Monsieur Salut writes: Pete Sixsmith is making his return to post-Santa duties in a gradual sort of way, a Sixer’s Seven here, that smashing series on The First Time Ever I Saw Ground/Team there. I could hardly decline his invitation to step in with the Soapbox from Bramall Lane, painful as it is to write anything about what happened there on Boxing Day …
Anyone who has supported Sunderland home and away, even if their opportunities are limited, knows the wretched feelings of embarrassment inflicted by truly awful displays. When it’s away from home, the embarrassment is made all the more acute if snatched conversations between opposing supporters are overheard.
“Just coming away from the match,” said one man into his mobile phone as people made their way back towards Sheffield city centre. He added almost as an afterthought: “We won 3-0 but mind, the other team were absolute rubbish.”
I could only murmur my agreement with his assessment, which I’d fault only on the basis that he was being unnecessartily charitable. In truth, I felt little better than I had done walking away from St Mary’s Stadium (8-0) or the Liberty at Swansea (4-0). Absolute rubbish seems an inadequate description for a performance that suggested random breathalyser tests should be introduced in Sunderland dressing rooms.
The day wasn’t all bad. I saw Sixer for the first time in many months. Having parked at the soulless but functional Meadowhall mall, I had an acceptable meal at Carluccio’s before heading off on the tram and finding that the old git’s freedom pass that gets me around London also works in Sheffield. That’s the positives out of the way.
It was plain virtually from the start that we were up against a far better side. The first part of the game was played exclusively in our half. There weren’t any clear cut chances but United looked menacing every time they mounted an attack, all the more if – as was usually the case – the outstanding Mark Duffy had the ball. Oh for a midfielder who has all the industry of ours and all the vision and invention they lack.
Pete was right to point out that our players couldn’t really be faulted on effort. They just weren’t – aren’t – good enough. Our approach was negative, stop-start and ineffectual. How many interesting ways are there to lose possession, misplace passes, give away dangerous free kicks, fail to defend crosses? We found most of them. We were out muscled as much as outclassed.
At half-time, with Sunderland just one down though deservedly to a cool finish from by John Lundstram, I wondered whether attacking the end housing our supporters might inspire the team to produce some sort of response. Pete counted our spell of modest pressure as lasting just over three minutes. When it ended and United regained control with what seemed a minimum of effort, I glanced at Chris Coleman, inanimate in the technical area when change seemed necessary and said it already felt more like a 3-0 defeat than 1-0.
Seconds later, another needlessly conceded free kick just outside the area was swept across goal by Duffy and headed in Richard Stearman. The third, another header from another poorly defended cross, was inevitable and more seemed entirely likely.
When they checked their ratings on the Sunderland Echo site, the players will have seen nine threes out of 10, one four (a generous mark for Gibson) and one five (Ruiter, probably about right). United had been stronger in every position and 3-0 was about as lenient as it could be. Pete provided those around us with score updates from other strugglers, checked the effect it all had on the bottom bit of the table and wondered whether fourth bottom was the best we could seriously aim for.
And meanwhile, our United “Who are You?” interviewee, Dave Eyre, who had actually predicted we’d score two goals while conceding four (we didn’t have a single shot on goal and one especially atrocious effort, from McGeady, resulted in a United throw-in some yards from the corner flag), kindly said our fans were entitled to rather better than this meek and shambolic surrender.
“The consensus was that Sunderland were one of the poorer sides to visit this season,” he wrote. “A number of people have said the same thing around me – season ticket holders all. This was that the Sunderland supporters have shown a lot of character and deserve a lot better than they are currently being served. The team will chase and chase and for some unknown reason – stop … I suspect that Coleman will be there for a while and he may indeed be able to sort them.
“I also think it may be a while.”
Here endeth the lesson. Sixer’s back on his Soapbox from Forest, where another showing like this will lead to another heavy defeat.