It’s back. Finally, after a summer break that has seemingly lasted an eternity, football is back. I’ve missed it a lot, and while I’ve had a great couple of months without it that have included a wedding, a holiday, being asked to be the Best Man at my brother’s wedding and my 25th Birthday, nothing really compares to spending your weekend watching your team play. We’ve even been deprived of a World Cup this summer, with it scheduled to be played across November and December due to its location, and despite the Women’s European Championships being very entertaining, I was absolutely desperate to have the Sky Blues back by the time this weekend came around.
Due to other commitments, I’ve not been able to attend any of our pre-season friendlies in recent weeks. This has meant that I’ve had to wait until today to see the Sky Blues back in action, but I can live with that - I’ve always thought that pre-season friendlies can be a little bit boring anyway, as there’s always the caveat of it being “only a friendly” regardless of what happens. We’ve actually had an excellent pre-season campaign though with victories in every game we’ve played, most notably against newly promoted Nottingham Forest in Spain. We’ve made some good additions to the squad in Kasey Palmer, Jonathan Panzo, Callum Doyle and Tayo Adaramola, who I’m sure will all play a significant part in our season, and I’m looking forward to seeing them all in action across the next few months. Palmer should act as a good attacking midfield option for us, and the rest will fill the gaps in the defence that have been left by the likes of Jake Clarke-Salter and Ian Maatsen from last season.
I’m not fully certain that we have enough depth in our squad to compete at the very top end of the league, but arguably our biggest success of the summer has been holding on to all of our best players. Viktor Gyokeres, Gustavo Hamer and Callum O’Hare are all still at the club for the new season despite repeated interest in them over the last few months, and this could prove to be absolutely crucial for us this season. Of course, there’s a chance that we might still lose one of them by the end of the transfer window, but I’m somewhat confident at this point that we’ll hang on to them all and this should hopefully allow us to continue last season’s momentum. It’s a nice position to be in, given that we all expected at least one of them to have left the club by now!
Anyway, back to the most important thing - what happened on the pitch. I felt pretty confident ahead of kick off today that we would be able to come away from our first game with 3 points - Sunderland are a newly promoted side, finally back in the Championship after a few years down in League 1, and despite the good feeling that this has undoubtedly created around the club I was confident that we could bring them back down to earth in front of the Sky Sports cameras. Even with Sunderland’s home advantage, in my eyes we were still the favourites to win. As it was a lunch time kick off on a Sunday, and given the distance we would need to travel to get to the game, we decided to make the journey up on Saturday instead of setting off early on Sunday. Myself and my brother Joe even decided to take in a game on Saturday afternoon, stopping off in Harrogate to see Harrogate Town in their League 2 season opener against Swindon Town, before we then continued on to the North East to meet up with our mate Conor and his dad Dave. The game was a decent watch in the end, with plenty of action and it finished 3-0 to Harrogate in the end. It’s helped us tick off another ground towards completing the 92 (I’m now on 49 after Harrogate and Sunderland, Joe is on 77!), but it wasn’t at the same level I was expecting of the Sky Blues today!
Mark Robins had picked an interesting side for the game - it was mostly what I’d expected although Fankaty Dabo had been left on the bench with Josh Eccles preferred at right wing back, I can only assume he’s not fully fit yet from pre-season. Simon Moore was in goal, our back 3 featured Dom Hyam, Kyle McFadzean and Jonathan Panzo, with Jake Bidwell at left wing back. Ben Sheaf and Gustavo Hamer would anchor the midfield with Jamie Allen in behind our front two of Gyokeres and Godden. Callum O’Hare was notably absent, after tweaking his hamstring in training the other day - or so the story goes! We had some good attacking depth on the bench though with Fabio Tavares, Tyler Walker and Kasey Palmer - I felt that Robins had still named a strong side despite the absentees, and I was hoping for a good performance. Ahead of kick off, the 40,000 odd Sunderland fans treated us to a large Tifo display and some rousing music, probably for the benefit of the Sky cameras to make it seem like the atmosphere was buzzing, and we spotted Jordan Shipley in the away end in with the City fans as well!
