Once again, a series of Salut! Sunderland end of season reviews has inspired our writers to show remarkable powers of analysis, foresight and wit. Pete Sixsmith opened the series, with his brief jottings for The Observer, and will close it with his broader, post-Advocaat view. For the penultimate instalment, our deputy editor Malcolm Dawson cries out for consistency, progress and, above all, some football he can actually enjoy watching …
I started my review of season 2013/14 by quoting the words of Irving Berlin, “Blue skies, shining on me – nothing but blue skies do I see”.
Well a look back at Sixer’s Sevens and Soapboxes of this past season highlights just how much dross and disappointment we had to endure.
Once again we fans ended on a high (if 16th spot can be called a high) but for most of the campaign the skies were grey. It was the coming of the Little General who, as Zoe (Pollock) said in her hit from the 90s, brought some sunshine on a rainy day.
There was a point in the season where I, like most supporters I spoke to, fully expected us to fill the third relegation spot. I saw no way forward when I left my seat in the Stadium of Light at full time after the shambles that was the Aston Villa game. Indeed I was convincing myself that dropping into the Championship might not be a bad thing (as this item shows).
From a spectator’s perspective the Championship (or Division 2 as we old gits still prefer to call it) offered the prospect of entertaining, competitive football, more enjoyable away days and optimistic pre-match banter and beer before home games.
That was the point in the season when, true to my working class roots, I would have preferred instant gratification in the form of an FA Cup final to the deferred satisfaction that Premier League survival and a rise to midtable mediocrity, à la Stoke City, Southampton or Swansea would bring. Even at the cost of relegation.
I had started the season in a positive mood. Poyet, I thought, was a forward looking, intelligent coach who was trying not only to build a successful, entertaining side, but also to shake up the structure of the club to ensure long-term success. I confess I thought he would be there for the long haul and bring the much-needed stability we were all craving after a string of managerial upheavals, ketchupgate etc.
The summer signings, whilst not exciting me too much, looked like decent enough players who would take us into that comfortable mid-table slot. Rodwell especially seemed to be an indication that well thought of internationals saw Sunderland as a viable employer and Gomez had been player of the season at Wigan. I saw Jones and van Aanholt as a symbol of attacking intent with marauding full backs who wanted to get the ball into the box for our waiting strikers.
Now that was an area that worried me. Fletcher had proved in the past he could be a natural goalscorer but I had my doubts about Wickham, backed up by reports from an inside source about his attitude. But then again, hadn’t he come good during the “Great Escape” to show he had talent and knew where the goal was? I hoped he would kick on. As for Altidore, the less said the better. If he had managed to find the net with that sitter against West Brom at the back end of the previous season he may have come good. Just like he might have done if his goal against Arsenal hadn’t been disallowed. Then again he probably wouldn’t have and the summer had been wasted in the fruitless pursuit of Fabio Borini who, hero as he was, never seriously looked like signing. We were left with the unknown quantity that was Ricky Alvarez.
We weren’t too long into the season before I began to question Poyet’s method. The tiki taka keep possession approach is all well and good if you have players with the quality of Ozil or Hazard, but my great fear with our players was that eventually one of them would slip up and give the ball away in a dangerous position without the opposition having to do much – other than keep the gaps closed and wait for a mistake. I lost count of the number of times that happened and the two goals Arsenal got at the Stadium of Light would have been laughable had they been against any other team than us.
We were picking up points but mainly in singles. Draw all your games and you only end up with 38 points. The problem I had with the Poyet method was that we were more likely to concede than score and as it turned out we needed the ten points we got under Advocaat to reach that target. I’m certain we wouldn’t have got them if Gus had stayed in charge.
Two examples that convinced me he was too rigid in his approach were over Christmas and New Year. Firstly against The Mags at what then was still the O3 Arena. Here was a match where we showed attacking intent, took the game to them and always looked the more likely to score. That it took until the last minute was a psychological bonus as it gave them no time to get one back and it showed what we could do with a positive approach. Our goal was hardly threatened and we could easily have had more.
The second was on New Year’s Day – Manchester City at the Etihad. Defending deep for much of the game I was sure that we would concede and concede we did. It was only then that we started to push higher up the field, create a few chances and despite going 2-0 down we got back on level terms and almost got a draw. We even had chances to win it but only after we had given away the advantage.
Those games convinced me that Poyet needed to rethink his ideas but as the season stuttered on that never looked like coming. Eventually he went and I found myself celebrating Advocaat’s ability to turn things round. I was as happy as any Sunderland fan with the way things went and like my Leicester City-supporting friends glad that we would have another season in the Premier.
But I don’t need another season like the last three. I want to see a team playing with intent and if they are going to go down, to go down fighting. Too often this past season I have left the Stadium of Light disappointed in our performance, frustrated by our tactics and depressed by the results. It’s all well and good hanging on to the megabucks that continued membership of the top flight brings, but I want to be entertained for my entrance money.
* All contributions to the End of Season Review series can be seen at https://safc.blog/category/end-of-season-reviews-2015/