John McCormick writes: Pete Sixsmith is about to go out, may even have already gone out, to do his Christmas duty on the Polar Express. When he gets back, he’ll no doubt sit down with his rosy cheeks, slippers, pipe and his ho, ho, ho to see what comments our readers have left on his report. Will they agree with this summary of a game against a team with away form, one that’s tough to beat and with the kind of defence we’d like to emulate? Or will they say something different? For my part the word I’d use is encouraging. But did that sending off lead me to a false sense of optimism? Let’s see what Pete thinks
Three weeks ago, as we trudged out of the East Stand after a dispiriting home defeat to a mediocre Southampton side, I said to George, who sits in front of me, that this was a rag bag of a side, with no pace, no identity and, by the looks of it, no future in the Premier League. He did not disagree.
Three weeks on, after the new manager and his coaching team have had a good, long look at the squad and have begun to sort out those who want to play and those who don’t, we have just had a week where we have won two games against teams above us and have, for the first time in a long time, looked like a decent Premier League side.
I don’t want to get carried away with all of this. We have a series of tough games coming up and confidence can be a fragile thing. But, as in the early days of Martin O’Neill, we have a manager who has players doing what they can do very well indeed.
The current formation seems to suit us well. The three central defenders look comfortable with each other, and once again the contribution of John O’Shea cannot be overlooked. His organisational skills are outstanding; here is a man for whom coaching and management are an absolute certainty. He knows how Jon Walters plays and he handled him perfectly.
The other quiet man of this team – quiet in that he gets things done with the minimum of fuss – is Yann M’Vila. When Seb Larsson went off after an hour, there was a worry that the midfield two of M’Vila and Cattermole would be overrun.
Not a bit of it. Both were excellent but the Frenchman brings that extra bit of quality and composure to the midfield. He never stopped running and made sure that Cattermole was able to play a bit further up the pitch, safe in the knowledge that there was cover behind or alongside him. Well done to whoever brought him in, be it Lee Congerton, Dick Advocaat or some kid playing FIFA 15.
There were many more plusses than minuses in this performance. Stoke are always an obdurate bunch (Sam liked that word when the 5Live interviewer used it to him; we may be hearing a bit more of that one in December and January) but the days of 6’5” defenders and huge forwards is long gone. They play some decent stuff now, but for those who have been there a long time, there is always the tendency to revert to what they were brought up on.
Ryan Shawcross is one of these. By no means a dirty player, he commits fouls with a rather cavalier attitude to the man in black – or yellow in this case. He had been given a lifeline by Mike Dean when he had a hack at Duncan Watmore and was booked a few minutes later when he brought down Steven Fletcher. His body language indicated that that was one for the team and he knew he had to be careful.
Far be it from me to suggest that the manager told Watmore and Fletcher that there was a good chance of friend Ryan being sent off and it would be an even better chance if they harried him. Watmore, proud possessor of a First Class Honours Degree, seemed to have that worked out himself and put pressure on the City captain.
Shawcross may have got to the ball first (several TV replays suggested that he did) but from Seat 404, Row 30 in the East Stand it looked like a foul and I thought that Dean pulled out a straight red. City fans (a reasonable turn out, but nothing like the 2,400 in the away end at Selhurst on Monday night), will disagree but it won’t make one iota of difference. Off went Shawcross and City had to rearrange their line-up. It gave us a chance, but their obduracy (I like the word as well, Sam) was impressive.
Equally impressive is the use of substitutes in the last two games. Watmore’s introduction was enforced as Defoe limped off, but he had caused problems for the Potters defence. Lens and Johnson came on for Larsson and O’Shea to give us a bit more pace and creativity and it worked.
It was Johnson who rolled the ball to Van Aanholt for the wing back to crash home the opening goal, and he played a part in the move that set Watmore free to clinch the game with a splendid shot past the equally splendid Jack Butland.
Watmore is a player of some potential but he needs to be handled carefully. The Hetton Irregulars have seen him miss chances similar to the one that he put away and he was also in good positions on a couple of other occasions and failed to trouble the keeper. At times he reminds me of Billy Hughes with his pace and his desire to score – but many of us thought the same about James McClean four years ago.
It was an emotional day as the club remembered Marton Fulop, whose tragically early death stunned us all. His parents would have been proud to see how much esteem he was held in by Sunderland supporters and the spontaneous outbreak of further applause in the 32nd minute reinforced it.
I hope it didn’t distract our defenders, as it gave City their sole opportunity and it took a brilliant save by The Giant Pantilimon to rescue us. Marton would have approved.
The day got better when we heard that Palace, who never looked like scoring on Monday night, had put five past Newcastle, with even The Show Pony Brothers, aka Zaha and Bolasie, appearing on the score sheet. BBC Newcastle had to wait until 5.57 for McLaren’s post-match interview and it was straight out of the Ron Knee textbook – tight lipped and ashen faced. The word obdurate did not appear in his analysis and if I were a Newcastle fan (by the grace of Colin Randall I am not), I would be very, very worried.
TALES FROM THE RED AND WHITES Vol 1 is selling well and would make a splendid Christmas gift to that special Mackem in your life. It can be bought in all good bookshops (and some bad ones), from Amazon or direct from the publisher www.talesfrom.com.