Sixer was otherwise engaged so Monsieur Salut offers some thoughts from the Emirates …
When Pete Sixsmith leaves County Durham (or Tyne and Wear) to watch Sunderland, his post-match reports turn into witty travelogues, with tales of splendid pints of real ale quaffed in wonderful old pubs, combined with incisive analysis of the football. Henry Winter and Louise Taylor, writers I admire, generally do without the first part – and do the second no better than Sixer.
So if I announce now that my afternoon started at a contender for worst pub in England, and continued with a match that had me wondering “who did that?” if the action took place at the other end from Sunderland’s K block of the Emirates, you’ll have an idea of what is coming or, rather, not coming. This will be no match for a classic Pete Soapbox.
I’ll get to the game soon enough. But Pete, as many readers know, does a spot of Christmas moonlighting as Santa on Polar Express trains in Weardale or in other locations. Saturday found him on one of these Pere Noel ho-ho-ho shifts in a restaurant far from North London.
Mick and Gerry Wood, arriving from the admirable Lamb pub in Lamb’s Conduit Street, one of Sixer’s favoured pre-match watering holes and handy for the few remaining Piccadilly Line stops from Kings Cross to Arsenal, said they couldn’t remember a trip to see us at the Gunners without seeing Sixer, Sobs, assorted others or me there, too.
“Heaving at the Lamb,” Gerry said, “but only with a works do or something. None of our lot at all. But great beer all the same.”
At 2.35pm outside entrance K, a cold wind rattling around the head, that rankled. I’d been late in setting off, the Tube was a little slower than expected and I was due to collect my ticket at the ground at 2pm. Lambs Conduit Street seemed a diversion too far. Instead of Young’s Bitter at the Lamb, I had a disgusting pint of John Smith’s (has a good pint of JS existed in the past 30 years?) in the Drayton Park, a redbrick corner pub just over one of those bridges leading to and from the stadium. It looked like a proper pub and had loads of Sunderland fans inside, with Stoke vs Man City on the TV screen, but let me down badly.
Worst pub in England is probably very harsh – many, many more around the country also offer no draught alternative to undrinkable smooth flow – but can a pub be called a pub if John Smith’s is only bitter they serve?
They cannot be blamed for the fast food stall outside, which supplied a perfectly acceptable sausage sandwich but could not offer salt for the chips that followed five minutes later. “Wind blew it away,” said the gaffer. “Ask Maria over there.” Maria, who had been unable to offer chips (“too windy” was a moveable matchday excuse), obliged.
I still didn’t have my ticket. Stan Simpson, stalwart of the Durham SAFCSA branch, arrived in the nick of time. I’d met so many SAFC-supporting acquaintances outside the entrance that the wait hadn’t really mattered. Eric, from the SAFCSA London branch, who once upon a time secured tickets for me, was there waiting for his. I bumped into a few other London branch members plus John, a 68-year-old plasterer from Shotton with a spare ticket. As the minutes ticked by, I was tempted. He’d offlaoded it before Stan arrived, having waited at the first security cordon after being assured, wrongly, that I wouldn’t have been allowed through without a ticket.
Inside, I consoled myself that the delay had stopped me consuming even viler beer in the concourse. Then I took my seat to watch a first-half display of solid defending, passing movement and pace that had me wondering whether Big Sam had magical powers.
Sixer and I would have done better with that early Borini chance. Both of us have played as goalies and either would have pulled off the same Cech save. Duncan Watmore’s pass to put Borini one-on-one with the keeper had been the second best single act of the game.
I felt that for all Arsenal’s ponderous possession, we were the better side throughout the half. Other chances came and went and the clever move that opened the Gunners’ scoring was so against the tide that even this well-worked goal, Ozil’s pass (the third best of the game) setting up Joel Campbell, failed to arouse the sleeping 55,000+ home and tourist fans from their slumbers.
See my report at ESPN FC:
The Arsenal spectators, inexplicably sedate, might have been silenced altogether had Borini and Watmore been more clinical. “Not a patch on what it used to be like at Highbury,” moaned a middle-aged Arsenal regular queuing for the train home afterwards. “But younger fans who create the atmosphere are priced out these days.”
It seemed fitting that Olivier Giroud, a striker I’d love to see in our colours, should have gifted us an equaliser with his own goal just before half time. I am sure he understands enough English to understand that “cheat”, as a noun, means the same as tricheur in French. Having tried to con the referee with his slick little tumble on the edge of our penalty box, he will have known why we were chanting it. Younes Kaboul had already explained, of course, deploying his refinement of the language of Moliere into his fellow Frenchman’s ear.
One of the things I had to ask, since the goal happened at the far end, was who had taken our free kick, conceded on the touchline, if I recall correctly, when a nasty tackle on Duncan Watmore earned yet another Frenchman, Laurent Koscielny a booking. It was M’Vila, probably our best player and not for the first time.
Before their goal, I had turned to the Durham branch Mackemoiselle beside me and mentioned how well we were playing. “I’ve just told off George here for saying something like that,” she replied. Just as well she’d slipped to the little girls’ room at the very moment Campbell put Arsenal ahead.
Oddly though, I’d still been thinking we’d probably lose, since chances like those we’d missed do not come along often in Premier League games and I am fully aware of Arsenal’s attacking capabilities.
We were less effective in the second half, especially after a short spell in which Steven Fletcher drew a decent save from Cech, after the outstanding Watmore – a match-long threat to Wenger’s defence – had set him up, and then went desperately close to poking home Ola Toivonen’s glancing header from the resulting corner.
Giroud put them ahead again almost immediately and our introduction of Lens and Johnson added little to our chances of saving the game. But there was still time for Watmore, bursting behind enemy lines with the ball at his feet, and Patrick van Aanholt, clear on goal from the best pass of the game (Jack Rodwell’s, I’ll have Rodwell detractors know), to have good chances, too.
Watmore’s weak finish was the mark of a tiring man – is it still too soon for him to have full 90 minutes? – while PVA’s rising shot rose inches too high. Aaron Ramsey’s third, deep into stoppage time, was as morally irrelevant as it was cruelly unfair.
Twenty-fours on, I remain heartened by what I saw. Allardyce himself says has never seen a team of his create so many chances at Arsenal. It counts for nothing in the points tally that we such gallant losers. It matters a hell of a lot to me.
* See Monsier Salut in tour at ESPN: http://www.espnfc.com/club/sunderland/366/blog
Sunderland were unrecognisable from the shambles of a side that took until late October to win a Premier League game. The applause of the beaten supporters at the end told its own story; they have seen enough passionless, charm-free performances to be able to take comfort from defeat with honour.