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Coca-Cola Cup 2nd Round 1st Leg, 17/9/96
Watford 0(0)
Team: Miller 2, Gibbs 3, Ludden 3, Palmer 2, Millen 2, Page 1, Penrice 3, Andrews 2, White 1, Porter 2, *Mooney 3*
Subs: R Johnson, Chamberlain, Ramage (for Andrews) 2
Sunderland 2(2)
Scorers: Quinn (11), Rae (34)
Not too disappointing
Report by Dan Exeter

I remember the atmosphere the most. That sort of rolling roar, as three times as many people as normal at the Vic watched with disbelief, but giving way to hope and finally conviction that we could pull off a win against a Premier League side. All sides of the ground were packed - kick off even had to be delayed twice.

Pity that was Leeds hundreds of years ago (well, it felt like hundreds of years - as I recall, it was Butler and Furlong up front) and not Sunderland. In fact, I thought the crowd was pretty poor for a Premier League team, even if it was only Sunderland and it was only the Second Round First Leg of the Coca-Cola League Cup. Sunderland themselves brought hardly any in comparison with last April, when they pretty much filled the Rookery. I suppose for them an early round match against Division Two opposition some 250 miles away isn't the sort of fixture that everyone is going to make an effort to go to, and in all fairness I'm sure there were other Premier League teams in this stage of the competition with less distance to travel who took less to their ties (I wonder how many West Ham took to Barnet. Anyone know anyone who might have gone?). Perhaps more worryingly, there was still a strong feeling of indifference among the great Watford public. After all, if a Premier League team coming after we've had five wins on the trot and only conceded two goals in that time isn't enough to get people through the turnstiles, it makes me wonder what is.

Anyway, the game. We had one change, Gary Penrice in at Number 7 for the injured Darren Bazeley. You know, I'd never thought I'd come to this conclusion but I think we missed Darren. I can't remember if it was Kate or Don or someone else who first suggested it but it was true (frighteningly enough). I'm not knocking Penrice - far from it, I think he's a very skilful and intelligent player and I think at this level especially he'll be able to provide an attacking option that the average Division Two defender probably/hopefully won't be used to. It's just that he's not a right winger. Bazeley, on the other hand, having been a full back at various times in his career, is much better versed in the defensive aspects of being a winger.

Apart from that, it was good old 4-4-2. Sunderland played something similar, with Quinn and ex-Palace Scum Stewart up front and my old hero Tony Coton in goal. We certainly started well, indeed we were never dominated, and Andrews I think it was who had a chance within a minute. In fact, we'd had a couple of chances before Sunderland scored from their first meaningful attack. A decent cross from the right, Gibbs and Page I think it was left it for each other, Quinn had the easiest job in the world to head just inside the post. At first I thought Miller could have done better, ie he could have dived, but on reflection I suppose he never thought he'd be facing free headers. It was quite disappointing really, to give away such a silly goal. We tried coming back, trying to carve out an equaliser, but forward came Sunderland, Stewart skinning Keithy Millen (I think) at the touchline before putting in a low cross that Alex Rae converted at the near post. I don't think Miller dived for this one either but I doubt it would have made a difference. Quite why Rae had to celebrate his goal at us I don't know. It just made me hate him that little bit more that I did before. He's a typical Millwall product in that he has got some nice touches and clearly has potential but is such a violent, dirty little so and so that I doubt he'll ever achieve anything particularly noticeable.

To our credit, we stuck at it and White had an on-target effort (yes, he does have some occasionally) turned away by Wayne Andrews, of all people, on the line. We had other pot-shots here and there but we couldn't really complain at going in two down at half time.

The second half was pretty much in the same pattern as the first, with us trying to get back into it but Sunderland being economical with their attacks and always looking dangerous when they did. In particular, Miller failed to hold onto a shot that one of our defenders had to clear via the post (the ref bafflingly gave a goal kick) while Quinn scored late on after Miller was beaten by a shot that came off the post but was ruled offside. As for our lot, well we had opportunities but nothing clear cut. The team certainly looked tired and short of ideas, which considering this was our tenth game in barely a month isn't too surprising. What penetration we did have tended to come from the left which was a little unlucky as Mooney was having one of his off days. Penrice did competently on the right, but he's no right winger and to be honest I'd far rather see him in the middle or up front. Andrews looked somewhat out of his depth, especially when he started to tire, while White, well, need I say anymore. The crowd during the second half started shouting for Craig Ramage, and KJ obliged by putting him up front instead of Andrews. The little block were I was were sceptical that he'd make too much difference, and unfortunately we were proved right. If Craig wants his big money move to some top club then this is the sort of situation in which he has to shine. Mind you, he was playing up front when we really needed him in midfield to provide some service which was woeful all night.

