Carrier bags and frost-bitten digits
By Matt Rowson
"Yous gonna lose t'deh!"
"Yeh. Two-nil. What playaz ye got?"
"Heidar Helguson. Danny Webber..."
"We've got a greht left winga. Julio Arca."
"I thought he didn't like it when it was cold?"
"Aye, well he'll be fine t'deh then, eh?"
You have to be kidding. The movement of the car across the carriageway betrayed a ferocious wind that is almost of Anfield standards, but five minutes in the open confirm the bitter cold that even the traditional pint of insulation in the Wheatsheaf fails to repel. By the time Prokofiev thunders around the Stadium of Light all precautionary extra layers have been rendered irrelevant.
In defiance of last week's Devlin/Eagles debate, James Chambers lines up on the right of midfield in an otherwise unchanged line-up. The intention, one assumes, is to counter the threat posed by the recipient of our young pundits' earlier plaudits. Arca makes an early attempt to introduce some football into proceedings as the game blusters around aimlessly like one of the many carrier bags tossed in the wind; he is suffocated on this occasion by the combined efforts of Doyley and Chambers. However as the game develops a bright Watford start is quickly forgotten as Sunderland begin to move the ball confidently and comfortably.
The first of a number of incisive incursions by the impressive Stephen Elliott catches Darlington cold on our left, nutmegging him before forcing the covering Doyley to concede a corner. Shortly afterwards, Darlington is missing in action again as Sunderland move the ball well to find Whitehead in space on the right. Doyley clears up again, but moments later goes to sleep to allow Stewart to thump a shot across the face of goal from the left which Jones pushes around the post.
Barely quarter of an hour gone, but the goal is clearly coming. Our hosts are keeping the ball on the ground and creating chances; we seem incapable of retaining any kind of possession. When it comes, it's no great surprise that the move originates down the right where Elliott has again freed himself from attention. By the time Darlington and Demerit arrive, Stewart is free on the penalty spot to nod Elliott's cross past the helpless Jones.
A significant point in the game, as it represents both the last time that Sunderland look any better than merely competent, and the immediate redundancy of our containing strategy on the right hand side. Only a one goal deficit, but we look as likely to score at this stage as either Ray Lewington or Mick McCarthy do to take a seat, sentinels on the edge of their technical areas.
In fairness, we do mount some directionless and unconvincing pressure culminating in a low, off-target drive from Mahon, whose afternoon is a story of unfulfilled good intentions.
But then Sunderland score a second, and it's a bit of a gift. They're shifting the ball about again, but not really getting anywhere until McCartney invites Chambers to trip him as he scampers across the corner of the area and has his offer duly accepted. Cox seems to advise Jones to dive to his right, but has either been fed bum information or been second-guessed by Stewart, who sends the penalty tidily to the keeper's left.
Sunderland find the net again before the interval as Arca is flagged offside having walloped home a ball dropped behind our backline. If we're being generous, we'll say our defence played for it, although the air of general bewilderment suggests otherwise.
There's still time for better things to be suggested for the wind-assisted second half as the first spell of believable Watford pressure results in Helguson hurling himself at Chambers' cross. Myhre's save, diving to his left, is straightforward except, one suspects, for his surprise at being called into action.
Half-time is spent counting the discarded, frost-bitten digits littering the walkway in front of the away end. You don't want to try clapping in this weather, not that we've seen much from our lot to applaud. Shortly into the second half the game is over, and we're reminded of Ipswich away last season when we really were rubbish enough without Lennie Pidgeley's brainstorm adding to our woes. Jay Demerit, who stands out simply by looking like a defender without reaching recent heights, leaves a bouncing ball to his goalkeeper... who misjudges it completely as it clears him in slapstick fashion, allowing Stewart to complete the easiest hat-trick he'll ever score.
