As SAFC confirm an 18 month contract for Ricky Sbragia, there’s little rest for Pete Sixsmith who, dismayed by the lack of Christmas Day matches, compensates by taking in two on Boxing Day.
The worst thing about Christmas is that there is rarely any football to be found on Christmas Eve and absolutely none on Christmas Day. I vaguely remember walking up to Headingley in the 1950s with my dad to watch the traditional game with Wakefield Trinity, but I can’t ever remember seeing football on Christmas Day. The last full league programme was on Christmas Day 1957, so since then people like me have had to put up with presents and turkey and brandy and bloody Cliff Richard and just hang on until Boxing Day for the football fix.
I can usually get a couple of games in on the 26th and this year was no exception. The majority of Northern League games are being played on the 27th. But the Billingham derby between Town (the junior club) and Synthonia (named after a particularly smelly chemical) kicked off at 11.00am and resulted in a deserved win for Town. They conceded an equaliser with two minutes to go, but grabbed the winner in injury time – shades of us under Keane last year!
So, having bagged one more game (season’s total 92) I set off up the A19 hopeful that number 93 would see an important home win – although I thought that the new man in charge of Rovers would prove a much harder proposition than the self styled Guv’nor.
For those of you who read The Observer, you may notice my observations on the first half of the season in this Sunday’s edition. When I tipped Blackburn for the drop, it was before they replaced Ince with Fat Sam. I think I may well be wrong on that prediction – a solid 3-0 win over Stoke being followed up by an equally solid 0-0 with us. I reckon the other two are right (West Brom and Portsmouth) and let’s hope the other one is Stoke or Midddlesbrough. One plays stinky football while the other plays football in a stinky town – neither would be missed.
Against Mrs Thatcher’s favourite team (she used to be President), we huffed and puffed like Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock in a desperate attempt to blow their house down. Nothing came of it. Lots of neat, effective football in midfield, but the lack of a real killer pass thwarted us throughout an increasingly frustrating afternoon.
The Guardian produced a piece this week which showed that it was easier to win away from home than it was at home this season, as so many teams like to counter attack. That is how we won at Spurs, Blackburn and Hull – suck them in and then finish them off with pace. To do this, you keep the game narrow and if there is no natural width in your opponents, you are laughing toffee apples as you collect three comfortable points.
It seems most unfair that teams should come and do this to us. It is relatively easy to exploit our lack of width, because we don’t have any. Steed and Reid tuck in and the idea is that Bardsley and Collins get forward. These two do really well as defenders and they both get forward at every available opportunity. Unfortunately, neither is even an adequate crosser of the ball and a fair proportion of our moves break down because of this.
Malbranque and Reid beavered away and were always looking to play the ball that Cisse or Jones would ram into the net, but the Blackburn players were jolly unsporting and kept intercepting it. Cisse kept running offside and Jones just kept running around with little real purpose.
The longer the game went on, the greater the fear was that Blackburn would pinch the points. Fulop made two good saves but was left stranded in the last minute as Roberts was played in. 40,000 heads were placed in 80,000 hands as the winner rolled into the net – and then were promptly taken out again to indulge in raucous laughter as Big Jase’s shot trickled to the right of the post for a goal kick. It was a bigger let off than that of a man who had spent Christmas Day eating sprouts and baked beans and drinking Guinness.
Everton on Sunday is against another team who do well away but can’t win at home. This is Sbragia’s first real test; he will have to make changes as one or two of the team looked well and truly shattered. Maybe Diouf can atone for his Pompey penalty horror by firing us to victory at Goodison while Whitehead and Leadbitter may well be restored to midfield. There are even rumours circulating that David Healy might get a game, but one miracle at Christmas is enough.