Malcolm Dawson writes….Can we do in midweek what Oxford United have just done and beat Swansea? We need to and although the first upset of this season’s FA Cup third round has just happened, for a few minutes yesterday it looked as if a shock might be on the cards at The Emirates. But to no-one’s real surprise it wasn’t. At full time my sister’s text read “so tedious that it all went to script as usual” and so it did. Unlike the script of BBC’s “Dickensian” which has both Pete Sixsmith and I speculating on who finished off Jacob Marley. My bet is on one of the characters who writer Tony Jordan created for the series such as Mrs Biggetywitch, whose name no doubt was inspired by the 70s group Picketywitch. Their biggest hit “I Just Get The Same Old Feeling” sums up watching Sunderland which is what Sixer was doing yesterday. Here’s his account of a day which means we won’t be going to Wembley again this season.
ARSENAL (a) 2016. FA CUP
And so our interest in the FA Cup is over for another season. Not the most surprising result on a day of few shocks. The only ones I could identify were Eastleigh and Bristol City getting decent draws with teams well above them, Newcastle losing at Watford (because they love the FA Cup on Tyneside and Mike Ashley had promised them glory – just like he promised to make Sports Direct as good as John Lewis) and Manchester United getting a last minute penalty which (and here is the surprise )they actually scored from.
Work commitments (Ho, Ho, Ho) had prevented me from attending Ashburton Grove in December, so I signed up for ticket and coach when I heard the draw. I like visiting Arsenal, although I wouldn’t want to watch football there regularly. I found the mood at this game very downbeat and found myself irritated by the flags and the lack of any kind of passion from the stands. Lots of tickets being bought outside and lots of tourists there means that is beginning to get a lot like Old Trafford and Anfield.
It was also an opportunity to have a couple of pints in The Lamb, a splendid pub in Bloomsbury where Charles Dickens drank and probably considered putting together a portmanteau of his characters à la the enjoyable Dickensian on BBC 1. The Lamb is marginally less dangerous than The Three Cripples and the landlord did not appear to have a wooden leg. The bright and sunny dispositions of Ms Coldwell and Ms Jeynes were preferable to the gin swilling Mrs Gamp and the terminally miserable Fanny Biggetywitch. Mind you, one or two of the males in the group had a look of Mr Bumble and Sir Leicester Deadlock about them. Tiny Tim failed to appear – too busy tiptoeing through the tulips no doubt.
There was a good gathering of Sunderland fans including the esteemed editor and proprietor and the Young’s Bitter was on top form. It is one of the few pleasures of following Sunderland that you can drink good beer in splendid pubs with old friends from all over. It makes the long journeys worthwhile.
The team selected was a decent one with Jordan Pickford making his debut and Lens, Toivonen and Yedlin being given an opportunity to stake a claim for a regular place. Arsenal, keen to claim a hat trick of FA Cup wins, also turned out a strong side so the stage was set for a decent game. And that was what we got. Neither side were looking for a replay on whatever night the television paymaster dictated, so both went for a win. When Jeremain Lens took advantage of a slip by an Arsenal defender and beat Cech, our hopes lifted. Could this be the win that started the latest version of The Great Escape? Could we be heading for yet another Wembley final? How strong was the Young’s Bitter?
Reality was established when the now traditional huge gap appeared down one of our flanks and Walcott squared for Campbell to slot the ball past Pickford. They finished the half stronger and looked as if they were in a hurry to finish the job.
After an enjoyable conversation with Eric, oft of this parish (tough enough to wear a short sleeved Sunderland shirt and NO COAT – a veritable Bill Sikes), the second half commenced and Arsenal ramped up the pressure. It looked as if they were going to regain the lead but we came closest when an excellent cross from M’Vila was headed over by our resident hipster, Steven Fletcher.
Then the changes came. With both eyes on the game at Swansea on Saturday, the manger had already replaced a tiring Cattermole with M’Vila and then off came O’Shea with Billy Jones taking the role of centre half. Arsenal responded by taking off Iwobi (quite impressed by him) and Chambers and sending on Ramsey and Arteta. Somewhere out there, Ian Harte shuddered at the name of Arteta – he is Holmes to the Spaniards Moriarty.
The instructions were clear. “There is a huge gap down their left hand side. Their midfield enforcer and best central defender have gone off. They have a back four consisting of two full backs who can’t defend and a couple of worthy plodders in the middle. Go out there and seize the day and bring glory to the crowd. And try to wake them up while you are at it.” Of course, it worked. Bellerin exploited the space that Van Aanholt left and set up two goals for Ramsey and Giroud and that was it.
There was a late flourish at the end as Mavrias came on for his first game since Nick Clegg was a recognisable face (the less said about his foul throw the better) and we went out of the Cup with our heads held a little higher than they were at Valley Parade last year or the KC Stadium the year before.
There were positives to take. Pickford’s debut was one of them. His all-round goalkeeping was good and his distribution was better than some of our midfielders. He found a Sunderland shirt more times in one game than Bridcutt did in two years. Definitely one for the future and it means that we have a Romanian or Italian keeper going spare. I think it will be goodbye to The Giant Pantilimon. Lens did well in the role he was asked to play and he took his goal very well indeed. He gave the third best keeper in the Premier League (after Pickford and Lloris) no chance with his shot and he generally looked interested. There may well have been a scout from Roma or Ajax looking at him, but he worked hard and did all that Allardyce would have asked from him.
But there were weaknesses. Our full backs just cannot defend. Yedlin is busy and wants to be involved but he gets pulled out of position far too easily. Poor Danny Graham was given the job of covering for him and he did it effectively, but why should he have to do that when all he has on his mind is scoring, scoring, scoring? He was absolutely drained at the end of the game and must be looking forward to a nice rest on the bench on Wednesday. Van Aanholt goes forward well but, as the two second half goals showed, he simply cannot defend.
The journey home was a long one, the equivalent of Pip and Herbert Pocket travelling from London for Satis House in Rochester. It rained the entire length of England as books were read, Magnum’s were consumed and music was listened to. The ultimate Dickensian optimist is Wilkins Micawber with his quotes about misery and happiness. His motto is the same as that of the city – “Nil Desperandum” – “Never despair”. I wasn’t in despair after this game but a similar score line at The Liberty Stadium on Wednesday and I may well need to change my tack on this and ask “What the Dickens is going on here?”