Why on earth do we do this?
By Matt Rowson
This was always going to be A Good Day. Irrespective of the result, a big cup tie away at a fine stadium against a Premiership club with a big travelling support guaranteed... and this allied with the assurance that this Watford side so very rarely lets you down when it comes to effort and application. All valid arguments in answering the "Why on earth do you do this?" question that many will have faced last week.
The first suggestion that this was going to be better than just A Good Day came on a sun-drenched and hassle-free M1 at an indecently early hour of the morning... eating up the miles at rate some distance beyond that which is strictly legal, the sight of blue lights in my rear-view mirror was not a welcome one. Pulling across to the middle lane, the sight of the police car speeding past brought no small relief. Our luck was already in.
Helpfully few hours later we were in the Wheatsheaf, still a favourite pre-match venue outside of Watford, meeting friends, trying to understand the amiable but sometimes incomprehensible local conversation, sharing enjoyment of Ryan Giggs' miss. More valid arguments.
The air of well-being and contentment was prolonged into the opening of the game, when a positive run by Tommy Smith, characteristic of what was to be an extremely industrious performance by the striker, forced an early corner.
Gradually, however, the home side exerted a degree of control that their superior status might have lead you to anticipate. For much of the first half hour Sunderland appeared to have an extra man, such was the ease with which passing options presented themselves. Watford's game was dogged and organised in response, but a rare lapse of concentration saw Flo lob a through ball to release Phillips on goal.
Cue the first pivotal moment of the game, in many ways just as significant as the controversial sixty-fifth minute. Had Phillips scored - and frankly the smart money was only on one outcome as he sped through, albeit on his weak foot - then things might have turned out very differently. It's not as if our away form this season has been terribly resilient to going behind, and our hosts are a side that will rally behind any confidence boost. Much relief in the away end as the Phillips dragged the ball wide of Alec's left-hand post as the keeper came out.
That was practically the only clear sight of goal a Sunderland player saw for the rest of the game, as either through nervousness or design - and given the bloody-mindedness of all other aspects of the Watford performance, you rather suspect the latter - we dropped incredibly deep in response to any suggestion of an attack mounted by our opponents. Phillips fired another effort in, lashed fiercely hard and low and wide of the other post past a number of defenders - Alec was down quickly, but may not have covered it.
The depth of our defending - not to mention the competitiveness of our midfield - invited Sunderland to lob crosses into an often crowded penalty area. More often than not these were met by the head of Marcus Gayle, an absolute colossus yet again - his performances at centreback have developed from interesting through encouraging and convincing to utterly inspirational. At one point as he contested a high ball with Phillips - no contest in terms of strength or inches - his adversary looked around in desperation as if to ask "how on earth am I supposed to compete with that?".
Phillips continued to suggest the most potent Sunderland threat but his attacking partner, Tore Andre Flo, put in a disgracefully sulky performance, tumbling over tackles even when a run at goal presented itself, putting the boot in vindictively when arriving late in a challenge, and providing neither support to his partner nor the muscle to cause the discomfort that Sunderland required in the penalty area. As ig later pointed out, if you were a Sunderland fan who'd waited so long for a big signing, you'd be feeling a bit short-changed.
One such tumble by Flo, again when presented with a reasonable opening, led to a yellow card for the grounded Robinson. This must have been a source of some frustration for the left-back, as not only had he picked up an early booking to curtail his aggression, he'd not even managed to spread an opponent across the advertising hoardings to earn it. Curtail his aggression he did though, and for the rest of the game his performance was disciplined and thoroughly effective.
As the half wore on, Sunderland's conviction waned, their possession was less dominant and the attempts on goal increasingly desperate - the charmless McAteer employed to jump against the keeper as either Flo or Phillips tried to get a head to a cross. McAteer, playing his first game since September, played the pantomime villain throughout - you have to wonder whether even his mother sends him a Christmas card.
