Fleetwood Town 2 Sunderland 1: Match report
Fleetwood Town boss Joey Barton wanted the Sunderland fans to leave his club’s Highbury base with tears in their eyes and the ex-Newcastle United man fulfilled his wish by ending the Black Cats’ automatic promotion hopes.
Ashley Nadesan's second goal of the campaign in injury time broke the Black Cats’ hearts in a tale of two halves.
That is the first time Town have fought back from conceding first to win a game this season as Barton’s side completed their transformation to end Sunderland’s quest to break into the top two.
But it could have been a different story...
Sunderland’s faint hopes of putting the pressure on second-placed Barnsley seemed bright in the opening exchanges.
As Peteborough United were busy trying to stop Portsmouth’s chances of automatic promotion, the Black Cats were only denied by themselves and the panther-like reflexes of Town shot-stopper Alex Cairns.
Cairns was voted players’ player of the year at Saturday’s fan awards. And he proved why he got that nod with two vital stops in the first half.
It was a case of just the one change for Town, the injured Ched Evans sitting out as Paddy Madden returned to the starting line-up.
Harry Souttar had served his three-match ban for a red card at Barnsley but was ruled out by a toe injury.
Town lined up in a 3-4-3 ,with Ash Hunter just behind Madden and Ash Nadesan.
Harrison Biggins and Ross Wallace had central roles, with Eastham, James Husband and Lewie Coyle again forming a back three.
Eddie Clarke started in a wide midfield role, as did Wes Burns, with the duo dropping back to form a five when Town were forced to defend.
And that they were in the opening stages as the Black Cats purred but failed to find that killer bite.
Cairns extinguished the threat of Will Grigg as he sprinted out to stop the forward latching on to a tame back-pass.
Max Power pounced on Chris Maguire’s cross as he ghosted into the box but Cairns again was Town’s hero.
The shot-stopper was beaten but was rescued by the woodwork as Grigg’s chip rattled the crossbar.
Grigg also nodded the ball straight into the arms of Cairns but could not ignite Sunderland’s promotion charge.
But one man who was on fire was Lee Cattermole.
Town failed to learn their lesson from allowing Power time and space in the box, with Cattermole the man to pounce on a corner in the 28th minute.
Nadesan went close for a tight angle and Town showed what they could do when given time and space to attack at the end of the first half.
Nadesan was instrumental once again as his pace unlocked Sunderland’s defence.
He teed-up Madden in the box and he in turn rolled the ball over to the right, with Ross Wallace and Burns streaming in.
It was player of the year Burns who got to the ball first but he fired off-target.
It was a promising end to the half by Town against a Sunderland side who had sat back and set themselves to cruise control.
That would play into Fleetwood’s hands in the second half.
Barton made a change, sending on Jack Sowerby for Clarke to shore up the midfield.
That saw Hunter take a wide left role and the move enabled Burns to have more joy on the right.
It was a pretty uneventful opening to the second 45 as the Black Cats continued to sit back.
But with Burns menacing on the right wing, Fleetwood soon struck.
Burns was booked for an off-the-ball incident with George Honeyman but it did not diminish his impact on the game.
It was another right-sided defender who did the damage, though, in Coyle.
The Leeds United loan star danced into the box before pulling the ball back for Madden, who could not miss from inside the six-yard box in the 74th minute.
The Irishman was made skipper for the night and celebrated by moving within one of the 20-goal mark.
That leveller woke the Black Cats up again,and with Portsmouth facing defeat against Peterborough they did their utmost to keep their top-two hopes alive.
Nothing but a win would do heading into the final day but Sunderland had failed to pack their shooting boots.
Will Morgan fired over and Coyle was the Town hero again as he just got a toe to the ball to stop Brian Oviedo.
The Black Cats only had themselves to blame for a host of missed opportunities in the first half but credit must be given to Fleetwood for another sterling second-half performance full of grit, desire and resilience.
Town kept going until the death and managed to get a winner.
Eastham had just been named man of the match and celebrated by nodding home a Wallace corner at the death.
He’d seen an earlier header fly over, when he should have done better, but after boss Barton had called for goals to be shared around the team Town’s vice-captain seemed to have answered that call.
His celebrations at the end showed just how much it meant to the Town centre-half.
Though replays have since shown that the Town defender did not get the final touch as Nadesan pounced to net just his second Town goal.
Since the turn of the year this Town side has developed in leaps and bounds. It is results like this. though, that make you think, ‘If only...’
That second half was one of the best of the term and this final home game of the season certainly brought hope for the next campaign.
It was a game with stand-out performances from a core quintet of Cairns, Eastham, Madden, Burns and Hunter that Town must keep hold of this summer.
The other shining light was Leeds loan star Coyle. He showed more than ever why Town need to make his Highbury return top of the agenda again.
Fleetwood Town: Cairns, Coyle (Sowerby 45), Eastham, Husband, Burns, Biggins, R Wallace, Hunter, Nadesan, Madden. Subs not used: P Jones, Southam-Hales, Baggley, Hill, Rydel, Mooney.
Sunderland: McLaughlin, Oviedo, Ozturk, Cattermole, Maguire (Honeyman 70), Gooch, Flanagan, O’Nein, Morgan, Grigg (Sterling 65), Power. Subs not used: Ruiter, Matthews, Leadbitter, Dunne, Hume.