Earlier in the season, it seemed we could pick up points against the top teams while underperforming against the rest. Now we just underperform against everyone. Or can we snatch victory – even in the shape of a draw – from the jaws of much predicted defeat at the Emirates tomorrow? Pete Sixsmith prepares for a long day ..
So, Saturday sees my first Sunderland away game of 2010. Having missed Chelsea (too expensive), Portsmouth in the Cup (preferred Roker Park, Stotfold in the FA Vase) and the midweek excursions to Goodison and Fratton Parks (thanks, PL Computer), I am back on the road at 6.30 am tomorrow, armed with Walkman, Guardian, book, reading light, pies and sandwiches, heading for Ashburton Grove in order to watch the third best team in the Premier League play the thirteenth.
Do I travel with any degree of optimism? Well, you have to hope, but I can’t really see anything coming of it. We have a reduced midfield and a defence that leaks more readily than an embittered civil servant. Recently, we have slung away eight points because of shoddy defending in the last 10 minutes. Had we held on for two of those games, we could be looking upwards at Fulham rather than downwards at Wolves.
Nor can we take much solace from Arsenal’s midweek calamity in Oporto. Presumably Professor Wenger will select a goalkeeper rather than give the gloves to a Polish tourist who just happened to be wandering past the training ground and who fancied a couple of days away. The first goal Fabianski conceded was reminiscent of me at my worst when “playing” for Shildon Sunderland Supporters in the late 70s. The second one was the kind of goal that a meek 12 year old would give away, leading to him throwing his gloves away, refusing to speak to anyone and taking up something less humiliating like Morris Dancing.
Having said that, Highbury/Ashburton Grove are grounds where I have seen some of our stouter away performances over the years. I first visited the Marble Halls in 1966 and remember Charlie Hurley heading home a late equaliser. Highbury was impressive (although not as big as Roker Park) but it had an aura of metropolitan class and an aura about it, personified by the Metropolitan Police Band and the tenor who warbled away pre match..
This was my first overnight trip to London on John Tennick’s bus. It picked me up in Darlington at 12.30 am opposite the Imperial Hotel. I had caught the last United over from Shildon and stood, collar turned up, in a shop doorway with a couple of others awaiting the arrival of the Hall Brothers coach. Darlington at midnight was deathly quiet in those days. I would not be too keen on hanging around shop doorways at midnight nowadays.
The coach trip took hours – this was before the motorways were built – and we trundled through the likes of Boroughbridge, Grantham and Baldock before arriving at Midland Road in time for breakfast at The ABC Café in Euston Road. The morning was spent looking at the sights of London, then off to the game, where I seem to remember someone buying a Newcastle United rosette and burning it outside the ground. Whatever happened to rosettes? I still have the ’73 Cup Final one in my car.
After the game, I/we went to Battersea Park Fun Fair, which was on its last legs and was pretty grim, before ending up in Soho and gazing at the ladies of the night who hung out there. I even had my first pint of London Beer, which I remember as being warm, flat and without a head.
I recollect sprinting back to Midland Road for an 11.00 departure and then a long coach journey home, sleeping fitfully, arriving in Darlington at 6, and walking up to the station to cadge a lift back to Shildon on the newspaper truck and then straight into Jimmy Wilson’s paper shop and out on the round. Something should have warned me that you really should do something better and more productive with your time.
Since then, I have seen Colin West nick an entirely undeserved win in the early 80s, watched Clive Walker bring us back from 2 down only for our defence to collapse late on and concede a third goal and been present at the worst display of refereeing I have ever seen when Paul Danson sent Scott and Stewart off. That was so bad, that Pete Horan and me ended up in The Lamb just after half time, having been given some unpleasant looks as we complained in the toilets during the interval.
I saw Dennis Bergkamp score a wonder goal in a 4-1 defeat and realised that Mick McCartney’s team were relegation certs as we shipped 3 goals in the opening 20 minutes on our final visit to Highbury.
As for Ashburton Grove, we performed well in a 3-2 defeat with Kenwyne having a cracking game and last season we were comfortable in a goalless draw which raised us into mid table and was certainly not a forewarning of the nerve wracking end of the season we had to face.
For this one, I would be delighted to continue the run of draws. We may well attack them rather than sit deep. If Jones and Bent get some decent service we may be able to scare them. They are a side who can be low on confidence, but the danger is they will simply out pass us, in which case another Stamford Bridge may well be in the offing. We need a boost to our confidence to ensure that we can get away from the huddle at the bottom. I fear it will have to wait until Fulham next Sunday.