It’s never over until the fat lady sings. With a strict exercise regime and sensible dietary arrangements, Pete Sixsmith is well on his way to becoming a much slimmer version of the Sixer we know and love. Let’s hope it doesn’t affect his voice or his writing, as Adele reportedly fears could happen to her. Having endured some of the worst football of his half century of following Sunderland, Pete shared the general appreciation of a vastly improved second half of the season and the pulsating finish. Here is his end-of-season review, which ends the series.
See other contributions to the series at https://safc.blog/category/end-of-season-reviews-2016/
If Charles Dickens were a Sunderland supporter, he could use the titles of some of his books to describe how he felt about the club we follow.
Great Expectations at the start of each season, Our Mutual Friend when thinking of Jack Colback and The Old Curiosity Shop when looking at the players that De Fanti and Congerton have brought into the club over the last three years. Then there is Bleak House which would be apt for any Sunderland fan if Dick Advocaat lingered any longer and had Sam Allardyce not stepped in to pull things round.
But the obvious one for the North East would be A Tale of Two Cities as one of the region’s three cities retained its Premier League place while the other two were relegated. The demise of Durham City may have escaped your attention; that of Newcastle United certainly won’t have.
The most famous line in Dickens’s take on the French Revolution comes in the opening sentence – “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” – and both of those extremes apply to the season that has just ended.
Best of times? That win over Everton which kept us up and confined our local rivals to trips to Burton Albion, Rotherham United and either Barnsley or Millwall.
Worst of times? Where to start; five defeats in a row in December? Johnson and Byrne? Eboue and Alvarez? The first 10 games where we only took three points from 30?
Let’s look at the positives first. We stayed up. For the fourth season running we dodged the bullet with a couple of spectacular wins (three to be precise) and retained our place in the bottomless well of money that is the Premier League.
That a club with the sixth highest average gate in the league (it will be the fifth next season) celebrates this every year is hardly acceptable, but this time we did it in style, winning at Norwich and then winning our last two home games.
There had been a steady improvement since January when Kone, Kirchhoff and Khazri joined us and a win over Manchester United and a succession of draws kept us in the frame as Newcastle and Norwich failed to move ahead of us.
The game that probably kept us up was the win at Carrow Road. Had we lost that, we were down and the Canaries would have been free to wave their clappers on Match of the Day next season.
We won it in some style and with a performance that showed that not only do we have a splendid team spirit but that we also have some good players. From that moment on, Norwich were doomed and we were able to build up some momentum which lifted us out of the Burton Zone.
The first half of the season was awful. It was reminiscent of 2002-03 when we went down with barely a whimper, playing some awful football under Peter Reid and then Howard Wilkinson and throwing in the towel before Mick McCarthy arrived.
Our first win arrived in October when Advocaat had left and Allardyce had arrived but we only won one more until we beat Swansea in January. Then the transformation happened as new players came in and those who were either not good enough or were lacking in moral fibre were shipped out.
Sam’s signings made the difference but do not underestimate the shipping out. Serial underachiever Steven Fletcher went, never good enough Danny Graham departed, plodding Sebastian Coates took off to Lisbon and Emanuelle Giaccherini was on an early flight to Bologna.
A new dressing room meant a new attitude. Unhappy and unsettled players were out, players with something to prove came in.
Despite being told that we had lost the transfer window by not signing the likes of Townsend and Shelvey, our new players produced the goods.
Kone made himself an instant hero by flattening YaYa Toure and then scoring a winner against Manchester United. Khazri played with a smile on his face, something rarely seen from Fletcher or Graham. Kirchhoff proved to be an absolute bargain and a tribute to the scouting team that Allardyce brought with him.
It all fell into place and there was a consistent improvement with the only defeat coming at home to a Leicester City side who believed that if only they could beat Sunderland, they would win the league. OK, maybe not.
We should have won at Southampton and at the Sports Direct and had we done so, we would have been sitting pretty in 15th or 16th place in the final table.
