A lacklustre derby day defeat
Rebranding an entire section of our stadium to accommodate a tyrannical, murderous, and downright abhorrent regime certainly wasn’t ideal preparation heading into Saturday’s lunchtime clash with our not-so-dear neighbours.
Despite some last minute PR patchwork in the form of a corner flag club statement, the bitter taste the whole debacle left was quickly washed away by gallons of Madri, with Sunderland fans all over town drinking pubs dry before the clocks hit 08:30.
Following New Year’s Day’s comfortable victory at home to Preston, the lads in red and white were given what seemed like the ideal dress rehearsal before the first Wear-Tyne derby in almost eight years. Anticipation on Wearside seemed to gear up a notch with every passing day, and when Spirit of 37’s display was unfurled and “Ready to Go” filtered through the Stadium of Light’s speakers, the cacophonous eruption that greeted the players as they entered the pitch served as a reminder what a huge football club we are.
Sadly, the players couldn’t match the energy of the 42,000-strong home fans in attendance, with our unwelcome visitors dominating the early exchanges. It was clear from the off that Beale had us set up not to lose, allowing Newcastle the lion’s share of possession.
For the most part, our defensive offering was sturdy and compact, with Eddie Howe’s side creating very little in the way of clear-cut opportunities. On the half-hour mark, it seemed as though we’d be going into the interval all-square, but a crafty ball from Joelinton left Dan Ballard scrambling, lashing a leg out at the oncoming ball, only to divert it into his own net.
After the break, all hopes that we would be able to mount a comeback were thwarted when Pierre Ekwah’s indecisiveness on the edge of our box saw Miguel Almiron dispossess him and square it to Alexander Isak who needed no invitation to put it last Anthony Patterson.
Despite a string of half chances including Alex Pritchard clipping the top of the bar and Pierre Ekwah almost making up for his previous error, a series of unfortunate errors led to a Newcastle penalty that Isak tucked away in the dying embers.
Our own worst enemy
The irony was that gulf in resources, experience, quality, and recent fortunes aside, Howe’s side fashioned little, with Patterson forced to make just one save of note.
It was perhaps even more typical that all three goals came through various self-inflicted errors, whether that be Ballard’s own goal, Ekwah giving the ball away, or the avoidable penalty.
We have some room to feel a little aggrieved had we maintained concentration throughout.
Anyone seen Jobe and Jack Clarke?
The two players tipped for the biggest and brightest futures were the two notable absentees, not because they weren’t playing, but because they both went completely missing.
Clarke was rendered almost completely ineffective, while Jobe’s experience or lack thereof was highlighted considerably through countless misplaced passes, incomplete dribbles, and a general malaise that seemed to manifest itself in his performance.
It’s only fair we continue to withhold judgment on Mick Beale until ample time has passed and he has had the chance to instill his vision and philosophy.
Yet, if Saturday’s performance was anything to go by, it doesn’t bode well for our new boss, whose tactics were completely misinformed, playing into the hands of our opposition by persisting with playing the ball out from the back, and then seemingly refusing to change it once it became abundantly clear it wasn’t working.
While there was really little to choose from on the bench, his reluctance to make substitutions was another shortcoming, especially when heads began to drop late into the second half.
Overawed by the occasion?
While many of this squad have played in big games before, from the League One play-off final to last season’s play-off semi, this group of young lads were cast into an environment undoubtedly alien to them, and it was very much a case of sink or swim.
From Jobe, Clarke, and Hume to Ekwah and Alese, there were several players visibly impacted by what was at stake and clearly overwhelmed by the occasion.
Ultimately our inexperience proved costly and the lapses in concentration, as well as the naivety, demonstrated through the mistakes we made were indicative of where we are currently.
Unsurprisingly, it was the heads with more seasoned experience in Alex Pritchard, Luke O’Nien, and Dan Ballard that shone brightest (except a brilliantly composed Dan Neil).
No need to panic!
Despite it being a disappointing performance in all there is neither time nor reason to panic.
Coming up short against a side who’ve sold their souls for a Saudi-backed cash injection and who’ve assembled a squad worth over half a billion is hardly shameful.
Our young side will have learned an awful lot from this defeat and it will only bode them well entering the second-leg of our league campaign.