“You’re in our house; you play by our rules.” – D. Charles, 2019
The muted Mackems* came to Adams Park expecting to win and, well, oops. Who’d have thought that the side second in the table and unbeaten at home in nine would prove such difficult opponents? It wasn’t our best performance of the season – the comprehensive win over Lincoln still holds that accolade – but we outplayed them nonetheless. As 1-0 wins go, it was a comfortable one, and not only did it see us keep pace with leaders Ipswich – who we could temporarily leapfrog with a win at Blackpool tomorrow – it sent out a message to the rest of the league: Wycombe Wanderers are for real (Sunderland, average though they were, are still a big scalp and will be up there if they accept that they’re in League One).
*Ok, a good proportion of them, but I’m not going to keep pointing out that not all Sunderland supporters suffer from bigclubitis, because no one ever said it was all of them.
Just How Good Are We?
I think I finally have an answer to the question I keep posing.
Ask pretty much anyone associated with the club and they’ll tell you that they’re just thinking about 50 points. That’s sensible and fair enough, but we can’t not be considered play-off contenders – and we’ll reach the magic number by the end of January if we continue picking up points at our current rate of two per game. We are a very good team and will only get better.
We – well, Gareth and the coaching staff – have been excellent at identifying opponents’ strengths and either a) neutralising them (marking Peterborough’s Marcus Maddison out of the game) or b) turning them against them (Lincoln and Rochdale’s affinity for the ball in their own half) – as well as picking out weaknesses and exploiting them (look no further than Southend’s abysmal all-round defending – we were 3-1 down but always we knew we could get something simply by staying on the front foot).
On Saturday, Sunderland did what they do and tried to control the game in our half. That was going to be hard to entirely neutralise – so we just shut down our box and the surrounding area instead, limiting them to three shots from within 22 yards (we had seven by comparison). Aiden McGeady’s late drive from 20-odd yards, stunningly saved by Ryan Allsop, was the Black Cats’ only effort on target. You can really frustrate a team by restricting them like that and we certainly did – there was some rather industrious tackling and downright embarrassing play-acting on show from the visitors (and Allsop, who needed to cut the crap a long time ago). Going forward, we looked to get the ball to Aarons, who they could only stop by kicking – and we’re supposed to be the shithousers…
We’ve got it horribly wrong on occasion – namely on that forgettable afternoon at Gillingham and in the first 45 minutes versus Posh – but in general, we know exactly what we’re doing. Gareth is a man with more than one plan, and one of them might well be a push for the top six – even if he won’t admit it himself. I’m just going to come out with it: we’re in this for the long haul.
Success Built on Solid Foundations
The back four were the standouts for me as we kept a sixth clean sheet of the season – while Rocky ensured the three points with a save of the season contender deep into added time. The whole defensive unit did us proud once again. Yes, we’ve conceded three goals on two occasions and two twice, but like an NFL defense making a goal-line stand on fourth down, they hold firm in tense times.
Ryan Allsop looks like a whole new ‘keeper. Save for his debatable blunder at Fleetwood, he’s not put a foot hand wrong. The way he tipped that would-be equaliser over the bar was how I imagine Superman would keep goal. There was the odd ‘ooh err’ moment this Saturday, but it’s brilliant to see our number one finally own his area.
Jack Grimmer has proven himself to be our signing of the summer and seems to improve with every game. He’s emphatically answered questions about his crossing and his defensive positioning, his two perceived weaknesses when he arrived. He stopped McGeady from doing what he does most damagingly – cutting in from the left – to the point that he was moved into a more central role in the second half, and powered on as indefatigably as ever. Jason who?
What more can you say about Darius Charles? The Mango Man is an inspiration and a legend – and a bloody good footballer. The force with which he hit his winner was emblematic of the passion with which he’s played since all but retiring – and his post-match comments: everything. Of course, he defended imperiously once again, continuing to strengthen his partnership with…
…Anthony Stewart. We all knew Tools was a very good defender, but he’s soared to new heights in 2019/20. Our best ball-playing centre-half is as composed in his skillful as Charles is in his reassuring simplicity, but more importantly, he’s looked pretty much unbeatable on numerous occasions – this one included. If he’s going to have his best ever season, he’s timed it to perfection.
And last but by no means least, the player who I think might be the nicest man in the world: Joe Jacobson. JJ’s ability at this level had been doubted by a fair few – myself included – after a marked downturn in form towards the end of 2018/19 – but how wrong we were (and how delighted I am that I was wrong). His left foot that would make Ollivander envious remains his gretest asset – that half-volleyed cross was just one of a steady stream of sumptuous balls into the Sunderland box – but he might just be defending more assuredly than he has in, well, perhaps his whole Wycombe career.
Here’s a bit of that: we should soon have Fred Onyedinma, Paul Smyth, Rolando Aarons, David Wheeler and Scott Kashket to choose from – not to mention the Beast and Josh Parker (and, with any luck, Alex Samuel). Dare I say we possess the most exciting array of attacking options in the league? Yes, I do. I believe the most we’ve had fit at any one time is six of them – and look where we are in the table. There are players there who could do a job in the Championship, and I’m not going to say any more than that.
Oh, we’ve become so used to it that I forgot to make a big point of the fact that we’re TEN HOME MATCHES UNBEATEN. We’ve won eight of them. How long before teams start turning up with trebuchets?