Sunderland v Arsenal ‘Who are You?’: Defoe’s enduring magic, Wenger’s fading charm

Spot Nick Birch, our Arsenal 'Who are You?' interviewee
Nick Birch, just to the left of Theo Walcott’s elbow, celebrates a goal scored by a man who, of course, learnt his trade at Sunderland

Nick Birch* is this season’s second supporter from the Arsenal fan site Gunners Town to volunteer or be volunteered for the ‘Who are You?’ hot seat. He’s a regular home and away, shares the apparently increasing disenchantment with Arsène Wenger and, instead of laughing at the idea of there being a Sunderland player who might do a job for the Gunners, suggests that Jermain Defoe could compete for a place if only as an impact sub. He will be at the Stadium of Light on Sunday and cheerfully accepts our best wishes for a great day out, to be followed by the visiting Londoner’s obligatory night out on the Toon, marred only by the result (can we also pray for glum faces in Bigg Market after a defeat at Anfield?) …

Salut! Sunderland: at this stage of the season, the order of questions needs to be changed. So without further ado, give us the top four in order, and the bottom three.

Nick: Leicester, Spurs, Arsenal, Manchester City. Norwich, Newcastle and Aston Villa.

We’ve said it before to our many Arsenal “Who are You?” interviewees: if you regard your recent history as one of failure, can we have some of that at Sunderland please? Are Gunners fans hard to please or rightly demanding?

I accept that the majority of other clubs in the country would happily swap our recent history for theirs but I think it’s all relevant to each club’s own expectation levels.

As Arsenal fans, we know that the club has the financial resources to enable us to compete with the majority of other clubs. There are obviously a few exceptions, yet instead of investing in the squad, the club chooses to sit on huge cash reserves. I don’t think our fans expect success or think we have a divine right to achieve success, we just want to see the club make the most of the available resources. For a club of our size, 12 years without a league title is too long.

Some of us at Salut! Sunderland are among Arsène Wenger’s great admirers. Where do you stand on the debate among your supporters as to whether it is time for him to go?

I have wanted a managerial change for the last four years or so and the tide has definitely turned with a higher number of supporters now wanting him gone than at any other point in his reign. I could discuss the reasoning behind my stance at great length but I’ll keep my response a concise one.

Arsene frequently fails to learn from his mistakes, he’s tactically one-dimensioned, his team selections and substitutions are at times appalling and predictable, he often plays players out of position, has a blind spot where defenders and goalkeepers are concerned and regularly belittles, patronises and insults the club’s supporters publicly. Although I accept that he is being judged on his own high standards because of what he achieved in the past.

Arsène Wenger inanimate
Arsène Wenger: time to go?

If not covered in that response, assess his reign and legacy.

There is no question that Arsène’s arrival took the club to the next level, especially in terms of global recognition, although with 10 league titles before his arrival we were already a big club.

Still, it is widely accepted that Arsène not only revolutionised the club but English football as a whole and the memories from the first half of his reign are something that will never leave me. Like most things in life, you don’t really appreciate something until it’s gone and in some ways, at the time I probably didn’t realise how lucky I was to be witnessing some of the greatest players and teams ever to wear the Arsenal shirt during this period.

My biggest disappointment from the first half of his tenure is that he never really built upon those teams and not doing so prevented us from retaining the title or leading us to Champions League glory.

As for the second half of his reign, I think he did brilliantly to keep us competitive in the years following the move to the new stadium but in recent years the money has been there and he’s refused to spend it. I think his stubbornness has cost us at least two or three further league title successes and that leaves a sour taste in the mouth. I’d always hoped he would leave on a high but that now looks unlikely. Some supporters believe he has tarnished his legacy but he will always have a place in the club’s history and the hearts of most supporters, particularly because of the Invincible season. Sadly, the atmosphere is becoming toxic towards him now.

Jake: 'Ha'way man, Arsene was only three when we beat them 7-1'
Jake: ‘Ha’way man, Arsene was only three when we beat them 7-1’

Guess the Score at There’s a prize but sorry, only a correct – and first – Sunderland-to-win prediction will win it.

How much does it hurt to see Spurs as the only viable option to Leicester as champions?

It hurts seeing them above us and accepting, whether we like it or not, that they are a better side than us. I’m sad to say that their future looks better than ours does at the moment, unless changes are made at our club.

Where has your own season faltered and does it hurt more to underperform domestically or in the Champions League?

We’ve been far too inconsistent all season so there hasn’t been a particular turning point as such but our form since the turn of the year has been disappointing. I didn’t expect us to achieve anything in the Champions League because put simply, we are not good enough to beat the best sides consistently at that level. The Champions League is the one competition I want to win more than any other and it hurts that Chelsea were the first London club to win it but I think expectations were higher for the domestic competitions, so in some ways, it’s more disappointing that we’ve not managed to sustain a title challenge.

Where are the weaknesses in your squad and who would you be mad to let go?

We need a stronger spine. In the summer, we should be looking to bring in two central defenders, another defensive midfield and a top class centre forward. We create so many chances but our conversion rate is woeful. We also lack leadership and a physical presence in the middle.

