Malcolm Dawson writes……the sun is shining on Weardale this morning, a song thrush is belting out its tuneful, if somewhat repetitive song and the smell of grilled bacon is permeating the kitchen. All’s well with the world. Yesterday was grey and overcast and a gloomy sea fret hung over the Stadium of Light. But the atmosphere inside was anything but gloomy. For once we were pleased that Manchester United had won and we knew that good performances against the Blues of West London and the Blues of Merseyside could see us safe.
Apart from the first home game of the season (a dismal defeat by Norwich you may recall) when certain sections of the crowd left en-mass, our fans have been immense all season. Post match comments from Big Sam and his players show that this is appreciated, just as the fans appreciate the all out effort and commitment we have seen recently from the players. This was only the fifth home win of the season and whilst we could (heaven forbid) still go down, a sixth on Wednesday will see us safe. The crowd were in raptures as the final whistle went as was Pete Sixsmith, our regular correspondent who sends us his view of yesterday’s game.
Over the years, Chelsea have figured quite prominently in the ups and downs of M Salut and myself, going back to May 1963, when the Pensioners (as they then were) came to Roker Park, won 1-0 and leapfrogged us into the remaining promotion place behind a Stanley Matthews inspired Stoke City. That dismal defeat should have warned me that being a Sunderland supporter brings more pain than pleasure, more relegations than Championships and more heartbreak than happiness, but at the tender age of 12, I was smitten and the rest, as they say, is history.
Since then, there have been some memorable fixtures involving the workers from Wearside and the stylists from Stamford Bridge. We beat them twice in the League Cup semi-finals, the second leg complete with police horses trying to tackle Colin West. A truncated Roker Park erupted when Gordon Armstrong’s header took us to the FA Cup semis and ultimately Wembley 24 years ago and there was that never to be forgotten afternoon when the Quinn and Phillips combo, aided by Paul Thirlwell and Eric Roy in midfield, tore them apart at the Stadium of Light.
They also played a great part in the second of the three (possibly four) “Great Escapes” in which we have been involved, as we gained that most unexpected win in front of their fans, creepy owner and gracious Portuguese manager a couple of years ago.
But this 3-2 win, in front of a sold out Stadium, is potentially the most rewarding and the most significant of them all. 2-1 down at half time, we played with an intensity and verve rarely seen since the halcyon days of Reid and Saxton, took the game to the retiring Champions and came away with three points that put us in a position where we have our fate (and that of our avian rivals) firmly in our own hands. It was one of those games that will live long in the memory and will be told to the Care Assistants ad infinitum in the days when I have forgotten who I am and where my trousers are. But the memory of Wahbi Khazri’s volley, Fabio Borini’s firm drive and Jermaine Defoe’s turn and shot, will stay in the memory bank when much else has been cast aside.
The first equaliser was a goal of great beauty and was up there with Defoe’s stunner against Newcastle a year ago. It came after Mike Jones had made us take a free kick again, part of a display of pernickety refereeing that frustrated all afternoon, and when it was headed clear by Mikel, Khazri hit a sublime volley that shot past Courtois into the net.
It cancelled out an earlier Costa goal, scored with rather too much ease as Hazard and Cahill carved up a hesitant defence to play in the pugnacious Spanish/Brazilian, a man who if he were a dog, would be a Staffy, all sniffing and snuffling and running into you.
Within minutes of the leveller, our defence capitulated again as Matic got on the end of a simple ball by Fabregas and was unchallenged as he rolled the ball into the net. Allardyce’s team talk wrote itself there and I imagine that the non-native English speakers came across some Black Country words and phrases that they had not been taught at school.
The hero of the first part of the second half was Vito Mannone. He made two outstanding stops from Costa, advancing off his line in both cases and inspiring his team mates and the crowd. He is a far better keeper than Pantilimon and the improvement in the team is partly due to the defenders having confidence in him.
The manager made a bold substitution, replacing a tiring Lamine Kone with John O’Shea to give us some stability – and it worked. He then replaced a tiring Jan Kirchhoff with Duncan Watmore – and it worked. Finally, off went Lee Cattermole who had had a tremendous game but who had been quite rightly booked, and on went Seb Larsson – and it worked. N’Doye stayed on the bench – you know what is coming next……..
Three substitutions that all strengthened the team and the work ethic; two grizzled veterans of relegation scraps and one active, colt like figure – and all three played huge parts in grabbing this all important victory.
The crowd, noisy all afternoon, erupted when Borini thrashed in the leveller, after good work by Van Aanholt and then took the decibel level over that which is comfortable, when Jermain Defoe picked up Yedlin’s ball, turned and slotted it past the keeper.
We held out after that, not comfortably, but effectively. Chelsea were shot and the icing on the cake came when John Terry, a player as popular away from “the Bridge” as a pint of John Smith’s Extra Smooth would be at a CAMRA convention, was given two yellows in rapid succession. Such sweet and simple pleasure as he trudged off.
At the final whistle, blown when the magnificent Mannone had the ball in his hands, the ground erupted again as the news came through that Newcastle had hung on for a draw against Villa. The calculations were simple. Win on Wednesday – we stay up and they go down.
The players have done all that is being asked from them. Some are tired after experiencing the intensity of a league that is like no other in the world. For those coming from France, the noise and passion must impress and frighten them. Kone struggled yesterday but Khazri stepped up with a performance high on energy and quality. Yann M’Vila, subject of some criticism recently, had a fine game. He has played in every game since he arrived; yesterday showed why.
Players like Kaboul, Defoe and Cattermole have the experience to take us through this last week of the season and help put us in a position where “we never have to go through this again” (see repeated mantra ad infinitum). We need to approach Everton as we approached Chelsea and press them from the outset and tighten up at the back. They have good players who must be disappointed after a relatively poor season – although I don’t see them down amongst the dead men.
This victory did not quite make up for the disappointment all those years ago – but it went a long way towards it.
Ha’way the Lads.