Sunderland end-of-season reviews: (3) the hope of glory shines on

Jake finds MON in pensive mood

Salut! Sunderland sees great writing every week from subscribers to the Blackcats e-mail list. But in perhaps another sign of the flat end-of-season feelings induced by SAFC’s uninspiring finale, almost none responded to an invitation to offer their reflections here. Nic Wiseman**, once co-editor of a SAFC fanzine and these days a professional gardener, bucked the trend. And refusing to enter the summer on a downbeat note, he detects the green shoots of revival …

One not so fine day in May, the rain hits south-west London, causing me to cancel all gardening work for the day — again — and up pops a message from Monsieur Salut asking if anyone fancies penning a few words on the season just finished. Talk about good timing…

Where to start? My story-writing teacher taught us to start with an intro that will outline the whole premise of the story.

At first view this season could be a microcosm of the game of two halves. Pre-MoN and post-. Seems logical.
At this stage, I must confess that I have been to the same amount of games this season than I have fingers on one hand and none at the SoL. (Liverpool, Spurs, Wigan, Everton and Fulham away).

All but one in the MoN-era. With the shining exception of Wigan, that would be two goals for and eight against. Adding the Wigan scoreline makes my aggregate viewing pleasure six goals for and nine against. On the basis of these somewhat bare statistics, one would think the Martin O’Neill effect was negligible at best. But this was probably due to my awful choice of away games.

Jake adapts Tony Roffe's photographic magic to humour Salut! Sunderland

Mr O Neill came to Sunderland on a wave of optimism and expectation. The other fellow had the pong of underwhelming underachievement that just wouldn’t leave from the day he stepped through the door. So the day Wigan grabbed those three points at the SoL was the final nail in a very heavy coffin for ”Little Stevie”, as one contributor to the Blackcat e-mail loop dubbed him.

He moaned that he hadn’t been given enough time to complete the job, that we had finished 10th the season before but curiously failed to mention the glaring fact that we had only won three games at home in the calendar year of 2011.

Up stepped acronym-friendly MoN to sign in with a rousing 2-1 over Blackburn; we had to come from behind and both home goals were scored within the final five minutes. The first a rasper from David Vaughan from outside the penalty area and the second a sweetly taken free kick from a similar position. That free kick going in lifted the roof off the SoL in a way that hadn’t happened since SKP equalised against the Mags in 2000 (Kieran’s free kick to beat the Mags was surely close – ed).

Then there was Man City at home. Wow. I watched it on an iPad in my in-laws’ house on Skygo. Now this is a great piece of technology, but there must be about a minute’s delay, because before Ji slotted home the winner there were some astonished and astonishing tweets coming over Twitter.

“Jiiiiii” said one, not unlike Martin Tyler’s commentary of the game. Even Clemency Burton Hill of Radio 3 breakfast show fame (and of even greater Salut! Sunderland fame! – ed) tweeted her amazement at our humbling of the eventual champions. Tyler’s commentary of those final moments became immortalised in Roker Report’s podcast and is now adorning a t-shirt.

The momentum was defiantly with us, as we gained revenge at Wigan with a 4-1 romp, banishing the post-Christmas blues. A cup win over Peterborough and defeat against the run of play defeat at Chelsea completed January. We overcame Boro in a Fourth round cup replay and then saw off Arsenal in the second part of a double header, which saw them win the league portion.

The FA Cup juggernaut was gaining steam when Everton’s name was drawn out of the hat. We were to play the Toffees at Goodison. If there was ever a time to beat this particular hoodoo this was it. An encouraging draw at their place got our hopes up. But the team failed to turn up for the home replay and were summarily dismissed from the cup.

After that our players seemed to slip on their flip flops and failed to turn up for the rest of the season, safety having been assured some time in March. A hugely encouraging performance at Manchester City when we became the only team to leave the Etihad with so much as a single point and almost snatched all three, was the only decent showing after we were dispatched from the cup.

Various theories have been postulated to explain our flat finish to the season, from the quality of the team eventually being found out to MoN’s head being turned by the England vacancy. My view is that having secured survival, most players were not able to raise the enthusiasm for the sort of finale that would have brought another top 10 finish.

The manager will no doubt be hard at work on team personnel as I type, as he is obviously the kind of guy who doesn’t rest on his laurels. I, for one, am most intrigued to see what next season will bring.

And I am ever optimistic, even if I did once help put together the Sunderland fanzine It’s The Hope I Can’t Stand …

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Nic at Craven Cottage: anyone who could smile watching our end-of-season run deserves support

** Not content with his half marathon before the Fulham game, Nic is now planning another sponsored run, this time a full marathon in Chester in October. He must be running out of other ways of raising money for a new school hall for St James’s RC Primary School in Twickenham (his daughter attends the school and Nic is a parent governor but doesn’t say whether it was a role he had to run for; sorry, getting me coat now …). Here’s the link:

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