Malcolm Dawson writes…..it is a glorious summer’s day here in the East Midlands. Unfortunately for me I am unable to enjoy the sunshine, staying as I am with a mate of mine who happens to be a fan of Leicester City and writing this on his kitchen table. Not only have I had to sit and watch the Sky Sports Game of the Day coverage, I have had to do it whilst being told how useless we are and how it should have been 8-2 to Leicester. I’m putting up a spirited defence and showing a brave face but my arguments are hollow. Before the game, in the pubs on London Road, the Leicester fans I spoke to weren’t over optimistic about the season ahead and a draw was the popular pre-match prediction. I also got into a discussion with one of my friends from the Heart of England Branch of the SAFCSA, about our defensive options. Whilst we both agreed that Jones, van Aanholt and Matthews would give us a threat down the flanks, I made a point that I thought Dick might live to regret telling Vergini and Reveilleire to pack their boots without bringing in some players who prioritise the defensive aspect of the position. Limited Vergini and Reveilleire may be but my argument was (still is) that the three players we now have offer no options in the full back slots. Should there come a time when we need to stiffen up that area of the back line we can only replace like with like. And so it proved yesterday as we were ripped apart by speedy opponents and badly positioned defenders. I’ll let Peter Sixsmith fill in the details of another disappointing performance.
Here we go again.
What to say? The day started with that feeling of excitement in the pit of your stomach, a tingle that has been there every opening day for half a century. Could this be the season we begin to look like a genuine top flight team? Will our new and existing players get us off to a good start? Do the pundits know what they are talking about?
We had a lovely day for it. Friends and acquaintances were greeted as we clambered aboard the bus. Papers were read. Brian Matthews played his usual fine selection of 60s platters as the coach sped towards Loughborough for the first beer stop of the season. The sun shone, Advocaat is wilier than Ranieri and we have never lost at The New Leicester Stadium. And for 10 minutes we were the better side, stroking the ball around confidently and almost scoring. Defoe had the first chance and from the resulting corner, Kaboul powered in a header which Schmeichel blocked and Rodwell’s follow up was gratefully grabbed by the former Darlington keeper. The buzz in the away end was positive. There was movement, a bit of pace, Kaboul looked strong. All we had to do was knock the ball about, get the wide men involved and a shaky City defence would collapse and those awful clapper things that the crowd had been given would be confined to the dustbin of history.
Ten minutes of bliss. Ten minutes of dreaming of a bright future where we were cruising along in spring, preparing for a Cup semi-final or a late onslaught on a Europa League spot. Ten minutes when it was almost a joy to be a Sunderland supporter.
Twenty minutes later, we were 3-0 down and the mood had changed. City fans were roaring their heads off and the clappers were going 20 to the dozen. We were sat in our seats, heads down, contemplating yet another season of struggle and strife as the team imploded with Leicester having cruised into an unassailable 3-0 lead and our defence, our hopes and our pride destroyed.
To describe the defending as poor does not do it justice. Roget of Thesaurus fame could have come up with dozens of words that would give the reader a flavour of how “poor” it was. Here’s a few: appalling, naïve, brainless, wretched, disgraceful, inadequate. You get the picture. Two goals were conceded to headers from crosses that flew across our back four from the right hand side. They were put in by Vardy and Mehez, neither of who are renowned for scoring with their bonces. What both did was to get in front of our defenders and touch well hit crosses into the net, past a flailing Pantilimon.
At two down there was a sliver of hope. 2-0 is not irretrievable. 3-0 is. And thanks to Lee Cattermole 3-0 it was after he gave away a penalty that resulted in him being hooked by Advocaat. It was looking like Derby 1993 where we were in a similar position and lost 5-0. In addition to the three that they had put in, Leicester missed three good chances and Pantilimon pulled off a couple of smart saves.
The second half was no better, as Mehez and Vardy pulled our back four to pieces. Their pace and desire to run at defenders was in sharp contrast to our inability to do anything with the ball when we had it.
By this time, we were playing a 4-4-2, with Cattermole being replaced by Fletcher. It meant that Larsson and Rodwell had to police the middle and try to get us moving, a task that was clearly beyond them. Johnson tried to get things going but Lens was a peripheral figure and must have wondered if life in Kiev was really that bad after all.
City began to wilt in the heat (we would wilt in any temperature) and Defoe pulled one back, courtesy of a good ball by Johnson and there was a glimmer of hope; get another and they may collapse. Fat chance. Defending that would have looked shabby in the Darlington Church and Friendly League gave Albrighton a fourth and that was it. Fletcher’s goal made things look a little better, but we never had a sniff and the game ambled to an end, greeted ecstatically by the clapper wavers and grumpily by us.
Weaknesses; how long have you got? The back four looked like strangers and hopefully soon will be. The two full backs are inadequate. Jones has no pace and is consistently caught out of position. Van Aanholt has pace and is – well, you know the rest. Matthews did reasonably well when he came on but the game had gone by then. The central defenders were shocking. I expressed my worries that Kaboul might be another Titus Bramble and my fears were justified by this. He was awful. He failed to organise his defenders from set pieces, was turned several times (as he had been at Doncaster) and his part in the fourth goal resembled something from a comedy football match served up by the Monty Python team, although I feel that The Long John Silver impersonators team would have rejected both Kaboul and Coates for “not being quite up to it.”
Then there is Cattermole. Five years ago, he was sent off in the opening game of the season at home to Birmingham City. Two years ago, he was probably sitting at home as we slumped to defeat against Fulham. This year he had the ignominy of being hauled off by his manager as a result of giving away a penalty with a tackle that was clumsy, stupid and embarrassing all rolled into one. He cannot play in a midfield three. He isn’t good enough. He can sit in front and help protect the back four (although the entire Brigade of Guards would have been needed yesterday to afford protection to that hapless lot) but he cannot play creatively.
Much thinking needs to be done about the system and his role in it. The same applies to Rodwell who was simply overrun and who played a major part in the catastrophe that was goal no.4. M’Villa has a reputation as a solid defensive midfielder and those qualities are going to be called upon between now and May.
We now have a week in order to sort out some of these problems. The return of O’Shea, who can at least organise a back four, is surely a certainty in place of Kaboul and, I would give Charlie Hurley a call and see if he can get his boots on as he must be a better bet than Coates on the Uruguayan’s showing yesterday.
As always, the game spoiled a good day. I paid my respects to Richard III as he lay under a tomb of Swaledale limestone in Leicester Cathedral. He lost his crown in a thicket hedge at Bosworth; we may well have lost our Premiership place at an anonymous stadium on the south side of Leicester.