So Pete Sixsmith succumbed to the power of a lifetime’s devotion. Instead of West Auckland vs an Eden Buses XI, or whoever, he trundled off to Manchester with his ticket. And witnessed the sort of performance that, if only it had been replicated in every other game this season, would have seen us safe. Sit back and enjoy another tremendous Sixer read …
It is said we all need healthy levels of stress in order to achieve and that, if the stress is removed, there is a tendency to underachieve. That is the philosophy adhered to by Michael Gove and those who have taken the Ofsted shilling and become inspectors. And it may well work – who am I to argue with such august and knowledgeable people as Mr Gove and his privately educated advisers?
Although it may work in the worlds of commerce and education, it does not appear to work in the world of football. Sunderland went into this game stress-free. Relegation had already been just-about-confirmed on Saturday and those who turned up at Eastlands (and that included me; like the alcoholic preparing to enter rehab, I savour my few remaining sniffs of the barmaid’s apron) were really there to witness the last rites as City avenged the three points they lost at the Stadium and got their title challenge back on track.
What did we have to lose? Absolutely nothing when one looked at Poyet’s team sheet. Only Mannone and Borini of the disastrous Italian Phase made the team. On the bench, Ba and Mavrias were seen for the first time since February and Liam Agnew was the No 44 nobody could identify. The Eastlands stadium announcer couldn’t be bothered to read out the names of the substitutes – far more interested in shouting and talking to a large blue mascot.
It was a very relaxed start, so much so that Cattermole immediately gave them the lead when he was dispossessed by Aguero who, in cahoots with Negredo, set up Fernandinho to put City ahead in the second minute. Some Sunderland fans, who had partaken of a tad too much Hyde’s Bitter, missed it. It looked like a long night.
But we came back. We played some decent football. We frustrated City and silenced their nervous and never convinced crowd. O’Shea, not for the first time, put headers wide when he really should have scored while a tired looking Borini missed a great opportunity before half time.
We were beginning to look like a team. The back four worked hard and there was grudging praise for Vergini who slotted in well at right back. He dispossessed a fragile Aguero a couple of times and he looks to pass the ball rather than hoof it up field at the first opportunity.
Midfield worked very hard with Colback and Larsson both showing tenacity and commitment to what is, for them, a lost cause. Both will be away in the summer whichever league we find ourselves in. Cattermole recovered from his error and was, well, Cattermole. He tackled fiercely, won the ball, gave it away, won it back and never gave up.
Up front, Wickham looked for the first time, a player who was actually worth the money that was paid for him. It seems he has been told that he will be in the team for the rest of the season and he can relax a little bit, knowing that one below par performance won’t end up with him being shipped out to Sheffield Wednesday or Abergavenny Thursday. He held the ball up well and caused the once imperious but now struggling Vincent Kompany, a whole host of problems.
The chilled out factor was increased in the final quarter of the game when the bustle of Larsson and Borini was replaced by the more laid back approach of Giaccherini and Scocco. Neither has done much to convince Sunderland fans that they have been good signings but they won over a few converts tonight.
The Argentinian made a great run to pull defenders across and then put a superb ball in to Giaccherini who had moved into the gap his fellow sub had created. His low cross was turned in by Wickham who was standing unmarked and we were level. Ten minutes later, the Italian played the pass of the night to the young English tyro and he planted it firmly past Hart and, blow me, we were in front.
That was the easy bit done. The hard bit was holding onto the lead. This is Sunderland after all.
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City had threatened sporadically but the spark had gone from their game. A great win was looking likely as we tackled fiercely, harried in midfield and headed out the increasingly desperate crosses that came in.
It was looking like the most valuable three points since the last three points and then they equalised. Vito Mannone, a hero for much of the season, failed to hold a half hit shot from Nasri and it slipped out of his grasp to trickle over the line. One point instead of three and a gallant draw instead of a magnificent win. That’s Sunderland.
It was a performance that restored some pride after that shocking performance at Spurs. Instead of being castigated by the support, the players were warmly applauded although the disappointment was etched on their face. That the equaliser was scored by Nasri, a player who epitomises modern football with his undoubted ability but equally unpleasant arrogance and swagger, made it a hard one to take. The bruise on my foot as I took my frustration out on the blue seats will testify to that.
It is probably too little too late, a phrase all too familiar to Sunderland fans. Three points would have given us a shout and would have put the willies up Norwich and Villa. But we can take some satisfaction from the words of two City fans of my vintage who said “I’m bloody pleased you lot are going down. We just can’t seem to beat you.”
Now for Chelsea, home of the creepy Abramovic, the self-styled Special One and the most obnoxious fans in English football. We have nothing to lose, they have everything. Another performance like this and we may just start to hope again – but as we all know, it’s the hope we can’t stand.
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