As Sunderland settle in the lowest position of our 140-year history, 13th in the third tier, Pete Sixsmith continues his ramblings through the snow in his daytime job and his rambling through his memory in his spare time. But when it comes to his writing does he ramble? No, most certainly not. He does, however, have a fondness for a ’conspicuous repetition of identical initial consonant sounds in successive or closely associated syllables within a group of words, even those spelled differently´ (thank you, Wikipedia). So be prepared for a stirring story, a heartwarming helping, an intelligent interlude, a… … let’s just let the man himself do the business.
THE POYET PERIOD
Regular readers will know that I am fond of alliteration, something that I put down to the influence, malign or otherwise, of Geoff Hill and Jackie Shrimpton at Bishop Auckland Grammar School back in the dim and distant past when names like Hurley, Harvey and Herd graced the red and white stripes rather than the Maguires, McLaughlin’s and McNulty’s that we have now. That fondness for alliteration has somewhat dissipated as I note that Messrs Hill and Shrimpton’s ideas were copied by the beaks at Eton who taught Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, Eng Lang and Lit in exactly the same way. If Johnson likes it, Sixsmith doesn’t.
But the Poyet Period was a good heading for a manager who had a stonking (another Johnsonism that won’t appear again) first eight months before spaffing it (last reference to our Glorious Prime Minister) up the wall in his second. Sounds familiar?
After Paolo Di Canio left to brood amongst his black shirts and back copies of Il Duce’s newspaper La Lotta di Classe, Ellis Short began the search for a relatively sane manager. There was a pattern emerging that suggests that he wasn’t keen to pay compensation to another club after Wigan overcharged us for Steve Bruce, so anyone available was likely to be hired – same old, same old as they may say in political circles. Step forward Gustavo Augusto Poyet Dominguez who was currently “resting” after leaving Brighton and Hove Albion due to a spat with their “deadly rivals” Crystal Palace in a playoff game at the end of the previous season.
A former Chelsea player, he had followed Dennis (taxi for) Wise to Swindon Town and Leeds United and then joined Andrea Vilas Boas at Tottenham before getting his big break at Brighton and taking them into the Championship.
He started with a depressing 0-4 defeat at Swansea City, where we managed to concede two own goals and a penalty and which gave him some idea of the magnitude of the task that confronted him. This task was made no easier by the fact that his next game was at home to our friends from the north, who thirsted for revenge after Di Canio’s exuberant celebrations six months earlier. He selected a team that included but two of the pre-season signings – those being a thug of a left back called Andrea Dossena and a carthorse of a centre forward in Jozy Altidore. Steven Fletcher, restored to the team after falling out of favour with our very own Il Duce, opened the scoring with a header before Mathieu Debuchy equalised in the second half.
Off came an ineffectual Adam Johnson and on went a keen Fabio Borini, who had done very little since his arrival on loan from Liverpool just before the closing of the transfer window. Within fifteen minutes of his arrival, he scored the goal which made him an all-time Wearside Hero when he thundered a shot past Tim Krul to win the game in the dying minutes and heralded the Borini hand biting celebration that we saw quite a lot of as the season unfurled.
‘With his passing a little bit of me went, too’ – Sixer’s magnificent tribute to Billy Hughes at https://safc.blog/2019/12/billy-hughes-sixers-appreciation/
So, the Gus Bus was on the road. The next week we went to Hull City, managed by Steve “they never took to me because I was a Geordie” Bruce and with a team that had Paul McShane, David Meyler and Ahmed Elmohamady in it. We managed to play the whole second half with nine men as Cattermole and Dossena were sent off by Andre Marriner, a referee whose name is a synonym for incompetence – although he got both decisions right in this case.
After that, we won a couple, drew a couple and lost a couple before there was a mini-revival at Christmas. A rare win at Goodison Park thanks to a coolly taken Ki penalty and an excellent defensive display by Roberge and Diakite, was followed up by a 2-2 draw with relegation rivals Cardiff City, where we scored two late goals. Throw in a win over Manchester United in the League Cup semi-final first leg and we looked to be on the mend.
There was an elegant if rather brittle Argentine central defender, Santiago Vergini, a striker with a good reputation in his fellow countryman Ignacio Scocco and an Argentine goalkeeper in Oscar Ustari. Liam Bridcutt arrived from Brighton and Hove Albion and the piece de resistance was a splendid Spanish full back, Marcos Alonso, who had played for Real Madrid and er, Bolton Wanderers before moving to Fiorentina. He swapped the banks of the Arno for those of the Wear and oozed quality in his time in the red and white stripes.
