Of the Salut! Sunderland editing team, one started the day in Spain, one was heading for Kendal (though he had been to Saturday’s goalless draw with Swansea), one is in Spain, one was working out a route to the Presqu’île du Gaou and the other was probably beating his own jogging record in Richmond Park (update: wasn’t far off – having driven back from the match, Nic Wiseman was doing a half-marathon). Even Pete Sixsmith beetled off to Tynecastle once he’d written this account of the game. Eventually someone returned to post his thoughts …..
We are getting closer to that elusive first Premier League win of the season and I suspect that many left the Stadium on Saturday with a sense that the glass was half full instead of being half empty. That we restricted a good Swansea side to one shot on target and forced their goalkeeper into making some decent saves is something to be optimistic about.
So, as Bing Crosby crooned, “let’s accentuate the positive” and focus on what we did well.
The back four looked sound and solid, with Jones fitting in well and Vergini showing that he is worthy of a place in the Argentina national squad. Our once hirsute right back, a decidedly low key signing from West Brom, got forward well, linked up with whoever his winger happened to be and defended solidly, giving the much vaunted Nathan Dyer and slightly less vaunted Wayne Routledge little opportunity to create havoc in our penalty box.
Vergini looks like the footballing equivalent of Nick Lowe – cool, classy and unruffled. He reads the game very well and brings the ball out like a midfielder. He is no Passarella or Rattin (ask yer granddad) but he fits in with the style of play that the manager is trying to inculcate into his players.
By and large, that style worked on Saturday against a team who also like to move it around. Swansea were nowhere near as mesmerising as Tottenham had been two weeks ago and their players are not as high class as Eriksen, Lamella and Dembele, but in Shelvey , Ki and Sigurdsson they have as good a trio as you will find outside of the so called top group.
That these three were largely ineffective is due to the hard work that we put into closing them down. As so often this season, Lee Cattermole was immense, organising, tackling and pushing forward, often all at the same time. He looks a very good player and, if he played for a team within the M25 or if his manager was a Croydon Boy, he would be getting out his passport for the trip to whichever low ranking European country England will be visiting in a couple of weeks’ time.
Larsson worked equally hard and nullified any threat from Ki, whose game was a microcosm of his season with us; started well, plateaued and then faded away badly at the end. A good player but lacking a little bit in a fierce league like the Premier.
Out wide, Johnson had a one of his better games, throwing out some splendid long passes to Buckley, who did equally well running at his full backs – and forcing the only player in English football with a name that rhymes, Angel Rangel, into a stupid barge that saw him dispatched down the tunnel by Chris Foy – of whom more later.
There was an excellent cameo performance from Alvarez who showed that he can tantalise and torment and who could be a real asset for us once he has fully settled in to a new and different culture. He has Spanish speakers around him and some Italians so that will make it easier for him. What he makes of Cattermole and his Teesside drawl is another thing altogether.
Perhaps Lee will take him home to meet “our mam and our dad” as long as he doesn’t give him any chew in the dressing room.
Wickham did well up front in the face of a series of attacks by Williams and Ferenandez, who both unwittingly paid homage to Kent Walton and that generation who were grapple fans on Saturday afternoons.
Playing with his back to goal, many of the challenges on our young tyro were reminiscent of the tactics practiced by Les Kellett and Davy “Tally-Ho” Kaye as they attempted to throw a superior opponent to the ground.
Mr Foy eventually recognised this and summonsed Williams for a chat – and then allowed Swansea to continue with their tactic until he finally booked Williams just after the break. It rather summed up a poor performance from a referee who is usually one of the better ones. His booking of Cattermole for what I saw as a good challenge on Sigurdsson, struck me as a booking for the name rather than the offence. That Cattermole was as good as gold after that is a testimony to his increasing maturity.
Of the others, Mannone had a quiet afternoon, O’Shea and van Aanholt were hardly troubled and Gomez and Fletcher made valuable contributions in the latter stages. Fletcher may well have scored; his header was close, but not close enough.
And what about Jack Rodwell, hitherto unmentioned? Another anonymous game I am afraid, from a player who seems to be struggling with the demands that Gus’s pressing game places on him. I was unfair last week in likening him to Heslop, Doyle and Cunnington – he is a far, far better player than any of those, but he is in danger of losing his place unless he begins to take control of the centre midfield – which is what he was brought to the club to do.
He is a strong player and when he gets going, he is surprisingly quick. But the game often seems to pass him by and he is unable to make a significant contribution to it. He looks fitter and leaner than when he arrived, but more was expected from him and whereas bargain buys like Buckley have hit the ground running, he still hasn’t really impressed. Maybe a few days on the beach at home in Southport and a couple of pints in The Guest House will help.
As for Swansea, they are a neat and tidy side but can have few complaints about anything that happened. Spanish Rhyming Man was correctly sent off for two yellows, the first one being for throwing the ball away. Think of a word to rhyme with cat and you will probably sum up how Swans fans feel about him. I like Sigurdsson who is the kind of player who will do well in any team and it was good to see Neil Taylor back in action after his horrific injury against us two years ago. They are a good outside bet for either of the two cups.
However, amidst all the positives, there is one huge, negative elephant in the room – we failed to win. Had Connor Wickham stuck away a straightforward header from an excellent Larsson cross, we would have got that monkey off our backs and I would have been glowing as I write this rather than chuntering away. The Norwegian gentleman sat next to me, fresh from walking the length of Hadrians Wall, would have returned to the land of fjords and parrots having seen a goal. In true Norwegian style, he wanted to see both sides resort to the long ball. That may explain why Norwegian football is in the doldrums.
The game was the centrepiece of an enjoyable day. The morning was taken up with a beard trim (I was being asked if I was appearing as Santa at the Cornmill Centre in Darlington), my annual flu jab (always an exciting event) and a good breakfast, while the evening was spent in the enjoyable company of folk singer and star of War Horse, Bob Fox. A Seaham lad who watches out for Sunderland, he put on a splendid show for those at the Davy Lamp Folk Club in Washington – but was upstaged by his granddaughter Emily, who clog danced, sang and played the fiddle with the accomplishment of one beyond her nine years. A star in the making – and you read it here first.
And Shildon beat Stalybridge Celtic 1-0 in the FA Cup; the equivalent of Cambridge United knocking us out. It could be a Shildon v Sunderland final in May. That would cause some problems.
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