Malcolm Dawson writes: New Year’s Eve and the aftermath was spent down in the Midlands, with my mate the Leicester City fan who is convinced that he will be off to Cardiff to see the Foxes in the final of the Champions League, despite my reminding him that I have seen Leicester City play more often than he has over the past 30 years.
I travelled up the A1, kind of hoping that the accident which slowed my progress might delay me sufficiently to make the trip to the Stadium of Light impracticable. I had told the Liverpool fan I got talking to over breakfast at the Little Chef (excellent black pudding btw) that I was expecting a 3 or 4 nil hammering but I got through and made it to Sunderland just in time to park up and hear the team news on Radio Newcastle, before re-claiming my scarf from a certain Mr Sixsmith, who had taken it from my car after the Chelsea game, donning my thermals and making my way to my seat.
Well worth the effort and a typical experience for Sunderland fans everywhere. We can get beaten by poor sides then play well against the title challengers but, unlike when we played the Pensioners, we got a point from a decent performance. I’ll let Peter take up the story.
And what do I know about football?
Having spent two days contemplating the prospects of Sturridge, Mane and Firmino running amok at the Stadium of Light a la Andre Gray, I was surprised, nay shocked, nay absolutely gobsmacked, to see us turn in what was clearly our best performance under David Moyes and one which is tantalisingly close to showing that we are worthy of Premier League football next season.
The mood in the concourse pre-match was gloomy. Much of the talk was along the lines of “Can we keep it respectable?” The fact that Jack Rodwell was playing dampened the mood even more and worries about Mannone, Djilobodji and O’Shea led to an atmosphere that reflected the temperature.
So, what do we go and do? We play well. Not quite well enough to win but well enough to keep the Liverpool fans quiet, well enough to make sure that Jurgen Klopp confronts the referee and well enough to have teams above us beginning to think that the Annual Great Escape is a far less remote possibility than it was on Saturday.
The players that we worried about did well. Mannone shook off Saturday’s ring rustiness and made a succession of good saves and commanded his box well. O’Shea and Djilobodji were focused and concentrated well and kept out of each other’s way. Rodwell got forward and tackled well and went off to a genuine round of applause from supporters who want him to do well and who might have seen the footballer that he could be rather than the one that has been on show since he left Goodison Park.
Others did equally well. Didier Ndong had his best game for Sunderland – ironically just before he goes home for the ACON. Donald Love looked to have the makings of a Premier League full back and Adnan Januzaj showed that while he may not relish a challenge a la Victor Anichebe, he has pace, vision and the ability to beat a man. He could be a very important player for us in the next few weeks.
There were problems. We gave the ball away too easily at times. Games against good sides still resemble a session of attack v defence. We cannot defend corners well – both Liverpool goals came from poorly defended ones and had Papy done anything other than what he did for the second one, we may have won the game. Flicking it on to an offside Mane is not sensible.
But we dug in and the players, who had correctly been heavily criticised by manager, media and the mugs who follow them, showed that they can play and that they do have a sense of professional pride which will not allow them to slip away as Aston Villa a year ago.
Both penalties were absolute certs. Ndong in the box is about as rare as a sensible comment from Alan Green but he was clearly brought down by the second best footballer to come out of Estonia (Mart Poom being by far the best) and the second was a silly thing to do by Mane. Good for him.
Both were dispatched with some aplomb by Jermain Defoe, who beat Fabio Borini at Stone, Scissors, Paper in order to claim the honour. Mignolet got near the first but was wrong footed for the second. Had either Jermain or Fabio taken advantage of the pass of the match from Januzaj, we would have been ahead before half time and the whole relegation issue might have changed.
I have some sympathy with Klopp re the free kick that Defoe earned on the edge of the box. It was similar to the penalty he won at Southampton in September when he rolled the defender but there was contact made and Anthony Taylor was closer than Klopp was.
What I didn’t like was Klopp marching across the pitch to confront the officials after the game. By all means make your point but do it in the tunnel or in the referee’s room. Here was another Liverpool manager making his excuses in public, just as Houllier, Dalglish, Benitez and Rodgers did before him. I like Klopp but was disappointed with his whingeing and whining about being made to play 44 hours after the last game, as if we had last played on Boxing Day. His players would have been at home on The Wirral or in Birkdale by 10.00 while ours still had to negotiate the A 59 and Blubberhouses Moor after fish and chips and a pint of Landlord in Skipton.
We remain in touch with those above us, which, considering the wretched start that we made, is a bonus. We have games against Stoke and West Brom (a surprise packet this year) which need to yield points – I would suggest a minimum of four – and then Spurs arrive on Wearside. Before that, we have an enticing Under 23 clash with Burnley, masquerading as an FA Cup tie. I may be at Shildon v Atherton Collieries in the FA Vase that day
Are we keeping the faith? I hope so.