When the game started I thought we seemed relatively self assured in possession, albeit a little slow on the ball. I think we had set up expecting to have lots of the ball and time to use it as well, but Sunderland started quite quickly and pressed us back immediately. Sure enough, around the 10th minute Sunderland’s intense start allowed them forward and Jake Bidwell allowed them to cross from their right hand side - the cross was put into a good area at the back post, and Simon Moore came out to claim it but misjudged where the ball was dropping and got stranded off his line. Sunderland’s Jack Clarke was able to beat his man in the air and head the ball home to put the home side in front.
It was poor all round from us really, the cross could’ve been prevented and Simon Moore really shouldn’t have come for the ball. It set the tone for the rest of the half unfortunately - we struggled to get going and couldn’t create any sort of clear cut chances for ourselves. Viktor Gyokeres was being kicked around and he won a free kick for us on the edge of the area, but Gustavo Hamer’s effort was headed away before it could reach the goal. Hamer, in typical fashion, picked up a booking in the 20th minute for a cynical foul on the half way line that stopped a promising looking Sunderland counter attack. Never change Gus, you’re always nailed on for a booking to boost the odds in a bet builder!
I thought that Sunderland had the better of us throughout the whole first half really, they were finding lots of room through the middle of the park to break, and more than once they had us back-peddling towards our own goal and Simon Moore was required to make some saves to keep it at 1-0. I thought what we were missing most was Callum O’Hare, with his clever runs in the final third which create space for others to play in - Jamie Allen was being man-marked and he just doesn’t move as quickly as O’Hare does in that number 10 role. We had a couple of half chances after getting in down the left - Gyokeres was making his usual bustling runs but he couldn’t find the target when cutting inside, Bidwell was supporting but just couldn’t pick anyone out when he was crossing the ball in. Everything felt a little bit rusty!
It was Johnathan Panzo who actually came closest to a Sky Blues goal in the first half - he found some room to get forwards and the ball was rolled across to him about 30 yards away from goal. After a touch out of his feet and the cries of “shoot!” from the away end, probably because most people had had a bet on him to score after his goalscoring exploits in pre-season, Panzo let fly with a powerful effort from 25 yards. The ball cannoned back off the crossbar, and I thought the Sunderland keeper had got a finger tip to it - the rebound came at Matty Godden a little too quickly and his follow up was headed wide. It was a great effort and would’ve been a world class goal if it had gone in! We ended up going into half time 1-0 down, and in truth it was probably a fair score line at that point. We needed to improve massively in the second half.
At half time I was hopeful that Mark Robins would make a change, and take advantage of the new rule allowing 5 substitutions rather than just 3. I thought Josh Eccles had looked a little out of his depth on the right and I would’ve happily seen him go off at half time - I’m sure it was just one of those days, but I don’t think he was offering as much attacking threat as Fankaty Dabo normally does. Jamie Allen had also had no joy at all so far, I wouldn’t have objected to Kasey Palmer replacing him during the break either. As it happened though, we made no changes - a good start to the second half was therefore imperative if we were going to get anything from the game.
We seemed to have more control over Sunderland in the early stages of the second half, which was pleasing to see. Their big man up front, Ross Stewart, was proving to be a handful for our centre halves when Sunderland got the ball up to him, but we seemed hungrier for the ball after the restart - Johnathan Panzo was excellent throughout the game and he made some crucial challenges for us, Hamer looked more fired up and he was winning more of the ball in the middle too. We seemed more up for the game and there was more intent to get forward on the break, but while our build up play was good the final pass just wasn’t there. Every ball was either over hit, or pulled back behind the runners in the box.
