In half a century of following Sunderland, Pete Sixsmith has seen it all:opening day excitement, hope, nerves, dismay, despair … the list could bump his match report off the site. And he got most of that in one day on his trip to West Brom. Read on …
2014-15 WEST BROM (a)
So, off we go on the 50th anniversary tour, starting at The Hawthorns, as pleasant a stadium as you will find in the Premier League. It hasn’t changed radically since my first visit in 1967 and I like the club and their fans – loyal and committed and refreshingly lacking bandwagon jumpers. So that makes them a bit like us, doesn’t it?
The 7.35 from Thinford set off on time, with most of the familiar faces aboard. A quick chat then out with The Guardian and on with the earphones as Brian Matthew hosted Sounds of the Sixties. His voice is synonymous with away trips as many years were spent listening to him hosting Saturday Club on the Light Programme.
His SOTS show is unmissable for me, a combination of hits, classics and the odd stinker. Yesterday we had gems like Animal Farm by the The Kinks, The Snake by Al Wilson and Do You Know the Way to San Jose by Dionne Warwick, although we also had to put up with I’m Backing Britain by Bruce Forsyth – a genuine stinker, that one.
Lichfield was entered at about 10.50 after an impromptu stop at Woodhall where the driver followed the wrong Lees bus into the services. Breakfast was taken in one of the many small cafes that are scattered around this charming small city, dominated as it is by its splendid cathedral and the presence of Dr Samuel Johnson.
One of the good doctor’s students, David Garrick, gives his name to the theatre in the middle of the town. It appears to be thriving and has some good shows advertised; Joe Brown (minus Bruvvers), The Manfreds and The Sooty Show, although The Shadow of Cliff, a tribute to Cliff Richard, may not go quite as well.
Then, off to The Hawthorns and a stroll up the hill to the away end where I was frisked on the way in and walked into the usual juvenile crowd who still think it is clever and appropriate to sing about Steven Taylor, Alan Shearer and Yohan Cabaye. Jack Colback became their latest target. For some, supporting Sunderland equates with abusing Newcastle. Positive Sunderland songs please, boys and girls.
The team announcement revealed that Vergini was out (why, we know not – injury, registration problems?) and Roberge was in. Rodwell and van Aanholt made their debuts while Wickham and Fletcher were both selected.
New boys Buckley and Gomez made the bench as did Danny Graham. That was a bit of a surprise for the assembled masses.
We got off to a great start. Had anyone placed a bet on Lee Cattermole to open the scoring they would have paid for their day out. Had anyone placed a bet on Cattermole to blast in a 25 yarder into the top corner past a keeper on the fringe of the England team, it would have paid for their season ticket.
That seemed to settle us and we looked comfortable for the next 20 minutes. O’Shea marshalled the back four and talked a visibly nervous Valentin Roberge through those opening minutes. Rodwell tried to get into the game and Larsson and Cattermole gave us a very good base to work from. Wickham stayed wide leaving Fletcher on his own up front.
We could have had a second. A good cross by Larsson was headed wide by Roberge when he really should have scored. Had we gone two up, I suspect that West Brom heads would have gone down and their fans would have struggled to find the enthusiasm to lift their team. Their reception for new manager Alan Irvine was distinctly lukewarm.
And then the referee stepped in. Neil Swarbrick has a Facebook page dedicated to his refereeing inadequacies. I was tempted to join it after seeing him give Albion a spot kick for what was, well, absolutely nothing. Craig Gardner played a good long ball into the box and Roberge and Anichebe tussled as forwards and defenders have been doing since Old Carthusians played Royal Engineers, with the Albion man going down in a heap.
Up stepped Swarbrick, reaching for his back pocket (yellow card to Anichebe for simulation we thought) and he then pointed to the spot and booked the hapless Roberge. He was told it was for shirt pulling but it was a poor decision. To pull down a man of Anichebe’s size, Roberge would have had to have used both hands. He didn’t.
Roberge’s game fell apart after that. He never looks the most confident of players and this may well be his last game for Sunderland. He lacks the physicality needed to play in the Premier League and a return to France, Switzerland or Portugal would be good for him.
It also highlights the weaknesses that we still have at the back. Wes Brown had to fill in at right back and never looked entirely comfortable there. He is much better in the middle and the chances of him being turned by the likes of Anichebe are remote. We need another central defender before the window closes. A young, ambitious centre half that could learn from Brown and O’Shea (he was very good yesterday) would be ideal. There must be one in the Championship.
We played better in the second half and were on top before we fell asleep at the back. Mannone parried a shot from Graeme Dorrans and Gardner hooked it back into the danger area. Van Aanholt lost Berahino and the Baggie blasted it in. The mood in the away end changed.
But we picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves down and started all over again. Rodwell, who is desperately in need of games, was replaced by Gomez, Buckley came on for Johnson and Poyet went for it, taking Brown off for Jozy with ten minutes to go.
Gomez proved to be the catalyst. He played a one-two with van Aanholt and then put the full back away down the left. The Dutchman showed considerable aplomb as he got into the box and pulled the ball back for Larsson who finished really well.
The away end went wild and the clown behind me, who had spent the game booing Gardner, fell over the seat and broke it. Full of lager, he had done his best to spoil the afternoon for the majority of fans around him. It does make me think about whether I need this every other week.
It was a decent point for two sides who, on this showing, will not be looking to break into the Champions League group. There are still areas that we need to address. Until Rodwell is up to speed, an awful lot will fall onto the shoulders of Cattermole and Larsson. Cattermole had a splendid game yesterday and showed that he is much more than a hard tackler – although there was one clattering challenge on Dorrens which earned him a good talking to by Swarbrick.
And so, we are standing 8th in the table and in both cups. I would happily settle for that in March. United up next; wouldn’t it be nice to shove them into the bottom three.