Some of you have already heard the spoken version – 46 minutes into a BBC Radio Newcastle clip at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0151krv, catching Pete Sixsmith breathless but not legless after a heavy bout of Stadium of Light hospitality. He made some good points, very critically, happy with a draw but wondering about the quality of what he’d been watching. Here’s the written account, essential reading as ever (just buttering him up in case he’s minded to keep that threat to abandon SAFC for Rugby League and park football after all the serial disappointment ….
It was a beautiful day in the North East of England on Saturday. The temperature made it into the lower teens, the sun shone and your trusty correspondent was being wined and dined by Sunderland AFC pre and post match in the Executive Lounge.
The letter I received said that it was for being a season ticket holder for ever and a day and for attending away matches on a regular basis – and for, presumably, creating my own, personal trail of tears up the A1(M) since Adam was a lad.
So, accompanied by Ms Dawson, we turned up at the club reception at noon and were ushered into a side of the stadium I have rarely seen – Monsieur Salut’s 60th birthday bash may well have been the last time I was there.
That came on the eve of a particularly dismal performance against Manchester City. This time, an equally uninspiring 45 minutes against Fulham followed the excellent meal and, shall we say, ”interesting” company that we shared the table with.
The club do this very well. There must have been 500 people in the room, but the food was hot and the service attentive. A young man crooned on the stage and Monty introduced us to his special guest, the wonderful George Mulhall, a real hero of mine in the 1960s.
He was a winger who could shoot, pass and cross the ball and was rarely knocked off it by full backs who were far more physical than they are now. Would that we had a winger like that now …
We filed out of the Executive Suite and into the padded seats in the West Stand in time to see the players complete their warm up and to look on a splendid stadium, with its lower tier full and full of hope and optimism.
Monty had said a win was essential and that was the mood amongst those of us in the corporate seats that were dyed in the wool Sunderland fans and not part of a company freebie.
Our problems are very clear to see and not very easy to solve. We have an excellent keeper, playing behind a slow back four, made up of one centre half having his final season at this level and another who can look imperious at times but who is slow on the turn and who cannot pass a ball.
Add to that two decent midfielders playing at full back and you can see why we concede. And concede we did, with both goals coming down the flanks.
Gardner was tormented by Fulham’s Iranian winger Ashkan Dejagah. Gardner stuck his foot out, Dejagah accepted the invitation to fall over it and Mark Halsey clearly had a debate with himself about the merits of his fall before awarding the spot kick – correctly as it turned out.
But why did he take so long over it? It looked as if he was going to book the Fulham player for a dive and then he gave the kick. He was in a good position, he didn’t need to consult his assistant, so why take so long? It’s a mystery to me!!!
We then contrived to give Fulham another goal, a Fulham team that scores away from home as often as a Pope resigns. Awful defending as they went the length of the pitch and the full back, Riether popped up to slide the ball in. The prospect of Blackpool, Burnley and Barnsley loomed very large at that moment.
Fortunately Mr Halsey came to our rescue when he gave us a penalty as Phillipe Senderos grabbed Danny Graham. It was not a cast iron penalty and there was a feeling that he was suffering a guilt complex. But it got us back into the game as Craig Gardner smashed it in.
That set us up for the second half and once again we showed that we have restorative powers, but usually when we are two down. It took a while to level and, in truth, we should have been two down again, but the Blessed Mignolet saved a Berbatov shot with his legs.
This time we caught Fulham on the hop and a combination of Sess and Adam Johnson plus a rebound off the luckless Senderos ended up with the Benin Magician sweeping the ball past Schwarzer.
We had chances to win it. There were a couple of scrambles and there may well have been a penalty when that man again, Senderos, appeared to handle. Mr Halsey clearly felt that he had given the clowns on Match of the Day enough to talk about, so he turned it down.
It was an exciting and frenetic second half and we came away with a point that looked about as unlikely as a Tory by election victory at 3.35, but the worrying signs were still there, viz;
* We cannot defend. This was the third game out of four that we have conceded two goals. There have been two clean sheets in 2013, one against a feeble West Ham side, the other against a pre-occupied Swansea team
* There are some serious problems in midfield. The centre of it takes an age to get to grips, while the wide players frustrate. To be more specific; Larsson had a poor first half and an excellent second while N’Diaye did ok. But to be bettered by the likes of Sidwell and Karagounis as they were in the first half is not good enough.
* Sess did well on the wing, but Johnson continues to flatter to deceive. Too many crosses (just about every one, in fact) do not get past the first man. Larsson’s are not much better, but we expect so much more from a £10m. England international.
* Two up front does not work. Fletcher and Graham are too similar and clutter up the middle. Graham worked hard but looked lost at times, while Fletcher produced his best form when the new boy went off. He found space and got the five man midfield involved.
Back in the Executive Suite there was a palpable sense of relief that we had gained a point on Reading and Newcastle but the more experienced of us knew that we were still in a potential relegation situation. The Wigan result eased that pressure and should Manchester City beat an ailing Aston Villa, we will be a tad more secure.
But there is that sense of disappointment and frustration that a club like ours, whose average attendance is up in the top six and who can sell their allocation at the exorbitantly expensive dump known as Loftus Road, are still playing second fiddle to the likes of Fulham who brought fewer fans on a fine Saturday afternoon than Portsmouth did to Hartlepool on a damp and cold Tuesday night.
Season ticket renewals are in the offing, which may explain the invite. For many of us, it won’t be an automatic decision this year and the players and management need to give us something to look forward to come August. A win at QPR and wiping the smile of GoodOlArry’s face would be a start.