Don’t worry. The name of the column hasn’t really changed. It remains Sixer’s Soapbox. But what use is a soapbox if you cannot occasionally climb on it to gloat? Pete Sixsmith suffers with the rest of us when things are going badly or, as of late, not far short of catastrophically. So you can imagine the sort of mood we find him in after a third home win on the trot under Gus Poyet and a fourth against Man City – and he even found time for rugby league internationals and an FA Cup tie in his busy weekend …
There are some habits that should be kicked – smoking, spitting in the street, supporting Newcastle United – and there are some that should be retained forever, like drinking proper beer, watching rugby league and reading proper newspapers. Add beating Manchester City 1-0 at home to that list.
Four years running the world’s richest club have pitched up at the Stadium of Light with one of the strongest teams in Europe. Tevez, Toure x 2, Balottelli, Aguero, Hart, Kompany have all turned up, been beaten and gone home to their leafy Mancunian suburbs, metaphorical tails between their metaphorical legs.
Darren B£nt, Ji Dong-won, Adam Johnson and now, Prodigal Phil Bardsley, are all rejoicing in the title of City slayers, as the richest club in the world (although PSG may challenge that one now) seem to find it impossible to win at the Stadium of Light. Perhaps the place intimidates them, perhaps it is in City folklore that “we never win in Sunderland” – although I remember them hammering us 3-0 and a soaking for M Salut a few years ago – or perhaps they are just not that good a side when faced with opponents who do not meekly roll over a la Norwich and CSKA Moscow.
That they had most of the ball is incontrovertible. That they spent most of the second half in our half of the pitch is equally so. That we scored once and they didn’t is a hard and fast fact. That we played a brand of football that Sunderland fans have rarely seen over the years is equally so.
Two years ago, when we nicked it in the last minute, City should have walked it. Tevez & Co. missed a bagful of clear cut opportunities as we defended bravely and hoofed the ball away at the earliest opportunity and ratted around in midfield before Ji scored that sensational last minute winner that appeared to start the O’Neill revolution.
But this was a different approach altogether. Passes were played to feet, forwards, backwards, sideways, down, a bit like a Yardbirds single from the 60s. That the crowd were patient enough to refrain from urging players to “get rid of it” and “get stuck in” shows that the Poyet style may well find support from those who previously valued physical prowess above careful, thoughtful football.
Praise is due to each and every one of them, from Mannone, who looked a very confident and assured keeper who has now earned a run in the side, to Adam Johnson, so often an enigma, who worked and worked and who always looked dangerous. Three excellent crosses in the first half were begging for someone to be on the end of them.
In between those two, there were powerful performances and none better than Wes Brown. It makes you wonder what we would have done last season and earlier this with a fit Wesley. He was so assured, never lost his cool and surged forward like an ice breaker moving through a rapidly thawing ocean.
His partner, John O’Shea, looked almost as good and, apart from once when the hard working Aguero turned him, his game was bereft of the errors that sometimes creep in. The huge embrace that he gave his erstwhile United colleague at the end spoke volumes of their dedication to the Sunderland cause – neither of them wants a relegation on their cv.
In front of them, Ki played a master game, fetching and carrying, moving forward when needed and looking every inch the quality “water carrier” a la Didier Deschamps that we have been crying out for.
Whereas two weeks ago, Cattermole got right in the faces of Tiote & Co, Ki made sure that the ball did the work. He has the ability to get himself out of tight situations and rarely gives the ball away. One post on RTG said that he had a pass completion rate of 91 per cent. You can reverse the integers for Cattermole – and Ki is far more likely to stay on the pitch.
Around him Colback was quietly effective and much more so than the likes of the lumbering Garcia and the permanently disappointing Milner. Larsson might well have got a red but didn’t (had it been Cattermole we would have been down to 10) and made up for his reprieve with his best game in Sunderland colours. His tackling and distribution were consistently good – he needs to do that all the time now as he has a knack of playing well to impress a new manager. He has had plenty of practice in his time at Sunderland.
The crowd played their part as well. Even the oldies and not so oldies in the East Stand played their part in roaring the team on and showed that support is not just the endless singing of mindless songs about players with other clubs, but it comes from the heart. There are very few clubs in England where the support is so long suffering and so consistently good. Put a set of players playing to their maximum in front of a Sunderland crowd, and you get the best of all responses from people who genuinely care about their club. Poyet has begun to tap into this feeling and, as an intelligent and thoughtful man, he knows where it can lead.
A few words about City: disappointing, underwhelming, lacking guile will do for a start. Like Eric Morecambe when confronted by Andre Previn, it was “all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order”. Toure was unable to swat Larsson and Colback away, Lescott and Demichelis never convinced as a pairing and were light years behind the former United pair at the heart of our defence and Nasri, who seemed to have more possession than our entire side in the second half, failed to make one telling pass.
Losing at Sunderland, Cardiff and Aston Villa is not title winning form. I thought Pellegrini was gracious in his post-match comments, far more so than Mancini was on New Year’s Day 2012.
It rounded off an excellent sporting weekend for me. On Friday, I watched a one sided but nevertheless entertaining Rugby League World Cup game between world champs New Zealand and Papua New Guinea. Although the Kiwi’s gave their fringe players a run out, they still had the phenomenon known as Sonny Bill Williams. At 6’4” and weighing 17 stone, he is not the biggest player even in the NZ set up. But when he moves, it is like watching a shark going in for the kill: quite magnificent.
An almost full house at Headingley cheered PNG on but to no avail and the Kiwis are heading for a quarter final with Scotland (I’ll be there) and a probable semi with England.
On Saturday, in the company of Salut! Sunderland‘s deputy editor Malcolm Dawson, I saw a very enjoyable FA Cup First Round game at Victoria Park between Hartlepool and Notts County. Pools came out 3-2 winners with two of their goals being scored by Luke James, a 19 year old from Amble. He looks a good one so maybe Roberto Di Fanti could be having a close look at him.
So, the Poyet era is up and running. Two tricky away games followed by Chelsea and Spurs at home. Eight points from those four would be a real help and Fulham are already looking vulnerable. The Di Canio period is well and truly behind us and I thought that Martin O’Neill’s comments summed that up perfectly – “Paolo Di Canio – that managerial charlatan”. I couldn’t have put it better myself.
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