Malcolm Dawson writes: Just over twelve months ago we celebrated another great escape. But it wasn’t just avoiding relegation that thrilled us. As Fat Sam and the boys danced around the pitch we saw a team that appeared to have taken the club, the city and the fans to their collective heart, working for a manager that understood just how much it all meant to we supporters. Our two loanees, M’Vila and Yedlin seemed to love the place. While the former made his wish to return clear, the latter had seen his game improve no end under Allardyce. The players signed in the January window had all committed 100 per cent and made a huge difference in the fight for survival.
Fast forward 367 days and one of our loan players was nowhere to be seen and another couldn’t wait to get off the pitch. This year’s January arrivals had little impact (when not injured) then the the one who had shown glimpses of being a game changer posted pictures of his suitcases packed and ready to go and looked a shadow of his earlier self. He was soon clutching his hamstring and left the field before half time in what I predict will be his last Sunderland appearance. It may have been a genuine injury but it was certainly a convenient one for him.
The Swansea fans were great in their support of Bradley Lowery, the plane and banner were a bit of a damp squib and a waste of money, though unlike many others I thought the message was appropriate in that it was a mild piece of mickey taking while making the point that in life some things are more important than football. But anyway you haven’t come to read my thoughts. You’ve come to read Pete Sixsmith’s and here they are.
SWANSEA CITY (HOME)
And so it was that I said goodbye to the seat that I have occupied in the Stadium for the last thirteen years. East Stand Row 30 Seat 404 has given me some good memories: Carlos Edwards scoring a belter against Burnley. Ji Dong Won poking one over the line against Manchester City . Committed team performances against technically superior opposition on a number of occasions and a feeling that we were never too far away from getting it right.
Twelve months ago I saw us come back from 2-1 down to beat Chelsea and all but secure our place in the Premier League and then four days later, see off Everton and Roberto Martinez on a raucous night that was reminiscent of the big nights at Roker. Lamine Kone scored two and was touted as the next Charlie Hurley. Wahbi Khazri sparkled and under the wily guidance of Sam Allardyce, we looked forward to at least one season of security in the Premier League while Our Friends from the North lurched around in the Championship.
What a difference a year makes. Lamine Kone looks more like Steve Hetzke than Charlie Hurley. Wahbi Khazri’s sparkle has dulled to the extent that he rarely starts a game and Allardyce is now engineering another relegation fight at Crystal Bloody Palace.
His replacement, a man once touted as the future at Old Trafford and who arrived at Sunderland with enough good will to fill a convoy of Wearside built SD 14s, is now seen as a manager with no imagination, no tactical nous and who the majority of the support now want to see consigned to the history books. This, after a season that is as bad as anything that Monsieur Salut and I have experienced in our 50+ years of watching a club that we fell in love with in the 60s but one with which we are rapidly becoming totally disillusioned.
For my final appearance in the aforementioned seat, I witnessed a performance that was a complete and utter disgrace and an insult to the support that turned up (about 28,000 I would guess), to those who have lost their positions at the club due to the ineptitude of the manager and to those all over the world who have to carry the stigmata of “Sunderland Supporter” as in “Gan canny with him/her, he/she’s a Sunderland supporter so there’s bound to be gloom in their lives.”
(There is a classic line in an episode of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads which goes something like ….”you must remember her man! Devout Methodists, went leafleting every Sunday morning. Lived above a fish and chip shop. Her dad was a Sunderland supporter so it was hardly a house of joy and merriment.” Forty odd years later and still relevant! Ed)
We don’t like losing but we accept it as part and parcel of the game (Arsenal fans take note). We accept that, from time to time, a poor performance will be turned in but we wake up the next day looking forward to eradicating that memory and getting on with things. We even accept the odd relegation. Hark back to 2005-06 where the players were known to be limited, the manager also and there was no booing, no turning on Mick McCarthy, just a realisation that we were not good enough in every department.
But this relegation is the nastiest one I have experienced. The link between club and support has been stretched so far that it could well be irretrievably broken. We have seen a generous and well meaning owner make a complete arse of things in his eight year tenure to the extent that we now await any passing Chinese or Middle Eastern consortium to buy the club and pour limitless funds into it so we can clamber back into a Premier League that we have never quite been able to get our heads round.
This abject and toe curling defeat to an organised, committed and well supported Swansea side, really was the nadir of our time at The Stadium of Light. The team selection was awful as were the tactics and the commitment to the cause was as believable as a UKIP leaders CV. It really was a disgrace and it led to loyal supporters either not turning up or leaving the ground as Kyle Naughton found a hole in our defence big enough to steer that convoy of Doxfords SD14s through, to fire home a splendid second goal and possibly seal Premier League football in South Wales for another season.
We were already a goal down from a Swansea set piece. Surely the players had been told not to give away free kicks anywhere near the box. Surely they had been told that Llorente had headed more goals than any other player in the Premier League and that he needed to be marked tightly. Surely the goalkeeper had enough confidence in his central defenders to trust them on this.
The answer is obviously “Nay.” Anichebe, his cult status now well and truly gone, fouled Naughton on the right. Up stepped Swansea’s classiest player, Gylfi Sigurdsson, to deliver the kind of free kick that we can only dream about, heading straight for the napper of Ferdinand Llorente. Jordan Pickford made the wrong decision to come for it and was nowhere near the ball as the man with six headed goals made it seven with a thumping header to set Swansea on their way to a crucial win.
From that moment on we looked what we are – a side who do not believe in the manager, who do not believe in his tactics and who in too many cases, do not want to be here. Denayer went off with an injury, no doubt thinking that there was little point in aggravating a knock when he will be looking for another (better) loan deal come August. He was replaced by Gibson, a player who has not made an auspicious start to his Sunderland career and who did absolutely nothing to show that he will be an asset in the blood and thunder of the Championship next season.
Anichebe was the next one to go off. He has cut a forlorn figure wide on the left and showed as much interest in this game as I do in the Eurovision Song Contest. He needs to play through the middle where he can use his considerable strength to challenge central defenders, not stuck out wide and having to track back against marauding full backs. I can see that, the people sat around me can see that and even the Man in the Moon can see it. David Moyes can’t. Anichebe limped off, with all of us knowing that there would be no contract for next season.
In fact of the 13 who “played” the only ones who will be starting at Burton or Brentford or Birmingham will be Jones, Ndong (again our best outfield player) Gibson and probably, O’Shea. Pickford, Kone and Khazri will be sold. Defoe will leave. Manquillo and Denayer will return to their parent clubs, who will be hoping that they have not been permanently scarred by the miserable year they have spent at Sunderland. There will be no new contracts for Anichebe, Larsson and Borini (the biggest disappointment of the season for me). Mannone will leave as well as will the likes of Lescott and Pienaar. We appear to be stuck with Rodwell and Djilobodji. Championship teams will make hay against those two.
As for the manager, he must have a Teflon skin. He was jeered throughout and the chants for his departure spread to the usually placid occupants of the East Stand. An impeccable source tells me that when he walked through the restaurant of the Hilton adjacent to the Stadium, he was told “to get out of here” by one of the diners. Restaurant, club or city? Take your pick.