Boro Stories | Fletcher… McNair… Cattermole? – Reading v Sunderland, 14th April 2018
Updated: Feb 12
What better way to begin my written contributions to Boro Stories by featuring a match from almost three years ago between the Royals and the Black Cats? As a Middlesbrough supporter in exile at the opposite end of the country, I have never been able to attend as many Boro games as I’d like. But after all, football is football – especially when the Boro play away games nearby so infrequently – so living with a Reading supporter meant a few trips to the Madejski Stadium. This match was notable for featuring a former, current, and future Boro player, all of whom gave varying accounts of their talents.
Reading and Sunderland were enduring torrid seasons before the game, sitting 19th and 23rd respectively, with three points, either way, paving the road to survival. With only four games remaining, Sunderland desperately needed a win to keep alive this slim hope. When the teams were confirmed, I was pleased to see Boro enforcer of yore and Sunderland captain Lee Cattermole starting. He had been a much-missed victim of squad overhauling during Southgate’s ill-fated tenure as boss. It is always satisfying to see a Boro academy success story, and Cattermole certainly ranks among them, though by this time he was admittedly past his peak. His loyalty to Sunderland, disconcerting as it was to dyed-in-the-wool Smoggies, deserved a measure of respect nonetheless. Black Cats boss Chris Coleman gave a start to Middlesbrough loanee Ashley Fletcher, who hadn’t properly asserted himself into the Boro squad after his £6 million move and was sent to Wearside on January deadline day. I was keen to see for myself if Fletcher could potentially return to Teesside and compete with Britt Assombalonga for a starting place.
Finally, there was Northern Irish attacking midfielder Paddy McNair, who, like Fletcher and Reading’s benched full-back Tyler Blackett, had come through the prestigious Manchester United academy. McNair was being played in a three-man midfield, further forward with the promising George Honeyman to his left and Cattermole in a familiar position in front of the defence. To play McNair in an attacking midfield role seems alien to us now, but the dynamic young player had made his name with his versatility. Both David Moyes and Louis van Gaal had previously called on McNair when injuries bit down during Premier League campaigns. McNair had received generous praise all year from pundits; come to the end of the season, the Sunderland Echo plainly stated: “Sunderland as a team have always looked better with him in it”.
The game started in scrappy fashion. In the 20th minute, Lee Camp spilt a tame Aluko shot, gifting the ball to Bodvarsson and fouling him in the six-yard box. Liam Kelly dispatched the penalty and the Sunderland players were visibly frustrated, especially Cattermole who remonstrated with his goalkeeper. Kelly continued to make life difficult for Camp, forcing another save and prompting a rendition of “he’s one of our own” from the home fans (Kelly now ironically turns out for Reading’s derby rivals Oxford United). Sunderland broke on the counter-attack, with an Aiden McGeady pass falling to Fletcher in the box. Fletcher was unlucky to clip the post from a tight angle, and while Callum McManaman reached the deflection, Liam Moore headed away on the line. Paddy McNair was unlucky not to get a clear scoring opportunity, having engineered the move and finding himself in the danger area. Fletcher had another chance in the first half that was blocked by centre-half Tiago Ilori, underlining the striker’s lack of confidence. As a Boro fan, you couldn’t help but feel sorry for him.
The second half began and McNair immediately got a stranglehold on the game. Since the first whistle, most of Sunderland’s play was coming through his smart passing and vision, but not even the most optimistic fan could have foreseen what happened in the 46th minute. Cattermole aimed a sharp header that bounced off a Reading midfielder and into McNair’s path. McNair then took the ball forward ten yards and rifled it into the top right corner from a ridiculous range. The travelling Sunderland contingent were enraptured, having seen surely one of the goals of the season. As if by fate, it was soon 2-1 to Sunderland courtesy of a rare goal from Cattermole. A Sunderland free-kick flew into the box and the always-combative midfielder hit a driven header past Vito Mannone. The Royals promptly abandoned their back-foot approach and attacked with force.
Lee Camp was at fault again as Yann Kermorgant’s weak headed effort found the corner with ten minutes to go. McNair could have had the winner, but was again in the wrong place at the right time. He tried to get on the end of a ball across the face of Mannone’s goal but was squeezed out by Ilori. The game ended 2-2, a result that finally pulled Sunderland to the bottom of the table but doing Reading no favours either. As a Boro fan, I felt sorry for the impassioned Cattermole, for Fletcher who came close to an important goal, and for McNair whose excellent performance ultimately counted for nothing.
Fletcher and McNair are practically unrecognisable now compared to this eventful game in RG2. I certainly believe that the Fletcher who has impressed recently would have slotted home his first chance of this game, and perhaps created a few opportunities of himself. As for McNair, while Neil Warnock recently called him “average” in a midfield position when compared to his defensive abilities, this game was a testament to his sheer ability anywhere on the pitch. His passing was excellent all game and has only improved since joining Boro with the addition of whipped crosses into his arsenal.
The game was ostensibly a basement battle between two imperilled sides, but to me – and likely only me – it was a game that offered a tantalising glimpse of Middlesbrough in years gone by, and in the years to come.