Around 10 minutes into the half, Gustavo Hamer pounced on a short goal kick that had gone to a player on the edge of the Sunderland penalty area - Hamer robbed the defender of the ball and it bounced to Matty Godden, unmarked around the penalty spot, and with the whole goal to aim at Godden took a powerful swing at the ball and fired his shot wide of the post to the keepers’ left. It was an unbelievable miss - all Godden needed to do was tuck the ball away, but he didn’t. I’ll put it down to him being rusty from pre-season (if I don’t, I’ll cry!) - I didn’t think we’d have another chance as good as that for the rest of the game and in truth, we probably didn’t. We had further chances, one breaking to Ben Sheaf on the edge of the box, but Sheaf seemed reluctant to shoot and in the end he lost the ball after trying to check back on to his left foot. It was frustrating, but it was better viewing than it had been in the first half at least!
Simon Moore was called into action after a decent move from Sunderland - Stewart had won a flick on from a long ball, and the ball was neatly pulled back from the left to the edge of our box. Moore got a strong hand to the subsequent shot to push the ball behind for a corner. Around the hour mark, Kasey Palmer was introduced in place of Jamie Allen and I was happy with this change. It was needed - Allen hadn’t had a chance to get free of his marker for a lot of the game and he’d not had a good day in truth. I noticed that Sunderland were time wasting a lot throughout the second half - this wasn’t surprising, it happens a lot these days especially when a side is 1-0 up, but I really thought that the referee let them get away with far too much. It was taking almost a minute for throw ins to be taken, for their keeper to release the ball and they knew exactly what they were doing. It was frustrating not to see some yellow cards dished out for it to be honest, but we were hopeful that it would come back to bite the home side in the end.
Viktor Gyokeres created a good chance with another run past the Sunderland defence down the left, but his ball across couldn’t pick out Matty Godden. The loose ball eventually broke to Palmer, but his shot from the edge of the box went high over the bar. Mark Robins made some more changes with around 20 minutes to play - Kyle McFadzean was taken off and Fabio Tavares was introduced, meaning we would switch to a back 4 which was an interesting move, but it was a clear signal of intent from us. Eccles went off as well, with Dabo coming on at right back, and Tyler Walker came on for Matty Godden up top. It looked like Tavares and Gyokeres would be on the wings with Walker through the middle, and we needed to go for it really given that we were chasing the game!
Instantly I felt that Dabo and Tavares made a difference down the right hand side - Dabo will take a man on when he gets forward and Tavares is very quick, they were both effective in getting in behind the Sunderland defence but the final ball still wasn’t there. All we needed was one chance though, and I could feel a goal coming! Tyler Walker looked sharp, and he was staying strong when holding the ball up which was good to see. Sure enough, our breakthrough finally came in the 84th minute through our Big Swede - Gyokeres picked the ball up inside the Sunderland half and ran towards the goal with purpose, skipping past a defender and shifting the ball on to his right foot before curling a beautiful effort into the bottom corner of the net from around 20 yards out. I was right behind it and could see it was in as soon as he struck it - what a goal, and cue the familiar carnage in the away end! I’ve missed that feeling, there’s nothing else like it in the world - I was even treated to a lovely cuddle from my old mate from school Scott who jumped down from the row behind in the celebrations!
It was a deserved equaliser in my eyes. We had been the better side in the second half, more in control of the game and we’d been knocking on the door for a while, we just hadn’t had the end product to score earlier on. If Matty Godden had put that chance away though, we probably wouldn’t have switched to the back 4 and in the end I think those changes were the difference for us. We managed to not do anything silly in the last few minutes, as did Sunderland, and the game finished 1-1 and in truth, it was a fair result. The only complaint I have is that Sunderland were allowed to time waste as much as they were in that second half, that needs to be clamped down on! I went into the game almost expecting a win, and in hindsight that was maybe a little to ambitious of me - maybe I underestimated Sunderland! I’m happy with a point in the end though, given how poor we were in the first half. And it’s a lot better than leaving the Stadium of Light with nothing, that’s for sure!
It’s still early days of course, but I think Johnathan Panzo will be crucial for us this season if he plays like that every week - easily our Man of the Match today and he looked like an upgrade on Jake Clarke-Salter. The rest of the side were relatively solid, we started slowly but in the second half it felt like a more familiar performance to what we’ve seen last season. Once everyone is fully match fit, it’ll be interesting to see how we get on!
It’s good to be back.