It was nerve-testing, but three points took us into hallowed Peter Reid territory (seventh top or, as one wag put it, two wins off second place, two defeats off second bottom). Pete Sixsmith reflects on our victory – and joins heaven knows how many other headline writers in coming up with the Dunne & dusted pun …
Twelve months ago, we went to Villa’s next door neighbours and lost 2-1. It wasn’t a great performance and for me, it marked the beginning of the end of the first phase of that season. We had performed well up until then, with a mixture of decent home wins (Hull City, Wolves, Liverpool), an excellent performance at Old Trafford, where we should have won and a couple of away stinkers (Burnley and Stoke).
We were scoring goals but equally shipping them at the other end. Our midfield was, to use the euphemism, “competitive” and creativity and pace were there, but were not the important component of our play that they are now. We looked a better side than the previous two seasons, but the weaknesses could be seen.
Twelve months on, and a virtual new team, where are we now? Well, we beat Aston Villa and, for a team like ours, that is a positive sign. They are perpetually on the fringe of the Top Six, have a relatively settled side and are usually difficult to beat. They gave Champions Elect Chelsea a good game last week. And we beat them.
It wasn’t a comfortable win, that’s for sure. The goal was fortuitous with Dunne becoming the top og man in Premier League history; remember, football only started in this country in 1992. It wasn’t a spectacular og (the best I ever saw was Tony Hateley planting a superb header past Tommy Lawrence at Highbury in 1967), but it was a response to a teasing cross by Steed and with Darren breathing down Dunne’s neck, he had to try and clear it – but maybe not into his own net (hee, hee).
The first half was a tight affair. Downing hit a post, but we had some very good breaks and Elmohamady was a constant threat down the right hand side. He has looked a very impressive player and if he can maintain this level of performance throughout the season, he will be an excellent signing.
At the back, we looked shaky and this was entirely due to the shift that Emile Ivanhoe Heskey put in.
He’s not a favourite at Sunderland because it was he that kept Kevin Phillips out of the England side in the early part of this century, and Darren Bent in the first year of this decade. He doesn’t score goals. He disappears in games and misses sitters. He can look clumsy.
He gave us two of those on Saturday – the lack of scoring and the sitter. He did not disappear and he did not look clumsy. Instead, he made Turner and, to a lesser extent, Bramble, look as he often does. Turner shook more often than a jelly in an earthquake and had his poorest game in Sunderland colours. Bramble, who has been the picture of self assurance this season, showed signs of the comic performances he put in at Sid James Park in the past.
Fortunately, Heskey had little decent support. Ireland was awful and Young little better when he played in the hole behind him. That helped us, as we have a similar problem in that position. Mytbe that is where Riveros will eventually play
Bent is not Heskey and he does not really suit this role. He works hard, puts pressure on defenders, but he doesn’t hold the ball up particularly well. His great attribute is in the box, where he can get on the end of balls knocked into him. Our style this season is not as it was twelve months ago and Bent is suffering just a tiny bit.
But we are a better side. We play better football in midfield. Cattermole is a very difficult man to better, despite his succession of misplaced passes on Saturday. Henderson has a fantastic engine on him; I have heard that after every training session, his heart monitor is in the red zone, indicating that he has worked to the limits of endurance.
We are a little light down the left where Welbeck may well give way to Zenden for Sunday’s little local spat. Mensah for Turner may well be another change that The Brucester is contemplating.
We stand seventh. We have lost one game this season. We are a difficult side to beat. We go into the first derby of the season in good spirits. I hope I will be able to write in a celebratory vein next Monday.