If anyone detected a nervous tone in my report on how the French sports newspaper L’Equipe covered Newcastle’s hiding by Liverpool, they were right. I claim no great powers of foresight but while, as ever, hoping for a win and convincing myself Sunderland were capable of playing well, I had the nagging fear of a heavy defeat at the back of my mind.
This is how I began my account for ESPN of the Villa Park horror show:
“For Sunderland supporters, there were two ways of looking at Newcastle United’s astonishing collapse against Liverpool. The temptation to gloat was matched by the knowledge that a tough match of their own was to come at Villa Park. And in a game that Sunderland, up until the start of the second half, looked capable of drawing or even winning, comprehensive defeat brought all the worries of inadequacy and relegation streaming back.”
No one likes being hit for six. It offers only cold comfort to cling to the facts that, unlike Newcastle, we were away and we managed a goal. We are almost as deep in the mire as our neighbours.
When the game started, I had found myself studying the facial expressions of Villa supporters. It is irrational but something I often do, as if the innermost thoughts of opposing fans could influence any game’s outcome.
Nevertheless I was reassured, thinking: “Surely, they’re too miserable and afraid themselves to have any serious expectation of beating us easily.”
Even when Vlaar scored – did the ball take a nick off Cuellar or just swerve a little? – I was concerned but not downcast. My pre-match concerns seemed groundless. And the swift equaliser restored my new-found belief that the match would remain tight. The second Villa goal, and the debatable decision to deny us a second equaliser, did not prepare me for what was to come.
Here, again, from the ESPN piece:
“[Losing] 1-2 was a halftime scoreline that cried out to be challenged.
So to the second half. Cuellar, dodgy earlier, became calamitous. Phil Bardsley, unsure earlier, was shocking. Stephane Sessegnon probably brought his season to an end by collecting a straight red, maybe harsh, for a tackle on Yacouba Sylla. And once Sunderland had permitted Christian Benteke to begin and complete the simplest of hat tricks, David Vaughan crowned a hopeless cameo as Sunderland substitute by managing somehow to beat his own defence with a long and incisive though ball; Gabriel Agbonlahor did the rest.
It tells you much of what you need to know that deep into injury time, Sunderland passed the ball about ponderously in the Villa half as if avoiding a seventh goal were more important than salvaging some self-respect with a second of their own.”
Two wins out of three in the young reign of Paolo di Canio had deluded us and probably him. Sunderland are still a poor side, much poorer whole than the sum of the parts (there is plenty of talent in there, just glaringly insufficient cohesion and consistency).
Survival is still in our own hands and that is about the best that can be said about an awful night.