Why can it never be easy? Why could Connolly not score his first penalty and we would have had a comfortable night? It seems the Sunderland way. Beforehand I was confident, maybe too confident. While others were working themselves into a frenzy of nerves I was very calm about it all. It was an odd feeling for such a big game but I honestly believed this game would provide no big problems and we’d come too far to mess it up now. I felt the big games and real hard work had come at Cardiff and Southampton a couple of weeks before and despite last weeks slip up it was still very likely we finish in the top 2.
So when Murphy glanced in Connolly’s 14th minute cross it all seemed to be going to plan. Burnley are an ordinary side, although on a decent run of form but easily beatable, despite returns to Sunderland for Andy Gray, Caldwell and Steve Cotterill. Then when Connolly was brought down shortly after and only our 2nd penalty of the season awarded, I expected this to be the clincher and the game won already. Wrong.
Despite it being well hit and into the corner Jensen got a good hand on it and turned it round the post. This gave Burnley a way back into the game and they started to pose more of a threat. They hardly had a barrage of shots but they started to win balls in midfield that before Whitehead and Miller had rule over.
As the half went on it seemed the result would have to be ground out as with recent results like QPR, Hull etc., but Burnley never really presented much threat on goal so we were still comfortable.
Then just before half time a break found Wade Elliot free on the right, he ran into the box tried to take the ball past Ward who brought him down in a very similar way to the penalty against QPR. This one however wasn’t as clear cut. Did he make contact? Did he get the ball first? Did the player dive? No-one could be sure but I felt he went down a little easily. Apparently the Linesman flagged for a corner so that may tell its own tale but I didn’t see this to confirm. Our old friend Andy Gray stepped up to make it 1-1 and made it 4 goals in 3 games for him. Goal scoring form that you wouldn’t believe was possible from him last season. His celebrations in front of the North Stand were a little unnecessary too. We never gave him much stick, he wasn’t booed and that he should be grateful of for being part of the shambles of last season.
This was the point were my mood changed a little and my confidence in the 3 points not so solid. Damn him for doing that, damn Burnley for spoiling this.
As the 2nd half started I was still fairly confident that we’d win. I was sure we’d score and we’d made our obligatory daft mistake in the game. So when Elliot received the ball 25 yards out and smashed one in the top corner it was a bit of a hammer blow. A great goal and I’m not sure if it could have been prevented but now 2 goals were needed in about 40 minutes against a team in good form. This wasn’t in the script.
As we poured forward in search of a quick goal back my mind wandered back to Connolly’s penalty, giving great consideration to Crystal Palaces chances of beating Derby and Birmingham’s tough last 2 games. Then I started planning my trip to Wembley, it would be a good day out but what if we got beat there, what if we never made it past the semis, what a disaster. A million things running through, none of them relevant. When Carlos Edwards was brought down by the keeper for another penalty my mind was focused again.
Connolly picked the ball up, Whitehead took it off him, they had a few words, Connolly won. Great bottle I thought, he hadn’t scored for 7 weeks, missed one already but still wants to take it. This HAD to go in. The 2 lads next to me sat down head in hands unable to watch. They needn’t have worried, Connolly’s too good to miss 2 in game and we re level again.
This was the spur the ground needed and the atmosphere lifted, as good as it’s been for years, we were back on track and had to spur them on for the winner. Leadbitter replaced Miller and Stokes had a good run and shot before being replaced by Hysen. Drive was needed and got.
Time ticked on and the doubts came back. Was a point good enough? Not really. I was still confident but not sure. 80 minutes and Murphy, excellent all game, played Edwards in down the right. With not much in the box and a clear sight at goal it was clear what he was going to do. My immediate thought when he got it was ‘he can’t possibly do it again’. He did, but this time better. The ball arrowed into the top corner with incredible speed. The stadium erupted with incredible noise. A fitting goal for a fitting occasion. We wouldn’t lose this now, that I was sure.
The last 10 minutes were scrappy; we defended manfully with no fancy stuff and were fairly comfortable. John, who came off for Connolly went desperately close to scoring a fourth as did Murphy in the final minutes. The crowd spurred the team on and despite the 4 minutes of injury time victory was ours and the final whistle greeted as if promotion itself was achieved.
The players came out afterwards for a fairly low-key lap of honour, knowing it’s not done yet. Keane came out but quickly departed the pitch to adoration. I don’t think this is really his thing and he’d prefer the players took the praise.
If it does go down to the final game then there’s no better game to have than play an already relegated team. I’ll still be confident of a win but maybe not as calm.
Man of the match – Daryl Murphy
Report by marcopaul