Malcolm Dawson writes….we have had several “must win” games at the Stadium of Light this season and generally (Burnley and Southampton apart) have failed to come up with the goods. A win against QPR, Villa, Hull or Palace and we would have been safe weeks ago. No I haven’t forgotten the Defoe wonder goal but it’s been the failure to beat the bottom clubs at home that has left us still needing a point (or a favour from the Uniteds of West Ham and Manchester) with only a week of the season left. The Mags are themselves in dire straits and the six points we took off them is part of the reason why they are currently below us. Results at White Hart Lane and Loftus Road mean that despite yesterday’s fixture being another crucial one, it was less of a “must win” and more of a “mustn’t lose”. The draw might just be enough. It certainly was for the Foxes whose great escape rivals that of our own last season. Pants and O’Shea did their best to mess things up at the end but really that was the only heart in mouth moment in what was hardly an advert for quality football but a good example of honest endeavour from two hard working sides. It might have lacked quality but not effort. My sister thought it one of the better home performances of the season but Pete Sixsmith’s verdict was that it was a dreadful game. Let him explain why……
LEICESTER CITY (H) 2015
As I stood doing the ironing on Saturday night, I tuned into a programme on Radio 4 about “Chokers”. There was Eddie Waring commentating on Don Fox missing a last second conversion at Wembley in 1968, BBC Golf correspondent Ian Carter talking about Colin Montgomerie throwing away the U.S. Open in 2006 and Jimmy White nearly thumping one time Quizball host David Vine after he lost the 1994 World Snooker Championship by missing a relatively simple shot. All chokers suggested the host Matthew Syeed, who had done the same as a table tennis player at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. He went on to talk about the concept of “fight, flight and freeze”, which is how a part of our brain reacts when faced with a difficult situation.
In 1997 we froze at Selhurst Park and went down because the teams below us won and we didn’t, while we succumbed to flight in 2005-06 when it was perfectly obvious, after a handful of games, that we were not good enough. Last year we showed fight to survive after looking dead and buried when West Ham beat us at the Stadium of Light one cold Monday night in April, but we fought back and won four of the last six games to stay up.
This year we are within sight of the finishing line and one more burst of energy will see us over it. But can we summon up that strength or will we choke at Ashburton Grove and Stamford Bridge while our rivals fight at the KC Stadium and The Sports Direct? We had a chance to put it to bed against Leicester City. They came to us with 6 wins out of 7, bursting with confidence and with a healthy following (minus the appalling clicky/clacky type things they had last week – that alone is reason enough for relegation).
Both sides had rigid formations; 4-3-3- for us, 3-5-2 for City. Both sides had managers who do not appear to suffer fools gladly. If Dick Advocaat is enigmatic, Nigel Pearson is at times completely off the wall, likening journalists to ostriches and getting involved in brawls with opposition players.
So, this game was a cast iron, bang on draw with few goals in prospect – and that is exactly what we got. Nervy, edgy and short of quality, it was similar to the game at whatever City call their stadium now. We were better organised than we were then and we had a couple of chances to win the game, which was more than we had in November. Graham missed a good one, Wickham put one over the bar and both Larsson and Johnson stung Schmeichel’s fingers but that was as close as we came to grabbing the three points that we needed to finish our season and extend Leicester’s.
The ninety minutes showed the progress that has been made since Dick Advocaat took over. Organised, committed and playing with some confidence, it showed that our players can, when given clear instructions, do what is expected of them. The back four did well with Coates being the pick of them. Although lacking in pace (Vardy tested him a couple of times in the last ten minutes), he tackled well, read the game even better and may well have earned himself a contract for next season. O’Shea made a couple of errors, but was solid while the two full backs did well. If we could transfer a bit of the defensive solidity from Jones to Van Aanholt and some pace from the Dutchman to the Englishman, we could have a good pair for the future.
Unfortunately, City were even more solid in defence, with their back three, all big lads as Mr Waring would say, making sure that our deadly strike force of Wickham, Defoe and Graham were effectively snubbed out. Wickham was a major disappointment, being pushed about by whichever centre half challenged him. He continues to disappoint and has made no consistent progress in the four years he has been at Sunderland. Midfield was busy and tackled ferociously (all three were booked by Martin Atkinson) but there was not a great deal of creativity – not the first time I have said that this season. Cattermole started well, had a mad spell in the middle and finished strongly while Larsson did all that we expect of him – constant energy and the promise of a match winning free kick which never actually arrived.
Poor Bridcutt continues to struggle although I thought that he had one of his better games. But the crowd do not rate him and he is not given the leeway that Cattermole and Larsson are. When he limped off and Johnson came on, there was a welcoming burst of pace and creativity that may well be utilised in North London on Wednesday.
Like us, Leicester were well organised and committed. Their midfield five worked hard and they had the best player on the field in Esteban Cambiasso, at 35, a class act who can run, pass, tackle and organise, doing the job that we had hoped that Jack Rodwell would do for us. Hmm.
So, do we choke or do we get over that line? Wednesday night is the big one – lose that and the tension on Sunday will be great. Memories of Selhurst Park and Wimbledon will come flooding back. But there are positive omens. The last time we played Chelsea on the final day of the season, Hull played Manchester United. Both lost and both survived. The team that went down were……… Newcastle United, beaten by a team in claret and blue. Could it happen again?
And so the season closes on the Soapbox for 2014-15. I shall not be at either of the last two games so Sixsmith Minimus will be reporting from Ashburton Grove. A one-time Roker Park regular, he is combining business with “pleasure” in London and has my ticket. Bob Chapman will be at Stamford Bridge while I hide under the covers (if we lose on Wednesday) or stand outside the Sports Direct (if we are safe). Fight or freeze? I have a feeling that Advocaat is a fighter and not a choker. Let’s hope the players are.