You'll notice that I'm not devoting much time to description of our own attacking play, the reason being that the limitations of our line-up rather restricted our penetration. Gavin Mahon was playing on the right of midfield but his serious lack of pace limited his attacking effectiveness in this unfamiliar position and with another central midfielder, Nielsen, wide on the left our attack was narrow and blunt. We can only ponder what Jermaine Pennant, injured and now, presumably, back at Highbury, might have achieved against a defence that looked encouragingly nervous on the odd occasion when it was put under any pressure - normally from Tommy Smith, who ran himself into the ground, picking up the ball and dragging the defence after him, or from Heidar Helguson hurtling himself across an opponent into the path of a long clearance.
Our two attempts on goal in the first forty-five were both from Micah Hyde - a weak left footed drive from the edge of the area, and a more ambitious right footed half-volley that cleared the bar by several feet. Not a great return, and although we had done well to stifle and subdue our opponents' threat there was little doubt which side were happier with the half-time scoreline.
Lucky Half-time Chocolate: Sarah's birthday cake.
Reason: It's Sarah's birthday this week. Duh.
Level of Success: Intoxicating.
After congestion behind the stand more reminiscent of a Circle Line tube in the rush hour - you'd have thought they might be used to big crowds up here - the second half.
And as so often, Ray's words of advice had an inspiring effect... soon in the ascendancy, Watford's bullish play, supported by an increasingly noisy travelling support of around three thousand, dominated for the opening twenty minutes. This increase in purpose and tempo soon yielded openings - Helguson was released down the left and sent a ball across the face that just needed a touch. Cox came up for a corner, beat two opponents to a far post cross only for Sorensen to field tidily. Ardley - who had perhaps his best performance at right-back for the Golden Boys - sent in a cross that was deflected out to Hyde, his spinning shot almost deflected inside the post by Mahon's diving header.
Another break down the left - where Stephen Wright was doing an unusually comprehensive job of living up to the pre-match notoriety bestowed on him with a truly shocking display - and Nielsen sent a ball across to the far post. Babb had the opportunity to clear but hesitated, giving Mahon time to snarl in with a challenge. The ball span loose and Mahon was first up to it, only for Babb, not happy with the original challenge, to give his adversary a shove. Referee Dean blew for a free kick to Sunderland, presumably for the initial challenge. "Bottled it", said roughly half the away end... fortunately this wasn't an enduring theme.
Mahon had a much more effective second half, having established how best to make a contribution. Arca, who had threatened much from the Sunderland left in the first half, received a clearance on the halfway line as Sunderland broke, and with Mahon stranded upfield Arca turned and prepared to head goalwards... only to find Mahon recovering with the challenge of the game, winning the ball cleanly and leaving his surprised adversary on his backside. There aren't many right-wingers that tackle like a bad-tempered Rottweiler.
Phil Babb was another who hardly excelled at the heart of Sunderland's defence... on one particularly memorable occasion he stuffed up a simple headed clearance, presumably put off by the unusual lack of Heidar Helguson charging into the challenge, and the ball span vertically upward off his forehead as he attempted to clear.
We were on top and applying pressure, pressure which yielded the incident for which the game will ultimately be remembered. In the sixty-fifth minute Helguson, with his back to goal, was poised to contest an incoming ball on the edge of the area - yet another 30-70 against, with a marker behind him and McAteer in front. With the grace for which he is accustomed, McAteer raised an arm to Helguson's throat. The referee pointed to the spot.
The reaction in the away stand was distinctly Pavlovian... one second of celebration followed by an intake of breath at the memory of West Brom, Reading and countless other missed penalties over the last two years. After much debate from Sunderland, Tommy Smith took responsibility and fired in the shot. Which Sorensen blocked.
The roar was tremendous, comfortably the most Enormous noise up to that point in proceedings and in the split second of desperation you realised that we'd really have been better off never having been awarded the spot-kick at all. Want a free boost, Sunderland? Here you go then.
Except that the referee was running back into the penalty area pointing at the spot. A retake... for encroachment, we assumed, which had been considerable if hardly unusual. Match of the Day later revealed that the award was for movement by Sorensen off his line. Massive respec' for Tommy Smith, who with an assertiveness for which he has not always been known, picked up the ball again and put it on the spot... and then had to endure some no doubt choice advice from that man McAteer as he prepared to take the kick. Dave, in common with many in the away end, couldn't watch this time but no mistake at the second attempt, in off the left-hand post beating the keeper's dive. Cop that, you Scouse git. Oh my word. Pandemonium in the away end, distress and confusion elsewhere.
