If Saturday in Sunderland was cold by normal standards, it was positively balmy by comparison with what was happening almost everywhere else. But 1245 is a rotten kickoff time, as witnessed by empty seats that cannot all be attributed to the weather. All the same, three good points made it all seem like a heatwave. Pete Sixsmith reports on the tough encounter that awaited those of us who made the effort …
Could there have been a worse time for this game? The Saturday before Christmas, a 1245 kick off and visitors who rarely bring more than a couple of coachloads of fans.
Add to that the fact that many people still see Bolton as the personification of grimness in football and I think we did bloody well to attract just under 35,000 Sunderland fans to the Stadium on Saturday.
What we saw was the kind of game that we would have drawn last season, as we began our mid season slump down the table. This season we won it, giving us our 27th point of a season that is going rather well.
We won it for three basic reasons. First of all, we had a quality strike force, one of whom took the only real chance of the game, enabling us to win as Bolton’s forwards never looked like scoring.
Secondly, we had a phenomenal save from Craig Gordon that was up there with Monty’s save from Roy Greenwood at Hull in 1973. Look at the players congratulating him and then you realise exactly how good it was.
Finally, we may just have seen Anton Ferdinand complete his transformation from immature younger brother into a footballer in his own right. He had an outstanding game and showed composure and leadership – words that in the past have been used about him as often as honest and sincere have about Nick Clegg – throughout the 90 minutes.
As Big John Mensah hobbled off after a crunching challenge from Kevin Davies, some of us expected Anton to have a fit of the vapours. But he didn’t. He took control of the back four and stood up to the occasional rough house tactics that Bolton can still do better than anyone else in this league.
Chris Foy also helped us with a refereeing performance that left most of the crowd howling in frustration.
If his booking of Cahill was the right decision, the yellow card he waved at Lee Cattermole was as wrong a decision as I have seen all season.
He then compounded the error by not giving our skipper a second yellow for a foolish lunge at Elmander in the second half. Catts should have gone. He knew it; he walked away from the incident and had the Sneaky Swede not made quite as much of it as he did by rolling around like a man auditioning for the part of a barrel going over Niagara Falls, he would have had his third sending off of the season.
Foy reverted to the old Sunday morning adage, as perfected by the late George Elliott of Shildon, that a shocking decision early in the game was cancelled out by an equally shocking one later on. You could just about get away with it in the Wear Valley Sunday League, but the FA Premier League is just a wee bit more intense.
It wasn’t a great performance, but we cannot reach the heights of the Chelsea and Arsenal games every week and progress should be measured by beating the sides around us. This we did and some churlish commentators, who think that Owen Coyle’s Bolton are the new Barcelona, need to accept that we are making steady, if unspectacular, progress and that it is Sunderland who are the team who could just come through at the end of the season.
There were no poor performers in this side. Each and every one of them did their jobs and stuck to their tasks. The midfield worked hard, at times being one short as Welbeck joined Bent and Gyan up front. Kieran Richardson ran and ran and tackled as well as I have seen him. Pity about the free kicks, though; save one for January 16th, Kieran.
And so we trundled home in an area unaffected by the snow that wiped out most of the Premier League fixture list. The Blackburn West Ham game made ours sound like Real Madrid v Eintracht Frankfurt Hampden classic and once again we could think how lucky we are to have Messrs Short and Quinn at the helm rather than a know nothing collective of chicken farmers or a couple of East End Geezers with the dress sense of a child let loose in the clothes box.
Manchester United on Sunday without Welbeck, Cattermole and Mensah. Could we see one of our hitherto invisible South Americans turning out at Old Trafford? I’m not holding my breath.