I had been looking forward to the return of Tony Coton, as he did used to be my boyhood hero. I never realised that this was his first game back since leaving (for some reason I had it in my head that he'd been back with Man City some years ago. I reckon it's all this Division Two football that's doing my head in.) He got an excellent reception from us all, even the Rous Stand stood and applauded, and for a while there was a good repartee between him and the fans, him joining in when we tried to put him off his goal kicks, that sort of thing. (Bearing in mind shouting 'AAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH' at a vastly experienced Premier League keeper like our Tone is only rarely going to be successful. It's all a laugh, mind). Unfortunately, an ugly incident with Big Dev late in the second half changed even that. With retrospect I suppose it was just handbags-at-ten-paces stuff. Tony reckoned he'd been elbowed in the face by Dev challenging for a high ball, while from the resultant corner Dev thought that Tony was trying to do the same to him. The ref sorted it without recourse to cards (though what Andy Melville thought he was doing getting involved I don't know) which was one of the few occasions I think the ref got it right. Keith Burge proved what a 'Premier' ref he is, allowing Rae and Hall, for two, to get away with some horrendous challenges, one by Rae in particular showing him to be just the petulant, spoilt little child I've always thought he is. God knows what would happen if a Division Three team deigned to play a Premiership team. I suppose the ref would have to send off half the team right at the start.

No real surprise we lost then, and to be honest seeing as the League Cup isn't even bringing the crowds in like the FA Cup might (and possibly the Autoglass if we got through to the later stages) and considering our fixture congestion, I wasn't particularly bothered that the next tie is a mere formality. KJ could even just put out a reserve team (I wonder if we'd get censured by the FA?). I was certainly not as disappointed as last year, when we were (I felt, anyway) just one goal-line save from knocking Blackburn out. (If only Moralee had put it a little to the left...)

The really sad thing is, of course, that I'm still thinking of going to Sunderland. After all, it will be our last chance to go to Roker Park (don't worry about the FA Cup, we're bound to get Palace or someone).

A meaningless distraction
Report by Ian Grant

It's difficult to know what to make of this one. For a start, I won't shed any tears if we go out of the Coca-Cola Cup - it's not as if we're going to win the bloody thing and the fixture list is congested enough as it is. At the end of the season, there's only one thing that's important - we have to get promotion. Everything else is a meaningless distraction. That might sound like the old "concentrate on the league" cliche but, for once, it's true.

That said, it's always nice to put one over on Premiership opposition when you get the chance. Not that it's too easy to think of Sunderland as being a Premiership club (the attendance demonstrates that, I think). Still, at least Gary Porter was happy with the draw - yet another chance to impress his home town club enough that they sign him for a huge fee, just a shame he wasted that overhead kick on Walsall.

We started relatively brightly, enjoying a fair amount of possession in the Sunderland half - that was to prove to be the pattern of the game throughout, in fact. However, as was also fairly typical of the game, Sunderland scored with their first meaningful attack - Rae crossed from the right and Quinn headed in at the far post, with Miller rooted to the spot and Page and Gibbs waiting for each other to make a challenge. The marking certainly wasn't up to much but, with Quinn's height, we didn't have anyone in defence who could compete with the tall striker in the air anyway.

Fortunately, we didn't let that setback put us off too much and we were unlucky not to get an equaliser. With Sunderland content to defend and hit us on the break (they would've played that way regardless but the early goal made them even more cautious), we had a lot of the ball. We didn't do a lot with the possession, to be honest - much of our passing was too nervous and we've clearly become used to the time allowed us by lower division opponents (Palmer was caught out on a number of occasions). The closest we got in open play was a couple of long-range efforts - a lobbed volley by Penrice that went over the bar after a neat series of passes and a screamer from Palmer that swerved wide (he's got a helluva shot on him when he gets it right). It was from a corner that the real chance came - a Devon White near-post flick was actually blocked on the line by Wayne Andrews, who just couldn't get himself out of the way (at least he was in the thick of things, making a nuisance of himself - I'd be worried if he wasn't).

When Sunderland extended their lead, it was totally against the run of play - but that's what you get if you don't take your chances against decent opposition. This time it was Palace reject Stewart who cut in on the right wing before crossing for Rae to clip the ball in at the near post. Rae ran to the Watford fans to celebrate - what a very lovely person he is.