Twenty-five minutes plus stoppage time left on the clock. As so often when we've taken the lead this season, we seemed to get all self-conscious and fell back again as Sunderland swarmed upfield. The same tactics prevailed as in the first half, with Watford packing the penalty area and demanding a level of guile that Sunderland just didn't seem to possess. The home side forced a seemingly endless succession of corners, many of which were again hoovered up by the indomitable Gayle, but the chances came...
Phillips, running from deep fired in a low shot that again found its way round the post, and then got on the end of a corner, not quite getting enough on a header. Bellion, on for Flo, found precious little space into which to unleash his terrifying place, but went on one hurtling run which Vernazza, back on his game after his disappointing performance last week, did well not to interrupt. Yet another corner was headed back into the area inadvertently by Robinson where Proctor, another sub, connected to bring an outstanding save from Chamberlain, clawing the header over the bar.
A shot was driven in from outside the area half in frustration, blocked by Cox, who can have known nothing about it, amidst slightly desperate appeals for a penalty. Stephen Wright sent a cross over the penalty area and out for a throw in...
Our strikers were again chasing scraps in an attempt to relieve pressure from the defence. Helguson barely had a kick in ninety minutes but got through as much work and took more knocks than anyone. The utterly heroic Smith departed in exhaustion to be replaced by Doyley, a welcome and characteristically enthusiastic return on the right as we manned the barricades for the final ten minutes. Doyley it was though who presented Sunderland with their final chance, shoving an opponent in the back as they contested a high ball. Phillips' free kick from around twenty five yards was on target - albeit probably covered by Chamberlain, before Proctor's headed diversion sent the ball over, pretty much summing up Sunderland's day.
So were we lucky? Oh, absolutely. But you have to earn your luck too, earn the right for it to count, which we did and then some. Nor does it pay to do anything other than doff your cap to it and enjoy it... heaven knows we've been on the receiving end enough times - the retaken QPR penalty which finally spiked our play-off hopes two years ago in similar circumstances, the vicious deflection that earned Wolves an undeserved last-minute point in December, the other which won Reading the game at the Madejski. You don't turn it down when it's in your favour.
There were three key incidents, key decisions in the final half-hour of the game that went for us... the initial penalty award, the decision to retake, and the penalty appeal at the other end against Cox. In each case the referee made the right call by the letter of the law - Sunderland were mugged, but not cheated - in each case you wouldn't have been surprised had the decision gone the other way and thereby hangs our luck. McAteer's elbow was clearly an assault, albeit one of the softer penalties we'll get this season and the sort of thing that others might not give. The appeal against Cox was ludicrous, but again you've seen them given, and Dean wouldn't have been the first ref to wilt under a noisy and enraged home crowd.
Most contentious of all, the decision to retake. Match of the Day pictures show the decision to be one hundred percent accurate, which will be of as little consolation to Sunderland fans as it would have been to us at Loftus Road two years ago. Quite simply these things are never given, which is more a criticism of the wider enforcement of the law than of Mr. Dean, but there's no doubt we'd have been livid had the tables been turned.
Any of these three calls going the other way would in all likelihood have changed the outcome. As it was, we were suddenly in the Quarter Finals and the away crowd whose attempts at urging the team on had been stifled by nervous tension ("Derdyderderderderder...oh shit!") for the last twenty minutes were suddenly jubliant.
Big respect to the Sunderland fans; there aren't many grounds which you could leave in such circumstances after a game and be on the receiving end of nothing more aggressive than imploring frustration at the decisions that swung the game (as well as plenty that was openly congratulatory). Less respect to the graceless Howard Wilkinson and a disappointingly peevish Kevin Phillips, whose inaccurate interview comments about being "cheated" rather skated over their own glaring deficiencies.
As we got back into the car and closed the doors, preparing for a return journey peppered with grins, cheers and joyful service-station encounters with other travellers, ig summed up the afternoon concisely.
"At this point, I'd just like to say... YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSSSSS!"