Monsieur Salut writes: having used up virtually the entire Boro-supporting side of my family (my sister has lived there throughout her adult life, for some years just around the corner from Ayresome Park), I scoured Twitter for a fresh pair of eyes. There I found Chris Blackwood*, a York-based lifelong Boro fan. He readily agree to share his thoughts with us. He rates Chris Coleman highly, thinks he might just pull us one or two places clear of the drop but clearly sees the necessary Sunderland points coming from a tough-looking run-in since he sees yet aother Stadium of Light home defeat looming for this weekend …
Salut! Sunderland: our season has been a disaster but it’s been bitterly disappointing for Boro after the expectation of an immediate return and the money spent to achieve it. What has gone wrong?
Chris Blackwood: I think when you spend a relatively large amount of money on a number of players, expectations ramp up and the pressure on the players and manager can jeopardise performance. What I’d heard of Monk had me excited, but fans got onto him pretty quickly when the results weren’t flowing.
I’m in two minds on whether the criticism was warranted. Part of me feels that any new manager deserves a season to find his feet, but when you see games like our home performance against Norwich (0-1) in September – the whole team looked clueless.
That said, I wouldn’t call the season “bitterly disappointing” quite yet. If we make the playoffs that will be a consolation. And this league is hard!
Steve Gibson is probably as fair and loyal as club owners come – which may not actually be saying very much – but was he right to lose patience with Garry Monk?
Gibson is a saint in my eyes. He’s always put the club first but acted fairly well towards managers. The only exceptions I’d say is Southgate’s 2009 sacking and Monk’s abrupt exit this year.
In the case of Monk though, rumours are rife that he was talking to Swansea, in breach of contract. I don’t know how true that is, but I think Gibson would need a serious reason to not give Monk more time – even if results weren’t going our way.
Tony Pulis steadies ships but rarely inspires excitement. What did you make of the appointment and has he got it in him to stage a late push for the playoffs?
I think Pulis is a good appointment and will drive us on to a good finish, but only time will tell. Under Monk, I’d seen some players look lazy and lacklustre and I think Pulis’s infamous half-time bollockings and keenness to sub players that aren’t putting the work in has helped. He also needs time if he’s going to craft a plan and a team he believes in.
Looking at your squad, there seems plenty of quality. Who has been living up to the billing and who has disappointed?
Ryan Shotton has been a fantastic addition – looking confident and performing consistently. Britt Assombalonga started well and chalked up the goals to match his price-tag, but has dropped off since Christmas and now seems low in confidence. In contrast, Jonny Howson looked poor at first but has found his feet and is putting in solid displays.
But for me, it’s the performance of some of the existing players that have most impressed. Stewart Downing is playing as well as he ever has, and Adama Traore is our most exciting player (in fact, we can look a bit dull without him). If he plays in the Sunderland game, I think you’ll see that he isn’t afraid to take on players, is lightning quick and can rinse and repeat many times, which puts real strain on the opposing full backs.
Your own highlights and lowest points as a Boro supporter?
I consider myself to be lucky to follow a team that’s seen such highs and lows. Even the misery of two cup final losses and relegation in 1997 was a year I remember fondly – with stars like Ravanelli, Juninho and Emerson wowing us. I loved the Bryan Robson years. It felt like we were such an exciting team back then.
Another high point that sticks in the memory is our comeback in the quarter and semi finals of the UEFA cup in 2006. Coming back from certain defeat against Steaua Bucharest, including three second half goals capped with an 89th minute goal from Massimo Macarone was something special.
I think the Strachan years were my low point. Not much to get excited about and a fair few journeymen brought in who I didn’t rate that highly.
And the best players you’ve seen at Ayresome or the Riverside? Fond memories of Julio?
Julio was an absolute ledge for us. For so long he provided a solid presence and could also strike the ball well when he got the chance. He seemed like a lovely guy too, who really cared – which means a lot.
In my lifetime following the Boro – the Ayresome days bring great players to mind like Bernie Slaven, Nigel Pearson and John Hendrie. Obviously in the early days at the Riverside (or ‘The Cellnet’ lol) there were players like Juninho and Ravanelli and since then some of my favourite players have been Southgate, Schwarzer, Zenden, Tuncay and Boateng. We’ve had some damn exciting players.
Who should you have allowed nowhere near either stadium?
