The report card: (2) passing the Mensah test


Jeremy Robson may be in Canadian exile but he keeps fellow subscribers to the estimable Blackcats forum entertained with his trenchant thoughts on everything from the possible shelf-installing skills of Daryl Murphy to the competing merits of obscure rock bands. For his contribution to our series of end-of-season reviews, Jeremy chose to conduct a time and motion study on John Mensah since his arrival on loan from Lyon. His conclusions are illuminating …

Highs and lows. Peaks and troughs. The agony and the ecstasy. Great triumphs and complete humiliations.

Sum up Sunderland’s season as you will, throughout it all some stand tall while others fall by the wayside. We can breathe easy in the safety and comfort of midtable. It’s hardly normal for us, but is very pleasant to avoid the customary end of season anguish, even if it ended on a bum note with defeat at Wolves,

The contrast between Arsenal at home and Stoke at home, and the roundabouts away from the SoL which seemed only momentarily, at Bolton and Hull, to allow us to slip into top gear, show that it’s been a Jekyll and Hyde season for Sunderland fans, treated to some of the best results achieved in decades against some of the top sides on home soil.

To face defeat at home only at the hands of Chelsea, Man Utd and Villa over the course of the season should delight any Sunderland season ticket holder.

In the starkest contrast possible, our away form was just good old fashioned poor. While it’s fair to say that a season’s review should by definition be conducted only when the final whistle blows at the end of the final game, it’s also fair to say that we’ve all had a roller coaster ride since August.

It’s not often that you leave Old Trafford with a sense of injustice coming off the back of a 2-2 draw. This was followed by a home victory over Liverpool courtesy of a visiting fan’s inflatable and the harsh reality of a 2-1 reverse against Birmingham.

Between 21 November and 9 March we went without a single win. The 1-0 home defeat of Arsenal was followed by single goal defeats at Wigan and Fulham. Just to add to the punishment the following week, when we seemed destined for three points, a sucker punch from Younes Kaboul took a point back to Fratton Park.

We were in a slump, and it seemed that the team had just forgotten how to win. How can the slump be explained? Jones in and out of the team was one explanation. The midfield doesn’t create enough chances, argued some. Too many red cards, injuries and suspensions, said others. I tell you what. It’s nothing to do with that!

At a time when Messrs Cameron, Brown and Clegg have been the focus of public attention, trying to resolve this electoral conundrum which they have been presented by the electorate, it seems appropriate that there should be three key men who between them have arguably defined Sunderland’s season, with one player in particular being singled out as the architect of the club’s progress this season. And it’s not Darren Bent.

Sunderland’s critics might argue that we have been a one man team this season, and point to Bent’s 24 goal haul this season as evidence. Even when we were struggling, the Dazzler just kept on scoring.

Nobody should doubt the incredible contribution that DB has made. Darren’s goals have made a huge difference to our season. That said, it would be wrong to heap all the praise on a single player as there are several positives when we look back at the whole campaign.

The emergence of youngsters, David Meyler and Jordan Henderson, into real PL prospects has been a real bonus. The late, and great, Brian Clough placed a huge stock on getting the “spine” of the team right. When Cloughie referred to the “spine”, he meant that any decent team had to have a good strong centre forward, a reliable and dominant centre half and a better than average goalkeeper. Roy Keane quoted his original mentor and the “spine” when he signed Craig Gordon for such big money three seasons ago.

Craig Gordon has emerged this season as a goalkeeper of genuine pedigree, putting in match winning performances week in and week out since his return from long term injury.

In the final analysis, his performances have matched the quality of Bent. Gordon has had a lot of criticism since he arrived from Hearts, and playing in front of a constantly changing back four was cited as the cause for some sloppy performances in the past. Well, he has played in front of a regularly changing back four this season, but his form has never been better, and that has been huge credit to him, silencing those who doubted his capability. Gordon has solidified the “spine” of the Sunderland team.

So, what is to be said of the last part of the “spine”, the centre half?

While it would still be easy to allow Darren Bent to overshadow everyone else, Big John Mensah casts an almighty shadow of his own. Previously nicknamed the “Rock of Gibraltar”, with some justification, John creates the impression that they’ve just finished building him. He arrived after the first three league games of the season had been played and made his debut as a substitute in the 4-1 victory over Hull at the SoL on Sept 12.

His first start in red and white came in the 2-0 League Cup defeat of Birmingham City 10 days later. Over the course of the next eight months, Big John was to be plagued by a series of niggling and recurring injuries which had a dramatic effect not only on the number of games played, but on how regularly he would be substituted as a result of some problem or other flaring up yet again.

