It is just as well that Paul Wilson may have set the true standard, in terms of how much notice we need to take, for predictions appearing in the Guardian‘s online football pages about the prospects for Sunderland AFC under Roy Keane.
But this is a tale of three Pauls, not one, and one Mark. It starts with a Paul of our own, Paul Saleh, a Shields-born fan* who has been among fans posting pertinent pre-season comments to the ever-lively Blackcats forum,
He reported on a sarky piece (Guardian online – read on for more) about Keano’s activity in the transfer market, and admitted that this reflected his own feelings. “I like to err on the side of pessimism,” he said, “so that when good stuff happens, I enjoy it even more.”
This is where another fan, Mark (Sugden), came in, suggesting that “if anyone else had made the signings we’ve made, you’d think they’d gone bonkers”.
“Throw in a potential £9m for Craig Gordon and that’s 19 million for three players none of whom have proved it at the top level yet. Throw in a guy from Reading who couldn’t make their first team and an Aberdeen defender that at 28 has never made it to the Old Firm or played outwith Scotland. Then you’ve got a Norwich midfielder who nobody’s heard of.”
Being supporters, Pauls hopes for the “good stuff” to defeat his pessimism while Mark searches for a brighter assessment of the buys:
“…..maybe he (RK) sees potential in them all. Halford never got a chance at Reading, Anderson has been brilliant away from the glare of the Old Firm spotlight while Richardson just needs a run of games to prove his potential. As for Chopra, he’s a natural goalscorer who will be desperate to prove himself after leaving the Mags. Still haven’t heard of the Norwich bloke but he will turn into a revelation. Suppose we just have to trust the manager.”
But journalists like the Observer‘s Paul Wilson and our third Paul, the Guardian‘s chief sports writer Paul Doyle, do not need to search for silver linings.
And Pauld takes no prisoners. This gives you the text of his piece for The Fiver, part of the Graun’s online sports service, this extract gives the flavour:
“Keane has so far splurged nearly £10m on players whose experience of the Premiership consists of watching it on TV, watching it from the bench or, in the case of Michael Chopra, watching it with the humiliating knowledge that you’re lower down the pecking order than Shola Ameobi. And today Keane carried on in this vein, paying £1.5m to Norwich City for giant midfielder Dickson Etuhu. ‘I’m very pleased that Dickson has signed,’ said Norwich manager Pe … [Fiver double-checks] actually it was Keane who said that. “He will give us a real physical presence,” continued Keane as if some stoned crank had suggested the 25-year-old was a 6ft 2in gas. ‘We’re definitely heading in the right direction as far as getting the players we want to the football club,’ hurrahed Keane amid worried silence from long-suffering Sunderland addicts.”
Pauld acknowledges how reckless it is to scoff at Keane “after the miracles he worked last season, notably healing Nyron Nosworthy’s hilariously uncoordinated movements”.
But he concludes on a downbeat note, suspecting that far from being about to emulate Reading’s achievements last season, Keane is instead “set on emulating an altogether different MU Rowdies legend. Mackems, now may be a good time to stop mocking your Middlesbrough neighbours about Bryan Robson”.
Now Paul Doyle is a respected writer, his paper is as good as papers get. So he’d really have me worried. If, that is, it weren’t for my long memory.
Think back to just under a year ago. That other writing Paul, P Wilson, a football correspondent from the Observer – stablemate of the Guardian – had his say on the same platform on why Keano, then launching his SAFC career, faced failure as a manager.
The reason so many mediocre players go a long way in management is because they can accept mediocrity in others as a starting point and go on to make improvements. What top players often find difficult is adjusting to an inferior level, having to work with players who are not as skilful, as motivated or as receptive as themselves. This might not happen to Keane, though anyone even vaguely familiar with his final seasons at Manchester United could not fail to recognise he has issues in this area. While Sunderland fans have every right to hope for a footballing resurgence, interest from other parts of the country might be of the type best hinted at by the phrase ‘car-crash television’.
For all the bet-hedging, the tone backed up the headline: “Keane might not have what it takes but he can’t be worse than Quinn.” Poor Paulw had to eat his words, or at least he should have been made to eat them, if not show his backside in the club shop at each home game during the promotion run-in.
But maybe we should be grateful to these professional doom-mongers. Perhaps we could do with a few more of the kind of articles we have come to expect over the years from so many of my confrères.
The Keano factor makes it a bit spicier for them, but the mix is otherwise much the same; the Reid side that finished one place short of European football qualification had been tipped for relegation by some of these pundits.
The real time to worry will be when Pauld and Paulw start telling their readers we are heading for the big time.
*Paul Saleh on Paul Saleh: I think it’s just about fair to say that I was around for Sunderland’s last piece of meaningful silverware. My mother was 2 months’ pregnant with me when on May 5 1973 – her birthday – Sunderland won the FA Cup.
Despite the obvious significance of the timing of these events, it was by no means certain that I was going to pop out with a red and white scarf on. Being from South Shields, and with neither parent having the remotest interest in football, the battle for my footballing soul was on.
In the end, having an older brother who slid the way of Sunderland sealed it for me. One night he took me to a supporters branch meeting at the YMCA (I couldn’t have been more than seven or eight). Here I was surrounded by an orgy of red, white and testosterone. Hanging out with the big lads. My choice was made.
Sadly, I can’t remember when my first match was or who it was against, but I do remember that I sat in the Main Stand (Roker Park of course). My senses were assaulted by the noise and the scale of the whole event, I’m not sure I watched much of the game, I was probably just trying to take it all in. That first trip was courtesy of a chap who I used to collect golf balls for. He’d knock them around King George playing field and I’d fetch them. Jim the Golfer I believe his official title was.
My best moment as a Sunderland supporter – there haven’t been many, and they’ve mostly been during the Peter Reid years – has to be my trip to Wembley in 1992. That whole cup run was just amazing for me, I’d turned 18 during it so could enjoy the atmosphere of pub games, a Shields lad was manager, Armstrong’s goal against Chelsea.
It had it all for me. Opening the Gazette and seeing that I’d won the lottery for a Wembley ticket was mind blowing, so I stumped up my 15 quid for the cheap seats, met the coach at the New Mill and headed to London. The whole experience was amazing and even though we got beat, I have absolutely no negative memories. I particularly remember heading to the car park after the match in a crowd of singing, jubilant Sunderland supporters. All around us trudged Liverpool fans heading home, another trophy trousered, strolling to their cars like it was just another Saturday. I had to ask the bloke next to me to make sure that I’d got the result right.
In a perverse way, I hope we never have too much success. I’d hate to become complacent like those Scousers, who expect nothing less than success at every turn. Where’s the joy in that?