John McCormick writes: for me, this piece by Pete Sixsmith brings back many memories. I was at Goodison when we lost, and at Spurs when Kirchhoff came on and a young keeper who would go on to play for England couldn’t hold back the tide. I saw us come back to snatch that point at Anfield as well. But the game that sticks out, of all the ones below, is one I never got to. The 1-0 win against the Mags. I was intending to go but stayed in Liverpool. My daughter gave birth that day, two weeks late. I have a print of Defoe’s goal ready to give to my granddaughter when she’s old enough to appreciate what she made me miss…
THE LITTLE GENERAL AND BIG SAM
The Poyet period came to an end on the Monday after the Villa debacle. Kevin Ball would have had his best suit cleaned as he anticipated a spell as caretaker manager while any number of names were put forward to be the next manager. But no. There was a plan, a plan as surprising as the one that brought Paolo Di Canio to the club, but which was far less divisive and suggested that moves had been made to replace the Uruguayan before Villa confirmed it. In came a genuine “Big Name” in Dick Advocaat, a man whose managerial career had been both varied and successful. He hadn’t been a great player, spending his time in the Eredivisie and the NASL with a variety of clubs, but as a coach he learnt at the feet of the great Rinus Michels and had a very impressive cv of his own.
At club level, he had been in charge of Rangers, PSV Eindhoven, Zenit St Petersburg, Borussia Monchengladbach and AZ67, while he had international experience with the Netherlands, the United Arab Emirates, South Korea, Serbia and Belgium. When he pitched up at Sunderland at the age of 68, it was surely a short term appointment to dig us out of another fine mess we had got ourselves into.
His first game was at Upton Park, where the Hammers were managed by Sam Allardyce, a man not universally loved by the tedious bubble singers, who demanded quality football, despite never having won anything other than a couple of cups and lots of promotions. Both men had reputations for being defensively minded. Advocaat liked to move the ball up the field on the ground while Allardyce preferred a more aerial approach. The clash between the two was not a classic and was won by the Hammers thanks to a late goal from Diafra Sakho.
Advocaat then went into a crucial derby game the week after and became an instant hero. A stunning strike by Jermain Defoe won the game and acted as a spur for the team as points were picked up, culminating in an incredibly tense 0-0 draw at Ashburton Grove on a Wednesday night where I spent the last 15 minutes walking around Peter Horan’s garden willing Arsenal not to score. The reaction of players and manager afterwards showed that the Little General had created a bond and his tears said it all. He thanked the club, the players and support and headed back to the Netherlands to enjoy a well earned retirement (and bonus) with Mrs Advocaat.
But he was persuaded to change his mind, came back and was plunged into the desperate world of Sunderland AFC’s transfer “policy ». He agitated for Jermain Lens and Ola Toivanen and got his way. He was probably pleased to see Yann M’Vila come in and Younes Kaboul looked a decent signing as well, as did the return of Fabio Borini, this time on a permanent contract. Adam Matthews arrived from Celtic and DeAndre Yedlin from Spurs and it looked as if we had a squad that might actually do something.
That illusion lasted for 25 minutes of the first game at Leicester City where we managed to concede three in that period and ended up losing 4-2 to a rampant City side who, as we know, went on to win the title. Our defenders could not deal with the speed and pace of Mahrez and Vardy and the mood was not lifted the week after when newly promoted Norwich won 3-1 on Wearside. Further defeats to Tottenham, Manchester United and Bournemouth followed and by October we were bottom of the league, without a win and playing some poor football. Dick fell on his sword, said he should never have come back and gave the club an international break to find a replacement, leaving very little behind bar that stunning Defoe winner and that fraught night in North London where we hung on to stay up.
Names were bandied about. A friend who is an avid Burnley fan rang me one afternoon and bemoaned the fact that we were about to take Sean Dyche from the Turf – which would have been interesting. Instead, we looked for a manager for whom we would not have to pay compensation and, with Sam Allardyce available and interested in reviving the fortunes of a club he had played for and worked at as a coach, it was inevitable and for many, desirable that he should come in as manager.
He had a mixed bag of players to work with and no transfer window until January. He lost his opener at West Bromwich Albion and had a home derby to look forward to for the next game. This was the fourth time in a row that a newly appointed manager faced the Mags in his second game. Allardyce joined Di Canio, Poyet and Advocaat in getting his first Sunderland win against the old enemy, repeating the 3-0 scorelines from past days at the Sports Direct. Adam Johnson from the spot, Billy Jones (honestly) and Steven Fletcher were the heroes that day as once and future England managers pitted their wits against each other. Sam rejoiced, Schteeve complained and all seemed well in the world. The week after, we lost 6-2 at Everton.
By January, we were struggling but not lost off. Allardyce used the market well and brought in four players, three of whose names began with K – Kirchhoff, Kone and Khazri plus Dame N’Doye.
Jan Kirchhoff’s debut was not inspiring. He came off the bench at White Hart Lane when it was 1-1, slotted into the back four and had a nightmare as we lost 4-1. Kone and Khazri made their debuts in a 1-0 home defeat to Manchester City, where Kone won the support over by flattening Yaya Toure and Kirchhoff showed that he was a better midfield player than central defender.
A week later we snatched a 2-2 draw at Anfield and then went on to beat Manchester United at the SoL with a thundering header from the impressive Kone winning it late on. There seemed to be some buzz about the team. Allardyce taught Patrick van Aanholt how to defend, Kone and O’Shea linked up well at the back as did Kone and Kaboul later and in Khazri, Defoe and Borini, we had pace and guile up front. And Kirchhoff was majestic in midfield – if a trifle fragile.
It all came together one Saturday afternoon in Norfolk where one of the most controlled Sunderland performances of the Salut era saw us beat Norwich City 3-0, the week after they had beaten Newcastle to give them hope. Goals from Borini (pen) Defoe and Watmore sent us home happy and confident that we were staying up and the Mags were going down and we went through the last five games unbeaten including splendid victories over Chelsea and Everton to retain our place at the top table and to look forward to many more years under Big Sam.
For me, the star of that season was Yann M’Vila. He was on loan from Rubin Kazan in the Russian League and, as the season progressed, looked better and better. In that run in, he was magnificent, picking up the ball, moving it on, tackling fiercely and fairly and showing us that he was a player of the utmost quality. Whoever brought him to the club, be it Advocaat or Congleton, deserved a huge pat on the back.
- It was Allardyce who got the best out of him, though, and he also brought good players to the club in Kirchhoff, Khazri and Kone. The latter looked like a man we could build a team around. The spine looked so strong – Kone, M’Vila and Defoe and with the addition of a better goalkeeper than either Pantilimon or Mannone, both of whom were liable to make crucial errors, the future looked bright.
And then England relieved Roy Hodgson of his duties after a disastrous European Championship and the FA came calling for Sam.