Yet despite this limited time on the field of play, John Mensah has had an enormous impact on the team, and on the hearts of the SAFC supporters. Since his full debut, he has featured in 14 games, six of which ended as wins, with five draws and three losses. In the subsequent 19 games in which Mensah played no part the results were considerably less impressive: 18 played with only two victories, six draws and 11 defeats.

Including his debut, he has managed to complete the full 90 minutes on only six occasions (I didn’t even include the Man Utd game as an appearance as he played only 17 minutes before having to leave the field). His total playing time since the Birmingham League Cup tie was 1093 minutes of football. In the 14 games since then Sunderland conceded 14 goals (two after he had left the field in the home games against Everton and Burnley). In the other 18 games (and this time including that Man Utd game when he left the field so early at 0-0), a total of 34 goals were conceded. These statistics are quite staggering if you look at remarkably limited amount of football he has played.

Lets’s get back to the slump. Yes, I digressed and you all thought I’d forgotten. In the four games following the home victory over Arsenal, John Mensah didn’t play at all. We managed a single point from a possible 12. He came back for the narrow 4-3 defeat at Man City and scored his first goal for the club and also played in the following home 1-1 draw with Everton, when the Toffees ran in a late equaliser as John was soaking in the bath.

Injured again, he missed the next three games in which we conceded a total of 11 goals. Even though he was back to play the full 90 minutes in the 2-0 defeat at Goodison at the end of January, it was the first time he had completed a full game since the mauling of Wolves in late September.

We were still in the slump and one man alone could not turn it round, well not yet anyway. It’s no coincidence that John’s return to some degree of fitness and regular action saw an improvement in results. Apart from the defeat at the Emirates, John started a run which saw us undefeated in the following five matches with victories over Bolton and Birmingham and only a late equaliser from Adam Johnson preventing us from taking all three from the Citizens. John got injured again and missed the 3-0 loss at Anfield the following Sunday.

A lot of water has passed under the Wear Bridge since the days of King Charlie Hurley. In the intervening decades, with the notable exception of Dave Watson, there really hasn’t been anyone capable of filling the boots of “Binns lift” as Charlie was also affectionately called.

Not until now that is. They say that great literature conveys its message in just a few words, and that the brief moments of silence within a great song is what makes it so memorable. The same can be said of Big John Mensah, His absence at the heart of the Sunderland defence has been striking. His presence was badly missed. John’s first (and hopefully not his last) season at the Stadium of Light, has doubtlessly been frustrating for him. It has been for the fans too, because we’ve seen what he’s capable of when only partially fit. John Mensah clearly needs to be provided with the treatment and necessary recovery time to overcome his prolonged injury problems, Despite the relatively few appearances his value is unquestionable, and his services should be acquired on a permanent basis.

As one regular contributor to the Blackcats forum said: “He’s just Im-mensah!” What was I saying about great literature?

5 thoughts on “The report card: (2) passing the Mensah test”

  1. Thanks for the kind words David.

    I agree about Gordon’s distribution Malcolm. For a goalkeeper of his standing it is particularly weak, and this was increasingly obvious during the time that Fulop replaced him. As for John Mensah, the whole point of my article was that John’s contribution to the cause has been so significant that he must be kept, regardless. The points accumulated in those matches when John played indicate that we would have been in a very sorry state had we been relying on the likes of Ferdinand or Kilgallon etc. No player’s fitness is guaranteed, but it’s certainly an issue with JM. My concern is also for the player. In my view, his injury situation has been worsened by the fact that he was on loan. John was keener than ever to play to make the move permanent, and Steve Bruce was delighted to have him. It would have been easy to have given up the ghost and sent him back to France. He arguably should have done so had it been a player less talented than John Mensah. Steve Bruce showed great judgement on this in my opinion.

  2. I agree with your comments about Craig Gordon but one facet of his game is abysmal. His distribution and especially his kicking are atrocious. I can’t fathom out why our back four pass back to him so often when they themselves seem to be under no pressure and in a better position to work the ball forward.

    Inevitably when it goes back to Gordon he hoofs it upfield where at best we have to challenge for posession and more frequently are immediately looking to win it back again. The goal that knocked us out of the F.A. Cup was a prime example.

    His kicking out of his hands isn’t much better and how often do you see him throw it out to a team mate? He has shown himself to be a great keeper but if Sunderland are to improve as a team then they need to retain possession more, move off the ball more positively and improve their distribution.

    As for Mensah – a tower of strength indeed but maybe one built on weak foundations. I’d love to see a fit Mensah playing week in week out in the stripes but maybe the cost of keeping him will prove prohibitive if his fitness can’t be guaranteed.

  3. Excellent article, excellent website; what a pleasure to read an intelligent, football related article with correct grammar, spelling and even commas! (Alright, I admit to being a pedant).

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