Jack Wilshere: what do you reckon is wrong with him?

I think because of the type of player he is, he’s always likely to suffer injuries. He’s very combative and also likes to dribble through crowded areas. I like him as a player and I do think we’ve missed him badly this season. Hopefully moving forward he will finally stay free from injuries but I wouldn’t bank on it.

What have been your highlights as an Arsenal supporter?

Every trophy we have won is obviously a highlight but the Invincible season has to be the biggest highlight and I’d be surprised if it ever happens again in my lifetime.

And your lowest points?

My first big disappointment came in 1995 when we lost to Real Zaragoza in the Cup Winners Cup final, I was only 11 at the time but that feeling when their winning goal went in will never leave me. The FA Cup final loss to Liverpool in 2001 was a painful one too, simply because we dominated the match for the best part and then lost to two late Michael Owen goals. All cup final losses hurt though.

How do you think today’s squad compares with the Invincibles or earlier great Arsenal teams and who are your personal favourites – either from seeing live or from film footage and repute – in your club’s history?

For a start the current squad lacks the hunger and leadership that the Invincible team had. That team had the perfect blend of power and technique but the current side lacks both the physicality and individual brilliance needed to be successful. I’ve been lucky enough to have witnessed some truly great players but Bergkamp, Henry and Pires have to be my favourite flair players. For passion, determination and sheer grit, Adams, Vieira and Lauren are up there.

Who should never have been allowed to set foot in the Emirates (or Highbury)?

A lot of older supporters would probably say Gus Caesar but without doubt, the worst player I have ever seen play for us is Igor Stepanovs. The bloke couldn’t run or kick a ball properly and looked like one of the goons from Popeye. You could say he played like one too!

Does the sedate Emirates atmosphere bother you, especially if you can recall what it was like at the old place?

The atmosphere at home games is pretty terrible to be honest and it does bother me. The people I sit with are a vocal bunch but there are times when we try to get songs going and people look at us like we are from another planet. I think it’s the same at most grounds though and it’s usually the away fans who generate the noise. Our away support is superb and doesn’t get the credit it deserves.

Were you surprised at how catastrophically we started the season, and our inability to pull clear despite improvements under Sam, or did you see it coming?

I think there are roughly 10 teams, including Sunderland, who are all of a similar level so I didn’t expect you to be as many points behind the likes of West Brom for example. I’d have expected Sam to have made you harder to beat than you perhaps were at the start of the season.

Any other thoughts on Sunderland: the club, the fans, the city & region, Big Sam?

I have always enjoyed my visits to Sunderland, without wanting to jinx things, I have always found the locals to be of a good nature and happy to talk football with rival supporters. To be honest we hated Allardyce when he managed Bolton, mainly because he knew how to set his teams up to beat us! I think he’s a good manager for teams of a certain level and I don’t mean that disrespectfully, just that if a club needs a manager to keep them up, he’s one of the first names they would turn to.

Is there a single player in our squad who could do a job for Arsenal?

I have always rated Jermain Defoe and even now I think he’d thrive on the number of chances we create. Perhaps not as regular starter but certainly coming off the bench. He’s clinical in front of goal, something our strikers are not.

Diving: your players do it, so do ours. If everyone’s at it, should we stop bothering and just do it better? Or is it still something we need to eradicate from the game?

I’d like to see it eradicated from the game but it’s a difficult one because there will always be an argument about whether a player has or hasn’t dived. If video evidence categorically shows that a player has deliberately attempted to cheat the match officials, I would like to see the player retrospectively punished in some aspect.

Best ref, worst ref in the Premier and why?

I asked a few of my fellow Arsenal supporters about this and we all came up with the same two names, Michael Oliver the best and Mike Dean the worst. Oliver doesn’t hesitate when making the big calls and Dean was particularly atrocious in our game with Chelsea earlier in the season.

One step the authorities could take to improve the experience of ordinary supporters?
If it can be done safely then I’d say bring back standing on the terraces as this would perhaps help to improve the atmosphere inside stadiums.

Will you be at our game and what will be the score?

I will be at the game and I’ll say Arsenal will win 3-1 but this probably means Sunderland will win 1-0.

 Jake: 'catch this season's full series so far at'
Jake: ‘catch this season’s full series so far at

* Nick Birch on himself: I know most people say they are a lifelong supporter of their club but in my case that really is true as my dad started taking me and my older brother to games from a very young age. I have to say that I properly became hooked after seeing my dad and older brother in news clips on television, celebrating the league title win on the Anfield pitch in 1989. My brother was actually sat on the shoulders of John Lukic at one stage and after seeing that I wanted my own piece of the action, sadly it still hasn’t arrived and the closest I’ve been to such fame is the photo I have included of me celebrating Danny Welbeck’s late winner against Leicester a couple of months back, that’s me bottom left just above the steward’s shoulder. I’m a regular author for the well-known Gunners Town Arsenal blogging site and an admin on a popular Arsenal fan group on Facebook so it’s safe to say that I’m always talking Arsenal, too much some would say, especially my Spurs supporting boss!

Interview: Colin Randall

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