and despite the loss, I see no need to panic. We should and could have at least got a point from that game. Let's hope that isn’t a dropped point we end up regretting not winning.