Time is running out for Sunderland. The latest defeat, coupled with wins for Burton and Bolton, exposes the club horribly at the foot of the table. Time is also running out for Pete Sixsmith‘s attendance at SAFC games – he will soon be pulling on Santa clothes to entertain the children of the North East – and he’s delighted he won’t have to sit through more of this dross.
Sixer’s Sunday took him to the Riverside stadium, more in hope than anticipation he said at Facebook as the Durham SAFCSA branch bus approached Teesside. Short as the journey may have been, those making it were not watching a derby according to Sixer (“of course not, it’s in Yorkshire”) and Bill Harris (who had the bright idea of a Salut! Sunderland poll on the issue). The readers have decided in their favour by a whopping majority* and the poll is now as closed as are Sixer’s ears to excuses for the shambles he witnessed.
Here is his damning report on another wasted afternoon …
We are now officially the 44th best team in the English senior system after yet another dispiriting performance, this time at our geographically closest rivals, Middlesbrough.
Our nearest away game next year season could well be at Valley Parade, Bradford, always assuming that the Bantams aren’t promoted.
This is the fourth time that we have occupied the bottom spot in the second tier. There was a two week spell there in October 1958 as we came to terms with our first ever relegation ( we eventually finished 15th) and then a lengthy spell at the start of Lawrie McMenemy’s first season in 1985 when we were trying to put a side together and get them to blend after relegation. We finished 18th that year.
Amazingly, the season that we slipped into the third tier, we were never bottom but still went down after losing a play-off semi-final with Gillingham. The last time we occupied bottom spot was on August 19 2006 when Niall Quinn guided us to 24th place after a 3-1 loss at Southend United. We recovered that year to win the league. I have already ruled out a repeat of that.
We were bottom on Saturday night and knew that only a win on Teesside would lift us above Bolton Wanderers and Burton Albion and keep us in touch with Birmingham City in the scramble to avoid the FA Cup First Round, the Checkatrade Trophy and the ignominy of being seen as “the worst-run club in English football” eclipsing even Coventry City and Blackburn Rovers.
And we could have done it if, in the first six minutes, Lewis Grabban had put away a straightforward chance and if our defence (and I use the term lightly) had been able to show a modicum of ability to prevent debutant Marcus Tavernier from scoring the only goal.
I could have gone home at 12.21 and I would have missed nothing.
Once again, we showed that we have no pace, no strength and no guile. Robbie Stockdale and Billy McKinlay picked what they could; out went Williams, Matthews and McManaman from Simon Grayson’s last team and in came McNair, Cattermole and Jones and it made very little difference.
We started with Ndong wide on the right and, initially, he did well. He picked up a ball, cut inside and forced a save out of a shaky Randolph in the Middlesbrough goal. Grabban looked certain to score from the rebound but he failed to beat the keeper from three yards. On such things does a club’s history turn.
Down the field went the home team, Downing slipped in a fine pass to Braithwaite, who was allowed to run by Wilson and his low cross was turned in at the near post by Tavernier who had got in front of Jones – which is the footballing equivalent of stealing sweets from a toddler; too damn easy.
And that was that. We needed to score twice to go ahead and then prevent the opposition from scoring again. The chances of that were so remote that a feeling of resignation descended upon the away support and never lifted.
As the game went on, that absence of pace and strength became ever more apparent. Our players were easily shrugged off the ball by the Middlesbrough players. When we broke, the only one who showed any inclination to get into the danger areas was Ndong and he soon got fed up with being knocked over by those big, nasty bullies in the red shirts.
Gibson took the brunt of the supports frustration and it would be fair to say that he is already being proposed as a cast iron certainty for the “Worst Ever Sunderland X1”.
He lacks any pace, is easily dispossessed, cannot tackle and his passing is atrocious. Apart from that he does well. What the two joint managers were doing selecting him above the piece of latticework from the old main stand that stands in the car park, beggars belief.
Cattermole fared no better. At the risk of boring the readership even more, he is horribly exposed in this division, partly as a result of his many injuries and partly because he cannot cover up his deficiencies by running around and trying to prevent others from playing.
Here, in the Championship, he has to win the ball, go forward with it and then use it to find a Sunderland player. He is seriously deficient in all three now.
At the back, we have two central defenders whose total age is the same as mine and it shows. O’Shea was the pick of the two but that is damning him with faint praise – a bit like saying that Mike Winters was not as objectionable as Bernie.
Nowhere in the team is there any form of pattern and/or organisation and the recently departed manager and his coaching staff have to take some responsibility for this. Middlesbrough did not play well but you could see what they were trying to do. We just give the ball away either by appalling passing, feeble ball retention or by hoofing it up the field.
This is a recipe for disaster and whoever comes in needs to look very carefully at the players who joined in the summer. At the moment, only Grabban and possibly McGeady are worth a place.
There needs to be some energy in midfield and a desire to move forward instead of going backwards all the time.
Successive managers have done this from Bruce to the last incumbent and, apart from frustrating the life out of the dwindling support, it makes us so easy to read. Opposition managers and coaches must give instructions to their players to hold their ground in front of us in the knowledge that we will eventually pass the ball back and ultimately give it away. We are utterly incapable of hurting our opponents.
We now have some time to appoint someone else to try to cobble a team out of this ragbag that has been put together by successive managers. We are losing touch with those above us and we are a soft touch for any half decent team. Millwall and Villa will be looking forward to playing us and Burton Albion will see the fixture in three weeks’ time as an ideal opportunity to clamber away from the relegation zone, leaving us sitting in it, bereft of ideas, tactics and any worthwhile future.
Thirty years ago, relegation to the third tier was seen as an opportunity to re-form and rebuild. We appointed a good manager who brought in some good players and got the ones already at the club to perform to the best of their ability. It was an enjoyable season as we stormed back and won promotion to the top league two years later.
This time all the signs point to a wretched relegation, one where the players show no fight and the club dies on its feet. Barring the second coming of a Roy Keane like figure or the discovery of a betting ring involving at least three of our fellow Championship colleagues, we are heading on that mythical one way ticket to Palookaville- or, if you don’t like the Americanism, Rochdale, Fleetwood and Walsall.
As for Middlesbrough, I didn’t think much of them but they had enough to beat us. They forced one excellent save out of Ruiter (at last, a competent display from a Sunderland keeper) and got stronger in defence as the game wore on. To put it simply, they were organised and they did the simple things right. Sometimes that is all you need.
* a total of 257 voted in the poll. Almost 57 per cent said Wear-Tees games are not derbies, only 42 per cent that they are. Three ‘other’ answers were offered: ‘there’s always been a Tyne-Tees or Wear-Tees derby; ‘Leeds’ and “it’s their derby not ours’.
Congratulations to Bill Harris for winning the debate. Monsieur Salut came second.