Malcolm Dawson writes….There is much discussion regarding what sort of reception Big Sam will get before and during tomorrow’s game at West Ham. With this the return fixture of what was to be Big Dick’s last game in charge on Wearside and it being Allardyce’s former club and all, it seems apposite to do a brief bit on his impact to date.
Before our home game with West Ham many Sunderland fans thought the writing was on the wall and the drop was inevitable this season. Certainly Dick Advocaat thought so as it was to be his last ever game in charge and it now transpires that Allardyce was already lined up as his replacement. Dick left saying that the squad simply wasn’t good enough to stay up. Certainly we had witnessed some inept performances prior to that but the first forty five minutes of the West Ham game seemed to give lie to the theory. It’s fair to say we were all over The Hammers and fully deserved our 2-0 half time lead. But in true Sunderland fashion we let them back into the game and at full time a draw was about the right result.
For the past few years the only consistent thing about Sunderland has been the inconsistency of the team’s performance. So to let two points slip was no surprise. While I was sat in the car with Peter Sixsmith queuing in the traffic waiting to get over the Wearmouth Bridge, he got a text from a friend who worked at The Ramside where the Dutchman had been staying, to let us know that all the staff there had been given bunches of flowers and a private flight to Holland had been booked. We knew, even before the familiar strains of the Sports Report theme tune came on the car radio, that Big Dick was no more, he had ceased to be, he was a late manager.
I’ll admit Sam Allardyce would not have been my first choice as manager but he was for many and realistically was probably the only suitable candidate available. So how’s he done?
Well he’s made mistakes and some of his decisions have obviously been wrong ones. At Everton he decided to play three centre halves but unfortunately only had two fit ones. Playing former Baggie Billy Jones, a right back to on the left side of a back three had disastrous consequeces. Jones was culpable for at least two of the six we conceded at Goodison.
Against Spurs, with the team hanging on to a 1-1 scoreline he took off Danny Graham who had been covering the left back spot and put on Jan Kirchhoff, who had only been at the club five minutes, for his debut – once more with the intention of reverting to a three centre back formation. Within seconds the weakness down the left side was exposed and we were 2-1 down. Kirchhoff then made a pathetic attempt to block a shot which he deflected wide of the keeper then compounded matters by giving away a needless penalty. Another two points thrown away. But what was more confusing was that he blooded Kirchhoff rather than going with Coates who had previously played that system and would have slotted into the role naturally.
I would also say I’m not enamoured with his sometimes philosophy of defending deep and playing for a draw from the first whistle. It’s obvious of course that you don’t lose if you don’t concede but to my mind we are more likely to come away with nothing playing that way. We are always more likely to let one in than get one on the break and often it’s late in the game when the players are tiring and it’s too late to claw a way back. That said there are those games where I have been pleasantly surprised by the attacking intent shown by our boys. That’s the way forward in more ways than one, to my mind.
Where Sam has done well and won over the doubters like myself is with the business he has done in the January transfer window which is notorious for the panic buys and rubbish signings we have made in the past few years. It seems clear that Allardyce has told the owner that he is a manager and that he will control who comes and goes rather than have to work with whatever a Director of Football throws his way. We were a club hampered by the fair play rules. Our wage bill was near the maximum permitted with a lot going to players who weren’t cutting the mustard.
In January nine ineffective players went out, mostly on loan, but to my mind what shows Allardyce’s nous is how he handled the goalkeeping situation. Costel Pantillimon, a decent but not outstanding keeper was on a massive wage. But we also had Vito Mannone, a decent but not outstanding keeper on considerably less and an England U21 out on loan. Sam brought Jordan Pickford back, gave him a new contract and played him for two games where he proved his worth. Offloading Pantillimon freed up the wage bill and just to make sure we had some cover, lifelong Sunderland fan but ex-Magpie Steve Harper was brought in. How much of the Kone on/off saga was the result of the fair play rules I wonder.
Nine players went out and the dismissal of Adam Johnson makes it ten and only five have come in.
But apart from Harper, who is unlikely to even get on the subs’ bench the other four would seem to be a big improvement on those who have gone. Lamine Kone – a man mountain of a centre back. Jan Kirchhoff, who has shown his true qualities after a less than inspiring debut playing in front of the back four. Wahbi Khazri – a Tunisian forward who has impressed with his skill and work rate and Dame N’Doye – nominally a centre forward who looks better in that role than Steven Fletcher but who so far has been employed mainly on the right hand side where he has worked hard to cover the full backs in a more effective way than Danny Graham did.
Our squad is leaner but boasts more quality than it did on New Year’s Day. The last three games, at home to Manchester City where we were the better team but got nothing, away to Liverpool where we were under the cosh before the home fans’ walk out and fought back for a draw and the home win over Manchester United where again we were the superior team but this time got the three points, have given us hope. What impressed more than anything was the work rate and the attitude shown in those games. That’s what we want to see. If we’re going to go down let’s go down with a bit of fight.
Sunderland supporters often refer back to a fanzine called “It’s the Hope I Can’t Stand”. And there’s the rub. Big Sam has given us hope and from a resignation that relegation was inevitable we are now thinking we will climb above Norwich, Swansea, Crystal Palace and The Mags. A point at Upton Park would do us well and a home win on Tuesday against Pardew’s lot and we really will be believing. Is that achievable? Of course it is. Will it happen? I’ll wait and see. No predictions from me. Is there a more frustrating club than Sunderland to support? I doubt it.
Haw’ay the Lads