No one will thank me for the reminder of a painful anniversary but on this day 11 days ago, more accurately the evening of Dec 9 2002, Sunderland lost 3-0 at home to Manchester City.
Earlier that day, as I have recalled here before, I had joined a queue at Canary Wharf, where I then worked, to buy a couple of copies of Niall Quinn’s autobiography and have them signed by the great man, who was out of the team because of injury.
For my copy, I asked for some message about the night he’d scored the winner and later, after Tommy Sorensen was carried off, kept goal at Bradford City in March 1999. This he did with the words: “To Colin. From a pretend Goalie! (v. Bradford) – Love, Niall Quinn). If you look at the photograph I took of the message, you’ll also notice a smudge of cold coffee on the page – it happened as I fiddled with the book, mug with camera at the same time.
Then I asked him to sign a copy for Pete Sixsmith. Despite the awful state Sunderland were in – 18th – I suggested something upbeat, offering hope of survival. After a short pause for thought, he wrote simply: “Keep the faith.” By the end of the night we were 19th; Howard Wilkinson was no kind of saviour and Sunderland were relegated with the first of our two record-creating lows, 19 points.
Keeping the faith is hard just now under Gus Poyet. I still cannot blame him for the mess we’re in even if starting with both Fletcher and Altidore against Spurs looked hazardous. But it’s a mess whichever way you look at it and even though we try to take comfort from the “easier” home games to come, relegation is unlikely to be avoided on home form alone however good that may now become.
But I have done my best to strike a positive tone, or at least mitigate the negativity, in my reflections at ESPNFC.com on Saturday night’s game and where it leaves us.
You can read the whole piece here – http://espnfc.com/blog/_/name/sunderland/id/2520?cc=5739 – but here is an extract, looking as in 2002 for some straws to clutch:
The season is still only 15 games in. Although the gap between Sunderland and a position of safety is now six points, there are still 69 to play for between now and May; 33 of those will be at stake in the matches against the eight teams immediately above. All six clubs that were expected, when the season started, to occupy top-six places at its end have been and gone to Sunderland. It was a cruel opening run of home games but that run is over.
What it means, first of all, is that life ought to become easier at the Stadium of Light. If Sunderland cannot beat the likes of Norwich City, Aston Villa and Stoke City – three of the next four visiting teams – and at least draw against the other one, Southampton, they do not deserve salvation. Equally, the next sequence of away games – West Ham, Everton, Cardiff and Fulham – includes only one, at Goodison, from which only a supreme optimist would find reason to expect any return. That six-point deficit could, in other words, be whittled away between now and the end of January.
That was as far as the forced optimism went. My next words were “now back to the real world” and I noted, as Pete has done, the downbeat nature of Poyet’s post-match remarks. The e-mail sent out by the club on his behalf was very late and included an implied admission that try as the players might, they simply are not good enough.
This, and Pete’s doom-laden Soapbox, might have been very different had Lee Mason awarded the penalty that, by common consent, ought to have followed Sandro’s elaborate use of his arm. A draw or even a late Steven Fletcher winner would have done wonders for our morale – and also Fletcher’s after his bad first half miss and subsequent weak headers – but Spurs had already looked capable of running away with the game in the second half.
My fear is that for all the fanciful calculations about points from games that look on paper winnable, we rarely look like winning even against moderate opposition. I long for Poyet’s players to prove me wrong, starting with back-to-back wins at West Ham and against Norwich but would be lying if I concluded by saying that was what I expected to happen.
Perhaps Niall was right. All we can do is keep the faith. Your views welcome.
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