Both wins would have been rewards for playing some good football against a side pushing for Europe and a side who were our local rivals. The Magnificent Seven did not quite come off but that point proved to be a valuable one at the end of the season.
And then it all came to a head in that final week with the wins over Chelsea and Everton.
The Chelsea one was the one that kept us up and showed how organised and together we were. They played well but we were better and the crowd willed us over the line. Three glorious goals and a noise that was reminiscent of that when Kevin Phillips put the equaliser in against the Mags in 2000, when Vic Halom scored against Manchester City in 1973 and when Willie McPheat equalised against Spurs in 1961.
The Everton game turned out to be a formality with a carnival atmosphere on Wearside and a funereal one on Tyneside. The smiles and beams were as wide as the Wear that night as our participation in the richest league in the world was guaranteed for another year.
Allardyce did a great job, taking a bunch of players who appeared to be unfit and disinterested and turning them into a decent team by May. Defoe was wonderful, Borini scored a crucial goal against Palace, Kaboul recovered from a wretched opening half of the season – anyone who saw his feeble performance at Bournemouth would not have recognised the man who controlled the back four from March onwards – and Mannone rightly re-claimed his goalkeeper jersey.
There were disappointments. Jeremain Lens showed little aptitude for the fight and developed a series of “illnesses” and strains. Jack Rodwell still looks nothing like the young tyro who was so well thought of at Goodison Park and there are still players who just aren’t good enough at this level.
Hopefully with a decent pre-season (it has been rumoured that we are heading to Austria for a training camp and Portugal and Spain for games) we can make a better start and not wait until we have sacked the manager before we win a game – and there is no Newcastle to help us out this time.
As for the negatives, we could go on until the cows come home. It is clear that the Johnson issue was poorly handled by the club and many will see Sunderland AFC in a negative light because of this. Johnson was found guilty and was given an appropriate sentence while the chief executive resigned from her (very) well paid job.
From a footballing point of view, we lost a good player in Johnson but replaced him with someone (Khazri) who gave us something different. Maybe the dressing room was a happier place without his brooding presence.
We also made a mess of the Alvarez situation and could end up having to cough up money to Inter Milan for his transfer – it could be as much as £8m. “Bit of a cock up on the transfer document front” as Reggie Perrin’s brother-in-law would have said. We had another one with Eboue but that appears to be down to his refusal to deal with his agent. His failure to sign sparked off a good run of form by Yedlin.
In The Observer I gave us a 7/10 for the season, based purely on the last three months when we could see genuine improvement. If I were breaking the season down into segments this is how it would go;
Pre season 2/10: the only plus from this fiasco was that we had to play Toronto in a friendly as part of the Defoe/Altidore deal. Can you imagine Jozy scoring 15 Premier League goals? We even lost to Doncaster Rovers.
First 10 games 1/10: a good performance against West Ham was the only bright spot in a terrible start. Dick Advocaat did the right thing and walked away.
October to January 3/10: we beat Newcastle, Palace and Stoke and were hammered at Everton. Allardyce clearly worked out who he did and didn’t want during this spell. We just managed to keep in touch. Thank goodness for Steve McClaren.
January to March 6/10: new arrivals and much needed departures gave us a fighting chance. Always a pleasure to beat Manchester United and we almost made it 7 in a row.
April to May 8/10: we never looked back after winning at Norwich. The Chelsea game was as intense as anything seen at the Stadium of Light. The Everton game was one to stay in the memory for a long time for ensuring we stayed up and Newcastle went down. Watford was a hoot.
That’s a total of 20/40 which would be a 5/10. Take two off for the Johnson shambles and you get 3/10 which some may think a more appropriate score.
The Dickens quote goes on to say: “It was the season of Light, it was the season of darkness.”
Old Charlie knew what he was talking about……..
* And since Sunderland are still in the Premier League, meaning live games to watch on Sky, catch this offer which starts today and closes at midnight Monday.