Luke Harvey is Salut! Sunderland’s youngest regular writer but has already seen two Irish revolutions at the Stadium of Light. It may be a trifle early for end-of-season reviews, but Luke has been reflecting on a bumpy ride to safety – and the hope of something more glorious to come …
As the end of the 2011/12 season draws closer it’s natural for fans to start looking back over their team’s campaign and ask themselves whether or not it was a success.
For fans of Manchester United, another title suddenly looks less certain, with Citeh away coming up (not to mention Sunderland away); For Wolverhampton, the clouds of relegation have not just gathered but deposited their contents on Molineux to end their stint in the Premier League.
And for Sunderland it has been the usual mix of enjoyable football and frustration and mistakes that has become all too commonplace these days.
It might be Craig Gardner despatching yet another firm effort into the top corner before being dispossessed in the middle of the park while dawdling on the ball and looking at his boots. Or it’s Stéphane Sessegnon jinking his way past any number of players only to see his ball into the box cleared into the sky by the first defender. These thins happen as the stuff of football; they certainly seem a staple feature of any Sunderland match.
As a season ticket holder for the first time, I went into August with a mixture of nerves, trepidation but also hope and excitement.
Steady progress under Steve Bruce had served us well – I knew Luke would be controversial – ed – and Asamoah Gyan was all set to lead the line, and propel us back into the territory we left behind in with the Peter Reid era.
To say that football has come a long way since those days would be a bit of an understatemen. Even for myself, only 21; I can recall – with clear and fond memories – the days when largely British and Irish squads would compete with each other, challenges flying in and players refusing to back out of any confrontation. My fellow contributors, older and wiser, can no doubt hark back to the days where a sending off was rarely seen unless one player rendered another unconscious.
But this isn’t an attempt to recall the halcyon days of football. The game today may be different than it was some years ago but people like Sir Alex Ferguson and Kenny Dalglish have managed to adapt with success. Steve Bruce, though a player of the relatively modern game, seems unable to master his own demons and take a team past his own glass ceiling.
To call the start of the season a let down would be a massive understatement, made worse by the false dawn of a good draw against Liverpool at Anfield. While a draw should never been sniffed at, the fact that Liverpool’s league form has been dreadful for most of the year somewhat takes the gloss off the performance.
Then, without wanting to dig up the already flogged horse, the wheels came off in rather disastrous circumstances, not aided by Asamoah Gyan’s departure to the money laden Al-Ain. There were the successes, Bolton away one of them where I spent the day in Glasgow receiving text updates about how Bendtner and Wickham were in devastating form. And of course there was the 4-0 victory over Stoke, where we dispatched a European-hungover opponents with consummate ease.
Unfortunately the positives seemed outweighed by the negatives, and even my own enthusiasm for the game was tested as the crowd reached boiling point at home to Wigan.
With stoppage time ticking away in rather unspectacular fashion, what would have been deemed a poor 1-1 draw at home soon became much worse. Keiren Westwood’s clearance left a lot to be desired, Wes Brown ended up dithering and was stripped of the ball and – as he attempted to snuff out the squared ball in the box – Sebastian Larsson tripped, rolled and seemingly played dead in the box as Franco Di Santo arrived to stroke in. The Wigan fans, seeing their team snatch an unlikely victory months before they were due to begin their famous Houdini escape routine, were sent into raptures. Many of our fans were sent into a frenzied rant against Bruce, those who didn’t probably left.
It wouldn’t have been the nicest season to become a season ticket holder – given all indicators were pointing to relegation, or at least a scrap for survival, and it was no surprise that Bruce was shown the door. The small pockets of resistance in the crowd who would try to quieten the anti-Bruce brigade had given up and they, too, now raised the pitchforks above their head. Bruce’s comments – of which there have been many – since his sacking do not show him in a good light. For all his belief that being from Newcastle was his downfall, it was clear to see that the results – his results – just weren’t good enough.
And then came our beacon of hope. When fans discussed the man to replace Bruce, it wasn’t a choice; there was only one candidate in many people’s eyes – our boyhood fan Martin O’Neill, or at least a boyhood Charlie Hurley fan. For many O’Neill represented the manager we had always needed and wanted on Wearside, not unlike the unquenchable thirst for Brian Clough many years ago, and he rode into town on the back of a James McClean shaped steed.
McClean is young, talented but incredibly raw. However his breakthrough as a first team player will forever be synonymous with the new hope we were fed with Martin O’Neill’s arrival. With 15 minutes to play against Blackburn, the Derry born winger – signed during Steve Bruce’s tenure – was given his first taste of Premier League action. He collected the ball, beat his man – a rarity for many of us to see – and delivered a cross that was ultimately cleared.
Perhaps a cleared cross isn’t the most interesting story, but the collective breath as the stadium inhaled as they saw McClean go past his man and put a dangerous ball into the box was what turned it.
The belief, with one change on the pitch and one change in the dugout, was back and we honestly thought that we could break through what had seemed to be an impenetrable defence for 75 minutes. Martin O’Neill and James McClean may not be Emily Davison, but for me they will be the faces of our own revolution.
Lately there have been signs that the players are acting like they’d been asked at the start of the season to work unpaid overtime – only to find out at lunch that they could finish at three if they fancied. So it’s no surprise that our form has dipped. Some changes in playing personnel may be needed, and Steve Bruce may have bought the lemons – but Martin O’Neill is the chef and he’s making something sweeter than lemonade.