It was a winter wonderland in the middle of March for the 2,237 who braved the elements and made the journey to the Stadium of Light.
Sunderland had one or two moment but North End won by two, it certainly should have been four and on another day it could have been eight. The truth is that, although we worked very hard in the early part of the game, we were in third gear for most of this match and in the end won in a canter. Sunderland turned in one of the worst performances from a Championship side that I have seen since we were promoted back to the second level almost three years ago. Sean Maguire and Callum Robinson did the honours for North End with two back-post headers early in the second half and from then on it wasn’t going to be if we won, it was just going to be by how many. North End made three changes with Maxwell coming in for Daddy Rudd, Josh Earl for Greg Cunningham and Paul Gallagher coming back into the engine room at the expense of Daniel Johnson. It was a cold swirling wind inside the SOL and if you add to that several snow flurries it was not the ideal day for playing the beautiful game on the banks of the Wear. Sunderland had a half-chance early on but Maxwell saved well as PNE exerted their authority on the game slowly but surely with Pearson and Gallagher dominating midfield. Barkhuizen probably had North End’s best chance of the first half but Camp saved well and although it was 0-0 at half time I was very confident that North End would do what they had to do in the second half. To be sure it wasn’t long before North End, playing in green for St Patrick’s Day, took the lead when a free-kick from Paul Gallagher in the inside-right position was floated beautifully to the back post only to be met by Maguire with a diving header. It was Maguire’s fifth goal in four game and you just wonder where we would be in the league if the man from Cork had have been fit all season. On the hour mark it was two for North End when a superbly flighted ball from Tom Barkhuizen found Robinson in space at the back post and he had the simple job of heading the ball past Camp and effectively winning the game for North End. Robinson missed a sitter to make it three and Johnson, on for Gallagher, rounded the keeper only to have his shot saved when it really should have been a goal. So the play-off challenge takes a very positive twist with North End just two points behind the play off places and still eight games to go. It wasn’t the most fluent game to watch but PNE were so much in control it must have been embarrassing for the home fans inside the ground. For North End, though, it is onward and upwards and with a thirteen day break before battle recommences at Hillsborough on Good Friday it will give Alex Neil time to rest his men after a four-game spell in March that has yielded nine points. Just eight games to go of the normal season and it is still very much ‘game on’ at Deepdale.
To use a phrase of variety performer Sir Ken Dodd, who sadly passed away last week, I was tickled pink by our result at Sunderland. It keeps our play-off hopes very much alive and whatever happens in our remaining eight games our displays this season have already brought more than a share of happiness to my North End Soul. Before the game we had only lost three out of our last 21 league games and were just four points adrift of a coveted play off spot but following this comprehensive victory we narrowed the gap to just two which left the vociferous travelling army of 2,000 fans feeling tattyfilarious. We basically dominated the game from the off and although Sunderland had some big wage-earners in their starting line up from last seasons Premier League side they were made to feel like diddy men in comparison to Alex Neil’s more organised side who played with far more passion and desire than the home sides overpaid stars who look destined to be sampling League One football next term. Prior to this fixture Sunderland had only won two of their last 27 home games and their lack of confidence was evident in a first half in which we played like the home side in a half-empty stadium which lacked atmosphere All the controlled first half display lacked was a goal and after begining the second half on the front foot in much the same manner we went ahead just five minutes into it when the “Irish Costa” Sean Maguire bagged his fifth goal in four outings since his return from injury. When the home side went down to 10 men minutes later, the fat lady was already clearing her throat preparing to sing and victory was confirmed shortly after when Callum Robinson headed home to double our advantage. Let’s hope the away days can continue to be just as much a hoot when we face the Owls on our next outing.