Pope Francis may have offered rather little in return for the Sunderland top the club chaplain Father Marc Lyden-Smith gave him at the Vatican, promising prayers for “all Premier League players to reach their potential”. The Lord, however, appears to have been more selective when considering a response that excluded the players of one club in particular. It all leaves Pete Sixsmith reflecting on his spiritual options …
On the way to the match with Mr Peter Horan, discussion turned to the presentation of a Sunderland shirt to His Holiness Pope Francis. Looking for a cheap laugh, I stated quite categorically that I would convert to Catholicism if we were to manage a win.
My Conversion Classes start tomorrow.
It was a sensational result, obtained by hard work, an inspired substitution and a winning goal that will ensure that Fabio Borini never has to buy a drink on Wearside for the rest of his natural. It was, to pinch a phrase from the Colonial Rebels in 1775, “a shot that rang around the world”.
Well, at least in our little corner of the world, where Sunderland supporters can go to work, pop in the pub and sit on the bus with smiles as wide as the one on Frank Sidebottom’s face. No taunting from the black and whites and, as we all know, we are above taunting them. We can sit there with a beatific look on our faces, safe in the knowledge that it is now four derby games unbeaten and two wins on the bounce.
This one was difficult to watch. I thought we were the better side in the first half. Scoring after five minutes helped; it settles our nerves. It was a good goal as well. A well worked move ended with Steven Fletcher heading Adam Johnson’s perfect cross into the net and off we went.
Johnson put in a number of excellent crosses, which Altidore and Fletcher failed to get on the end of, and Krul made a very good save from the Scot with Altidore just failing to pick up the rebound.
It was in midfield that we won the first half battle though, with Cattermole and Colback (left back? not on this performance) winning the ball effectively and using it sensibly against what we have been told is a far superior Newcastle engine room. Larsson worked as Larsson does and Johnson was a great outlet.
At the back, O’Shea and Cuellar were strong in the middle and the full backs, both appearing at the Stadium for the first time this season, were a mixture of English commitment and Italian energy. Dossena got forward really well and tackled effectively.
The worry was, could we keep it going after the half? Would we run out of steam as we did against Manchester United, or capitulate as we had at Swansea last week?
Well, the legs were weary and we did allow a poor Newcastle side back into the game. We even gave them an equaliser after Ben Arfa’s cross ambled across the box and Debuchy pitched up to slot it in. Johnson, who should have been marking him, was yards away.
They then had us pushed back for 20 minutes but seemed to think the way to score was to shoot from distance. There were no incisive passes, no clever football on the edge of the box, just a collection of shots which, like those in the first half, either ended up in the crowd, hit the hoardings either side of the sticks or were picked up by Keiren Westwood, who never had a save to make all game.
Changes were made. Off went Johnson and on came Borini. Cattermole was replaced by Ki and a clearly exhausted Bardsley was replaced by Celustka. The first of the three was to prove to be the match winner.
With six minutes left and most of us thinking a draw is better than nothing, Fabio Borini, a 22 year old from Bentivoglio, once of Roma and now a full time employee of Liverpool on loan to Sunderland, wrote his name into Sunderland folklore with a goal that could be described as a belter, a screamer, a cracker and, for Alan Pardew, a job loser.
The Italian had almost scored when a shot slithered out of Krul’s hands but was grabbed before any of our forwards could react. When he collected a good lay off from Altidore, he moved forward and unleashed an unstoppable shot that had the Stadium going wild. Memories of Kieran Richardson’s free kick came flooding back as he was buried under players and fans in the North West Corner.
We held out for the next 10 minutes, a back header from the steady and reliable John O’Shea the only chance our vaunted and highly regarded opponents had to level again, and at the final whistle, there was another eruption of joy. For those attending their first North East derby, it must have been a terrific sound.
So, where did the improvement come after last week’s debacle? Poyet had a full seven days to work with the players and it was interesting that he fell back on those who have been at the club through the recent dark days.
He restored Colback to the position he prefers and was rewarded with an excellent display – tight and thoughtful, with some good, positive runs. Cattermole ratted away, rarely fouled, was never anywhere near a booking and ran himself into the ground.
The back four were sound, with O’Shea a calming influence. He turned in a captain’s performance yesterday, talking the other players through a difficult 20 minutes after the equaliser. He was helped by Cuellar, steady and unspectacular, while both full backs did their jobs well.
Altidore grafted away but desperately needs a goal. In fact, he looked better when he dropped deeper to accommodate Borini and he set up the winner, the belter, the screamer, the cracker. And Fletcher was Fletcher.
He scored another great header and, in the first half, pulled their two central defenders all over the place. He tired in the second, but managed the full 90 and was always a threat.
And the Mags? They did look a poor team at times, with some players seemingly uninterested. Cabaye showed what a sly type he is, kicking Fletcher on the ankle to provoke a reaction after Norman Stanley had been booked for over celebrating the opening goal. It was nasty and unpleasant challenge and sums up a nasty and unpleasant footballer.
Tiote was their best player; like Cattermole, he has previous in this fixture but he worked hard and tried to drive his team on. That he got no help from Ben Arfa (overrated), Remy (useless on this showing) and Sissoko (invisible) was not his fault. They looked like a group of players with no coherent policy of how to play the game.
As for Pardew, he showed his customary lack of grace, complaining about throw ins not being given and treating Sunderland with disdain. He is unlikely to get the chance to do so when we meet again in February.
For Poyet, it was a great start to his tenure at the Stadium. He made a bold team selection and it came off. He made a bold substitution and it came off. Good management all round and the players looked as if they were playing for him rather than because they were frightened of him. He has put a smile on their faces after the austerity of the Di Canio era.
Hull next week is an interesting one. Steve Bruce will be keen to put one over the fans who took against him, but we need to get some momentum going. Beating the local rivals is nice, but it doesn’t keep you in the Premier League. Winning games on a regular basis does. Let’s hope we can start at the KC.
I’m off to start my Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults – after a couple of celebratory whiskies and a couple of Hail Mary’s. May the Lord be with us.
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