Malcolm Dawson writes……when the season ends the way it has for the past four years, it’s easy to forget the misery and frustration that was the norm in earlier times. Threats of not renewing season tickets, giving up on away trips and concentrating on the Northern League seem light years away in the warmth of the spring sunshine and the euphoria of finishing 4th from bottom. Ain’t it funny how grown men kicking a ball about can have such an effect on our emotions and sense of well being. As he has done all season Pete Sixsmith got up early and made the long trip to bring us his account of the final game – a game which thankfully was irrelevant in terms of league position but could have a significant effect on Sam Allardyce’s plans for 2016/17.
The season ended in a very pleasant way with a very pleasant game on a very pleasant afternoon in very pleasant company. The Watford fans were very pleasant as they waved us goodbye and after a very pleasant journey home on a very pleasant coach, it was off to my very pleasant bed to dream very pleasant dreams of a Sunderland side looking comfortable in 2016-17.
Watford strikes me as being neither fish nor fowl. It’s clearly not a suburb of London but it struggles to have a separate identity. The football team reflects that. They have picked up players from other London clubs (Gomes. Capoue, Ake) and their proximity to Heathrow and Luton Airports must make it easier to bring in Italians, Spaniards and other nationalities.
It’s a prosperous town if the route back to the M1 is anything to go by. Row after row of houses with several cars parked on the large drives, houses that were as big as half my street and hedges and walls to keep out any unwanted visitors. It’s a route that reflects the differences between the prosperous South East and the impoverished North East, as the Watford coaches would have noticed as they went past areas like Southwick and Castletown on their way to the A19.
They have had a good season, retaining their place in the top flight for the first time since football began way back in 1992 and have been playing some decent stuff. They have an iconic centre forward in Troy Deeney, another prolific scorer in Odion Ighalo and they defend well enough to have never been under any threat of slipping back into the Championship. But they have released their Head Coach, Quique Sanchez Flores, who came across as a dignified and thoughtful man and who appeared to have the support of the fans. Maybe he was found with his hand in the petty cash or perhaps he refused to pay his share of the biscuit money. He should find a job in English football fairly quickly.
As for Sam Allardyce, he lightened up on Wednesday where his display of dancing was on a par with Dad At A Wedding, and he remained in that mood as he threw caution to the wind and picked a whole new team, including four members of the Under 21 squad that did so well to finish second behind Manchester United in the Under 21 League. All four acquitted themselves well. We have seen Jordan Pickford before and he maintained the form he had shown at Arsenal and Tottenham in his third game in the London area. His catching was good, his distribution better and he showed that he will be a very capable deputy for Mannone next season.
Before kick-off, while the two keepers were warming up, Costel Pantilimon broke off from his warm up, hugged Mannone and Pickford and gave the Sunderland support a round of applause. Top man.
Thomas Robson came in at left back and grew into the game. He formed a left wing partnership with Rees Greenwood and both looked as if they are real players. Seb Larsson had a word as they lined up and presumably told them to work for each other and that he would come across and help them out. Greenwood settled quicker and was clearly under instructions to run at defenders. He had some good touches and played some good balls in before he departed just after half time to be replaced by the slightly less effective George Honeyman. Robson stuck to his task and later on in the game could be seen telling John O’Shea where to stand . On this showing he could well make the move up sooner rather than later.
There were others given the opportunity to show what they could do. Jack Rodwell had a decent (that word again) game and scored a good opener. He looked comfortable in the Kirchhoff role,i n front of the back four and showed why he was so highly rated a few years ago. I hope there is more to come; the last two years have not been great for him.
He was joined in midfield by Jeremaine Lens who has had a very disappointing start to his Sunderland career. He has hardly kicked a ball since Allardyce took over and there is a feeling that he is not really the kind of player that the gum chewing terpsichorean likes. He showed some excellent touches in this game. It was his ball that played Rodwell in for the first goal and he scored the second with consummate ease showing remarkable coolness in the box. Whether he is a Sunderland player next season remains very much in doubt, but this cameo showed us what might have been.
Finally, Dame N’Doye got a start up front and looked a far better player for it. He can control a ball well and he is capable of shrugging off challenges. He scored a good goal which looked to be onside (as Did Duncan Watmore’s in the first half) and it was possible to see what Allardyce saw in him when he brought him into the club. He will probably be on his way back to Turkey after this. There should be better options out there this summer.
Of the others, John O’Shea was disappointing, missing a header for the first equaliser and conceding a soft penalty for the second. Seb Larsson, in what could well have been his final Sunderland game, played the same type of game he has played for the five seasons he has spent with us. A good player and a good influence.
So, that’s it. It was a successful season in that we dodged the bullet while our avian chums didn’t. We appear to have a manager who suits us as a club and there is room for quiet optimism. But we repeat the mantra “never again, never again” as we have done for the last three years.
I have enjoyed the travelling and the company and look forward to next season with the unbridled optimism that comes from not having to visit The Pirelli Stadium, Burton-on-Trent or The New York Stadium, Rotherham.
Ha’way The Lads.