Every team has players that don’t really perform – Dean Windass, Aliadiere and Mido jump to mind for us. I think our biggest flop in recent years must have been Alfonso Alves. A massive price tag (£14m) and just 10 goals in 40 games (three of which in a rout against Man City) and just four league goals all season. Game in game out he disappointed and ultimately I would say he led to our relegation. Some people say the same about Negredo but he didn’t have the support needed. Alves had an adept team behind him but still couldn’t do the business.
Wembley, for good reasons and bad, must figure in this but which games you’ve attended are especially memorable?
I lived in London for a fair while after leaving university and getting to any away fixture I could (and making a day of it) was a top priority – so I remember a lot of great games away to Fulham (the win here was the reason I met my wife!), Reading, West Ham, QPR, Crystal Palace, Brentford and Brighton. Tottenham was always a nightmare visit though and remains one of the most daunting atmospheres for me.
Holding on against Brighton to gain promotion in 2015/16 was a great day and then there’s the cup finals back in 1997 that were so dramatic.
I really regret not making it to the Millennium Stadium for the League Cup final back in 2004 though. I watched the game and loved the result, but having my finals at university – and virtually no cash – meant the trip was too great an ask.
Did you see our steep fall coming?
No to be honest, but it’s a reminder to all clubs that no matter how big you are, this can happen. Leeds are the epitome of a big club not getting what it “deserves” because the size of the club and follower numbers don’t mean what they used to. It’s much more about money and the way the club is run, as well as an element of luck.
Any other thoughts on Sunderland: club, fans, city, Chris Coleman?
I’m not too tribal when it comes to football so don’t feel much rivalry towards other clubs – and certainly can’t understand the trouble that sometimes comes with playing against a local rival, so while I’m happy to rib my friends who follow Sunderland, I don’t feel any malice towards local clubs really. So I hope Sunderland can get out of their scrape. The fans seem noisy and passionate and it’s a huge club too, that you assume when things get sorted can make it back to the glory days. I think Chris Coleman is a fantastic manager who’s taken on a very tough job with your lads. I hope he can do it, but it’s a hard mountain to climb.
Would you take anyone from our squad?
I think Grabban was a promising player so it must have hurt when he was recalled and ended up at Villa. Of what I’ve seen, McGeady and Gooch seem interesting for different reasons, but I think outside of those lads no one catches my eye. It’s a reflection of the team’s problems that there seem to be no players on a major streak right now or players I hear talked highly of.
Do you regard the game as a derby? I do but was shot down in flames by a reader who then won the argument in a quick poll?
Yeah I do but as above I’m not one for massive local rivalry. I want Boro to win and there’s a bit of friendly barracking that will go down but I don’t get why games become aggressive (on or off the pitch) just because the team is geographically close.
Hand on heart, where will our clubs finish this season?
I think that Coleman might have it in him to pull the team to 21st or 20th (I think the three Bs – Bolton, Barnsley and Burton will go down) and I think that Boro will finish 7th or 8th, but it would be immense to sneak into the playoffs and have an adventure at the end of the season.
The Dele Alli Question: does diving matter more than Pochettino seems to think?
This is sport so I see cheating, especially in cynical ways like diving as completely against the spirit of the game. I know there’s a lot riding on it, with the money in the game being the excuse that people use, but I still hate all the tripe that comes along with football sometimes. Abusing the ref, shirt pulling and diving all go hand-in-hand as aberrations that seem to crop up in football but not many other sports. But maybe I’m just being naïve!
Will you be at the game? If not how will you follow it and what will be the score?
My wife is away visiting a friend’s new-born so I’m looking after the kids, who are too young (right now) to come to a Boro game. I live in York now, so I don’t make as many games as I used to, but I’ll be listening to BBC Tees commentary (probably while cooking tea and changing nappies). I’m looking forward to the point I can make more games in the coming years. I think Boro will win 2-0 with Adama and Ayala both netting from Downing assists (-:
* Chris Blackwood on himself: I’m a PR consultant who lives in York, works in London and gets back to friends and family in Boro as much as possible. I was born in ’83, so by the time I was registering football, the gates of Ayresome Park had been re-opened – and having a shedload of relatives that are huge fans, was dragged to games from an early age. It didn’t take long to get hooked.Regular attendance started in the early 90s with memorable games following like beating Blackburn Rovers the first game of the season after they won the Prem. I regularly watch replays of the ‘Juninho’ years. When I’m not watching Boro I’m hanging out with my wife Jane and kids, Polly (four) and Bill (two). I tweet at @Blackwood_c
Interview: Colin Randall