Chris Eagles arrives, not before time, and it's Doyley to be withdrawn; a little harsh, as he's at least made some kind of positive contribution which Chambers, now at right back, has not at this stage. Instantly, the team seems invigorated and has a little belief for the first time. Jackson, who linked up in fine fashion with his fellow loanee at Wigan, has a spring in his step at last - up until now his only significant contribution has been an over-the-ball challenge which I missed as I was scrawling a tortured cartoon of Jones' involvement (or not) in the third goal into my notepad. Dave says he should have walked rather than just getting a yellow, but then Dave likes black shorts over red so I'll leave it to you to decide how far you feel like trusting his judgment.
Now it's us moving the ball around with a suggestion of a swagger quite out of place with the context of the game. Chambers, Webber and Helguson have all perked up and as a hopeful ball is flicked over the top of Sunderland's defence H improbably outmuscles the combined weight of Sunderland's two centre-backs Breen and Caldwell, stretching past Breen to prod wide. This little episode is given a comedy epilogue, as Breen and Myhre have a little hissy fit with each other, Breen calling Myhre "such a bitch" as the Norwegian flounces after the ball for the goal kick. Or something. A suggestion, and not the first, that Sunderland really aren't as comfortable at the back as we're making them look.
This is followed by another Watford attempt. No, really. A free kick on the edge of the box to the right of centre, and we await one of the two stock moves: Coxy into the wall, or Ards into the back of the stand. Instead, Chris Eagles takes the fashionable perpendicular run-up and whips a right foot shot narrowly over with Myhre rooted. Interesting, in a distracted and slightly off-topic kinda way.
Sunderland still threaten; Stephen Wright fools the Watford defence into thinking that he's the similarly shaven Stephen Elliott, abandoning his post and crusading past the Watford back line to fire in a shot before trotting back into position to reveal his wheeze.
Helguson then departs, having apparently picked up and failed to run off a knock a few minutes earlier. Dyer's glue in the front line is again perhaps overdue and is due to be effective. Not, however before Sunderland have their fourth; a left-wing corner is nodded down to substitute Chris Brown who finishes comfortably. Much too easy. Jones hasn't moved from his line. The away end has had a resigned air up to this point, but now faces look really drawn and not just by the wind blowing flesh off the bones. There's still twenty minutes to go, for Christ's sake.
Fortunately, Bruce Dyer has other ideas and Chris Eagles also looks indifferent to this turn of events, buzzing around positively and with purpose if not always successfully. A deep left wing cross looks destined to either drift wide or be tidied up by Sunderland's waiting defenders until Eagles decides that he fancies a bit of it, gets on the end and causes brief pandemonium which Dyer concludes by shovelling tidily into the roof of the net. We celebrate more than is perhaps justified, but it's bloody cold. Or have I mentioned that already?
Ashley Young prepares to come on and we notice Neal Ardley for the first time in a while as he breaks into his first run of the afternoon. He's either woefully off form or killing time until he moves to Cardiff, but even his great mate Terry Burton is going to have a few doubts at this rate. In any event, this brief flurry of energy does nothing to deter the inevitable and Ardley departs soon after. At the far end, Chris Brown forces a fine, fine save from Jones who nonetheless still has some redeeming to do.
Meanwhile, Dyer is making the world of difference to the success of our attacking play, albeit that at four goals to the good Sunderland might have been forgiven for deciding that the game was won. In the final minute, Gavin Mahon belligerently unscrews a crossing opportunity from the left, Dyer meets it with a perfect flick on the near post and it's over Myhre and into the far corner. We briefly consider taking the Sunderland tannoy enthusiast (who comes from the same school of charisma as his opposite numbers at Coventry and Burnley, not to mention our own Richard Short) up on his offer and texting in a large number of votes for Myhre as man of the match. Except that it's cold, and that would involve taking gloves off. Anyway, Stewart already has that one nailed, even if Stephen Elliott's outstanding performance seems rather neglected by summary statistics.
"Can we play you every week?" sang the Sunderland fans between the seventy-third and seventy-sixth minute. Well, maybe. On this evidence you wouldn't be beating us too often... we were within two goals of you, despite playing as vacuously as we have done all season for much of the game.
Our place next week though, eh? It's warmer, and they sell Guinness in the pub.