Newcastle were beaten at the Sports Direct (no horses were punched or suit trousers torn this time), where Jack Colback quelled the mutinous hordes with a fine goal to wrap it up and we were off to Wembley to take on Manchester City in the League Cup Final. We gave them a game as well with Borini scoring a fine goal (cue more hand biting) and then almost breaking away for a second before a wonderful tackle by Vincent Kompany halted him. City equalised soon after and won comfortably enough in the end, leaving us free to concentrate on avoiding the drop.
The week after, the first cracks began to appear in the Poyet façade as we lost a Sixth Round FA Cup tie 3-0 at Hull City. Gus made changes, they were not well received by the travelling support and when we began to concede goals in a 10-minute spell, there was moaning and groaning from the element of the support that turns out for short trip cup games.
This defeat was followed by a serious blip and by the time we were walloped at White Hart Lane and unluckily beaten at home by Everton, the game looked up and we were staring into the abyss. But Gus and his team rallied it round again and we finished the season in sparkling form, drawing at Eastlands, winning at Stamford Bridge and then beating Cardiff City 4-0 in what was really a relegation decider.
There was a fine 1-0 win over Manchester United at Old Trafford, the first time I had seen us win there since I was at school in 1968 (Mulhall and Suggett) and Mike Clark, who was at Uni in Manchester hit a rozzer on the helmet with a well-aimed apple core and then Colback and Borini scored against West Bromwich Albion to keep us up.
Hands were bitten in tribute to the Italian, but he returned to Liverpool to fight for his place there and Marcos Alonso went back to Florence, exchanging Sunderland Museum and its walrus – the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s poem – for the Uffizi Gallery and Michelangelo’s David.
It was a good season with loads of ups and downs as we went from relegation certainties to European possibles, back to relegation candidates and then the proponents of the Great Escape Volume 2. The future looked bright, the future looked Poyet.
And then we had a poor recruitment period in the summer. Sound familiar?
In came Santiago Vergini (permanently), Will Buckley (known to Poyet from his Brighton days), Billy Jones (the ultimate honest plodder), Jordi Gomez (why?), Costel Pantilimon (very tall), Patrick van Aanholt (a defender who couldn’t defend), Jack Rodwell (hmmm), Seb Coates (a Uruguayan) and Ricky Alvarez (who could still bankrupt the club).
Of those, only PvA improved as a player and improved the team and that was because Sam Allardyce taught him how to defend. The rest were poor signings and in the cases of Rodwell and Alvarez, players who defined the plight that Sunderland AFC were in. Many of them were brought in by the new director of football, Lee Congerton, in conjunction with Poyet and the chief executive Margaret Byrne, an Irish lawyer known to Ellis Short and with no background or interest in football [my possibly faulty memory tells me she may previously have . been a member of the SAFCSA London branch – Ed].
Of course, all this is with hindsight, but we looked at Buckley, Jones and Gomez who were all journeymen and wondered why they had been signed when we might already have had better options in the club.
It was an unhappy season – as most have been since we started Salut! Sunderland. There was a crushing 8-0 defeat at Southampton, where a young man called Sadio Mane tore us apart and we managed to score three own goals, including a splendid one by Vergini, when he produced a volley that Vic Halom would have been proud of.
There was a last-minute win at the Sports Direct courtesy of Adam Johnson which saw Alan Pardew curl his lip up so much that it covered his nose and a stirring game at Eastlands where we came back from two down only to concede straight away.
But any plan that Gus had had gone out of the window and it was the usual “let’s muddle through and see how it goes” thinking that has so blighted Sunderland AFC in the time that I have been going. A defeat at Bradford City (managed by Phil Parkinson) in the FA Cup, a game in which Jon Stead managed to score, was the beginning of the end for the struggling Uruguayan and a press conference where he appeared to blame the support for the troubles did him no favours.
The axe fell after a game at home to Aston Villa which saw the visitors four up at half time and a mass exodus by many fans who had had enough of supine displays by players who seemed to have lost faith in yet another manager. The nails were banged in the coffin lid a couple of days later as I sipped an Americano in Shildon’s Costa Coffee – our one concession to the modern,barista trend.
The last piece of business that Poyet supervised was the arrival of Jermain Defoe and the departure of Jozy Altidore. Defoe did enough to show that he could be as much an asset as Jozy had been a liability and played a crucial part in keeping us up under Dick and Sam in the next 18 months.
But that’s a story for another time.