Malcolm Dawson writes….back in the not so dim and distant past, I was enjoying a pint in the Kings Arms prior to the League Cup quarter final, repeating the message contained in several of my comments on Salut! Sunderland – that we would be fine. Our squad, I argued, was at least as good as those of the teams around us and there were enough points to be won to ensure we would climb out of the relegation zone. I was not alone in my opinion. There was plenty of optimism and the win against Chelsea that night only increased the feel good factor. But this morning I feel like I’m in the kind of relationship, so beloved of the soap opera script writer, where all my friends are saying “get out of it…she’s no good for you…she makes you miserable….it’ll only get worse” and I pathetically reply “but she’s promised she’ll change.” And for a time it seems like she has but then normal service is resumed. If we’d beaten Norwich we would only be 3 points behind them; a win at Cardiff would have put us 1 point behind them; victory against Villa only 3 adrift of them ….and if we’d won all three we’d be almost mid-table in 12th spot. It’s all very well beating Man City, Newcastle and Everton but it’s beating the teams in the bottom half of the table which is the key to finishing in a respectable spot. Pete Sixsmith was in his usual seat and left with the all too familiar feelings of anger, despair and frustration which too often is the lot of the Sunderland supporter.
THE ONLY VILLAINS WORE RED AND WHITE STRIPES.
Just when there was a bit of hope stirring, along comes a performance like this! Just when you thought that the team could fight its way out of the relegation zone, along comes this! Just when you think that the manager and coaching staff have got us on an even keel, along comes this!
The points that we had picked up at Everton and Cardiff all had a distinct tinge of the fortunate about them. Mannone kept us on target for a win at Goodison and Cardiff imploded on Saturday night to let us back into the game. But we hoped that that good fortune would act as a catalyst and give us the strength, the inner, mental strength to go on and beat a Villa side who don’t score goals and who were on the edge of the relegation places themselves. Who am I kidding? In the fifty years I have been going to Sunderland, how many times have they failed to produce the goods when they had to? How many times when the chips were down, did we fail to pick them up? To a list that goes all the way back to Chelsea in 1963, now add Aston Villa 2014.
This was the game that confirmed, in my mind, the fact that we are heading for the Championship. There we were at home, to a team a handful of places above us. Four points had been dug out from two tricky away games. Four of the others in our predicament were playing each other. If we won and the other results went our way, we were out of a relegation spot for the first time this season. And we blew it.
We gave away a ludicrous goal which will have every fan of every club in the bottom eight saying to themselves that there are two places left. We can always rely on Sunderland to shoot themselves in the foot. We should have been ahead before the catastrophe that cost us the game. Fletcher was played in by Giaccherini and it cried out for a firm shot into the net. For whatever reason, he tried to place it wide of the keeper and succeeded in putting it wide of the post. That would have put us ahead and may well have settled us.
Ten minutes later, the Villa goal arrived. It was nothing to do with scintillating play from a side who play very much on the break, but it was due to a degree of mental alertness from Gabby Agbonlahor that none of our players could match. Lee Cattermole failed to control the ball and was dispossessed by the Villa player. He ran on and scored. End of game. Cattermole then tried to give the ball away on another two occasions and was baled out by his colleagues.
What is it with Cattermole? He will have two or three decent games and then he starts to think that he is a good player. He isn’t. So, to make up for his inadequacies he either fouls someone then gets sent off or drops clangers like this. Managers have spoken of his commitment and effort and I am sure he impresses them with his approach to the game. It is just that he is so unreliable and, at times, inept with his clumsy tackling, his poor control, his inability to make a telling pass and his dreadful goal scoring record. Does anybody think that he is any better than Grant Leadbitter.
But he wasn’t the only one. The defence was all over the place and never looked like a unit. In fact, that was the entire problem; we never looked like a team at any stage in the game. It was as if the effort and concentration that we had shown at Goodison and the fight back at Cardiff had never happened. For most of us there, this was depressingly familiar. We had seen similar hapless performances under the previous three managers and we hoped for better under Poyet. Did he pick the right team? Why move Bardsley to left back? Should he have played Ji? What are his options?
Dossena hardly inspires confidence and Altidore was widely regarded as dreadful on Saturday. In fact, Ji did far better than he had earlier in the season (not a difficult feat to perform), but he is no answer to the goal scoring problem that we have. If you don’t score, you don’t win. What is the situation with Steven Fletcher? He turned in another anodyne performance today and never looked once like the player we saw last season. Does he want to go? Gary Bennett suggested that there may be a problem between him and the manager and it looks more likely every time you watch him play.
Why do we never seem to trouble goalkeepers? Guzan had an easy afternoon, with no difficult saves. Why can we not put in a decent ball from a corner or a free kick? I can’t remember the last time we caused panic in the opposition box with a string of good dead balls. Villa were not brilliant, but did not need to be. They had done their homework on us and knew that if they pressed us we would make mistakes. They were sharper, were prepared to have a shot and broke into open play, where we go sideways and backwards like a driver lost on Spaghetti Junction in the belief that if he keeps going round, he might get to where he wants to be in the end.
There is still a flicker of hope, but our record against the other teams near the bottom is an absolute embarrassment. We have drawn with Norwich, Cardiff, Villa and West Ham – not one win against teams we need to beat. It is no good beating City and Everton and then collapsing against the likes of West Brom, Fulham and Palace. As a supporter, I have no idea of where we go from here. Good players will not be attracted to a club that is stuck at the bottom and the current playing staff are clearly not good enough. We need another 27 points from the remaining games to stay up, We’ll do well to get 12!
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