That was about it for the first half - half-time was not particularly happy (but then again, as Kate pointed out, I'd been convinced that we were going to get slaughtered halfway through last season's 3-3 draw). After we'd welcomed Tony Coton back to the Vic, the second half followed pretty much exactly the same pattern as the first - we camped in their half, looking tentative; they hit us on the break every fifteen minutes, nearly scoring every time. We had loads of corners, all of which came to very little (apart from an altercation between Dev and Coton - much ado about nothing, really) - in fact, although we created the occasional chance, we never found a way of breaking down the Sunderland defence.

And, whenever we lost the ball in an awkward position, Sunderland stormed up the other end and tried to add a killer third. They got bloody close too. On the first occasion, a fierce shot was parried by Miller and the ball came back to a striker who was challenged (brilliantly) by a defender - whoever made contact (the referee gave a goalkick but that's generally not a very good guide), the ball hit the outside of the post and went wide.

Our best moments came late on. Gary Penrice had the clearest opening - fabulous persistence from Tommy Mooney on the left wing opened up the defence and his cross found Penrice unmarked at the far post. The first-time volley went about a foot wide and hit the side netting but he really should have done better. And, towards the end, Craig Ramage had a header but was put off by the attentions of a defender.

Right at the death, Sunderland hit the woodwork again - an angled effort from the left this time and, with Miller beaten, the ball hit the post and bounced out. A Sunderland striker turned it in but he was ruled offside. A 3-0 defeat would have been very harsh on us.

Like I said earlier, it's difficult to know what to make of this game. We were poor in many ways but, equally, we were playing against superior opposition so we can't expect to have an easy ride. And Sunderland did a pretty good job of descending to our level for much of the game - okay, so their attacking was of a far higher quality but their defending wasn't good enough to stop us causing a few problems and their passing was frequently dreadful. A better side than us would've punished them - and better sides than us will punish them in the Premiership this season.

An interesting (actually, not that interesting - the game was dull as dull can be) exercise, then. I'll gladly exchange a defeat last night for a win against Peterborough on Saturday - that's the more important game.

Looking forward to the second leg
Report by Kate Holmes

Having finally recovered from the horrors of Bristol Rovers' ground, which led to several unexplained outbreaks of laughter at work, it was great to get back to a wonderful ground and a game involving Premier League opposition. Okay, so it's only Sunderland but it's the principle of the thing.

This game marked the first return of Tony Coton, and he got a superb reception, particularly when he came down our end for the second half. Sunderland have also signed that lanky git Niall Quinn and a total wanker from Millwall, Alex Rae - a player on whom I would wish immense pain and suffering.

Last season Sunderland brought thousands of nasty horrible Mackerns. This time they only brought a few hundred - less than a thousand, anyway. It makes a mockery of us giving them the Rookery, not that we would fill it but that is not the point.

The only change in our line up was to bring in Gary Penrice on the right wing in place of the injured Bazeley. This led to on of my more surreal comments, that we actually missed Baze. Penrice is not a right winger. He can play in midfield, but he could not give us the width we needed and we looked fairly disjointed.

They took the lead with their first attempt, Quinn not troubled by our defence and given a free header. This was the worst thing that could have happened to us, and the game was all over as a contest when Millwall Scum scored a second. We all moan about inconsistent referees, but I would love to know why Wayne Andrews was booked at Notts County for celebrating his 91st minute winner with the Watford fans but Rae didn't get booked for it. The only players I have ever seen booked for running to the Watford fans to celebrate have been Watford players. Not that I'm sensing some sort of conspiracy here.

Things didn't improve in the second half, but just as I said something about wanting to see a bit of blood, especially Rae's, Steve Palmer clobbered Rae. Lovely, especially as Super Steve got away with it. Needless to say, Rae reacted on Steve, who then seemed to stamp on him - top marks to our Professor.

There were quite a few fouls going in, and one Sunderland player tried to pull Mooney's shorts off whilst Tommy was on one of his rampages up the wing. That didn't merit a booking. Tony Coton got in a strop when Big Dev didn't collide with him, I think it was his own defender that clobbered him, which sparked off a bit of argy-bargy resulting in the ref ticking off Dev for not actually doing anything.

We should have pulled one back right at the end when Mooney's cross fell to Penrice on the right. He hit it first time, but into the side netting. That really summed the evening up. We did not play well, but, unlike in the League, we couldn't get away with playing badly. Some of the players, especially Wayne up front and Page and Ludden at the back, look very tired. It would be great to have a week free of matches, just so some of the players can recharge their batteries.

Having read a rather substantial report in the Times this morning, I was surprised to see Peter Reid refer to his side's performance as tremendous. I thought Sunderland were pretty crap, and that if we had put in a halfway decent showing we would have given ourselves a chance. Mind you, the Times also said that Rae ran the game. Shows what they know.