Malcolm Dawson writes……..Pete Sixsmith’s report of events on the south coast is a little later than usual because of late night pints in Wiltshire and Rugby League in Featherstone, West Yorkshire but as always it is worth the wait. We are in a better place than we were a few weeks ago but with a bit more composure, a bit more luck we could be sleeping much more soundly. But isn’t this what it’s always like supporting Sunderland?
SOUTHAMPTON (a) March 2016.
Eighteen months ago, as we trooped away from St Mary’s on the wrong end of an embarrassing 8-0 beating, the general feeling was more anger than disappointment. You feel anger when the ineptitude of the team you follow is ruthlessly exploited by a side that are far better in every department than you are and that was the case for the Saints that day and as were Bournemouth were at The Sports Direct on Saturday. You feel disappointment when a game that you should have won is snatched from you with the last kick of the match due to shoddy defending.
Having said that, we snatched a point on Tuesday night in the final minute courtesy of Fabio Borini’s stunner and Alan Pardew would have been as glum as Sam Allardyce was post-game (the Future England Manager would have been a sight glummer after losing to a dubious last second penner against Liverpool).
But what a difference the extra two points would have made, putting us three clear of the relegation zone and only six behind Palace. The panic spreading round the Sports Direct, the flatlands of Norfolk and the laughingly styled Ultras in the Holmesdale Road end of the Premier League’s worst stadium, would have made our job of hanging on to our place at the top table, considerably easier.
Southampton were a shadow of the team that has, once again, done well this season. Mane and Tadic were as disappointing as they had been impressive last year. Steven Davies played football as if he were that snooker player from the dim and distant past with only Virgil van Dijk really looking the part, playing with the verve and flair that we associate with his American name sake when he appeared in the Alan Shearer Story aka Mary Poppins.
We should have inflicted a third defeat in a week on them as we took advantage of Jose Fonte’s red card for dragging back Borini. We had already forced Forster into a couple of decent saves and we continued to press and when Lamine Kone forced his way through some feeble tackles and crossed the ball for Jermain Defoe to slip the ball into the net with five minutes remaining, we thought that we were home and dry and that a boozy evening in Salisbury beckoned.
All we had to do was hold out for five minutes and the four point haul for the week, that the manager had spoken of, were in the bag. News that they had pulled a goal back at The Sports Direct increased the anxiety, but surely we could hold on. John O’Shea came on to bolster the defence and perhaps add a bit of composure to a nervy set of players, but we sat far too deep, allowed them to come on to us and paid the price when the excellent van Dijk, thundered home a powerful shot in the third of four minutes of added time.
Saints fans celebrated knowing that they had nicked a scarcely deserved point. We stood there dumbfounded as two valuable points slipped from our grasp, a feeling that was not assuaged by the news from Newcastle and Swansea.
The consensus on the hike back to Southampton Central was that we had handled the last five minutes about as effectively as the club has handled the fallout from the Johnson affair. Both needed vision, calmness and an ability to do the right thing. Neither came up to scratch on those points.
The manager was even more downbeat than usual afterwards. For a centre half who made a career out of tackling effectively and not defending in your own 18-yard box, he must have been angry with his players as they came back into the dressing room.
The conversation would not have been pleasant and may well have focused on a situation just before van Dijk scored, where we failed to retain the ball while we were up field and instead of running it into the corner. Yedlin (who had a decent game) knocked an aimless ball into the Southampton box, which allowed them to have one last yahoo in a game where their yahoos had been conspicuous by their absence. When the ball arrived in our box, did we knock it sixty yards down the pitch? It’s a rhetorical question because they equalised.
Our defending was frantic towards the end when it needed to be calm and authoritative. Kone was immense at times and Kaboul defended his line but showed why Pochettino was not prepared to play him at Spurs with a succession of big boots up field when a more thoughtful approach was required.
Defoe’s goal sparked scenes of delight amongst the 2,300 Sunderland fans in the corner (good to see Eric of this parish, John Marshall and Kevin Maguire). He took it well and offered much more than N’Doye did, although the Senegalese striker did cause Fonte and van Dijk some problems when the ball was played in his direction. But he is not a player who will sit on the shoulder of defenders and he appears to relish the physical aspects of the game above the more subtle.
Jack Rodwell should have put us ahead in the first half and Khazri was always a good outlet as was Borini. Once again, Kirchhoff was outstanding in the first half before he faded in the second. M’Vila looked much more comfortable without Cattermole alongside him.
Mannone had an excellent game. He made two brilliant saves in the first half, his handling was firm, particularly during that last, frantic nine minutes and his distribution was greatly improved. Pickford may have to wait a little longer for the No.1 jersey.
The result did put a damper on what had been a good weekend. Salisbury was splendid in the Spring sunshine, with the Bed and Breakfast and the Duke of York (pub, not Prince Charles’s dimmer younger brother) well up to the standards of previous years.
Thursday night we took in a Wessex Premier League game between Folland Sports and Andover Town which was high on energy but not quite as much on quality. On Friday we had a bit of culture in Bath with a couple of hours spent taking the waters of the Roman Bath and twice as long taking the hop, malt and barley infused waters to be found in such fine hostelries as The Salamander, The Raven and The Old Green Tree.
And so, we have a week off and there is time for Norwich and Newcastle to clamber above us. The derby looms, a game that is crucial for both clubs. It wasn’t a good week for Sunderland supporters as the Johnson case was discussed in public. There have been scathing pieces in The Guardian and The Observer and others have been very critical of the club and the way that they have handled the whole affair. Hopefully, what happens off the pitch will not affect what happens on it because if it does, we may as well save our money and resign ourselves to relegation.
And the season ticket renewals arrived this weekend………