SAFC 3 Birmingham 1: precisely what the doctor ordered. And what a stormer of a match, rightly praised in the dodgy stream commentary and now lauded by
Pete Sixsmith, who wonders if we can follow up the really hard bit – getting some points on the board – with a more relaxed, less backs-to-the-wall approach …
There’s an old adage that keepers may not win you matches, but they make sure you don’t lose ‘em. The fact that we have taken four points from the last two games is largely down to our oft maligned Scottish keeper.
Add a 20+ goals a year man in Bent and that is why we are sitting reasonably comfortably in mid table, with Stoke City and Fulham in our sights as we banish the relegation fears of January and February.
Of course, it’s by no means over – a considerable amount of warbling from obese females awaits those below us – but I would put at least one of my many mortgages on Burnley and Hull visiting the Riverside Stadium next year. We still have to play both in what should be tense and fraught games for Brian Laws and Iain Dowie.
Saturday was as enjoyable a game as I have seen for a long time at the Stadium. The mythical neutral, who just “fancies watching a game of football”, would have thoroughly enjoyed this one.
He would have seen a fringe England player take two early opportunities, partly due to incisive passing from Richardson and Malbranque, partly due to defending reminiscent of some of ours.
He would have seen two central defenders complementing each other – Mensah’s pace and acceleration and Turner’s excellent heading and ability to step in and win a ball.
He would have seen Steed Malbranque who, as Joan Dawson put it, “looks like an insurance clerk out of a Flaubert novel”, turn in another sterling performance on the left.
He would have seen a spirited and pacy Birmingham side – not adjectives usually attached to Blues who, in the past, have always seemed to be the epitome of dour, humourless efficiency.
Yesterday they were very impressive, and if they had another forward to partner Cameron Jerome, could do well next year. They were asleep at the back in the early stages and Johnson and Dann were less impressive than they had been at St Andrew’s, but Carr had a stormer and Barry Ferguson was imperious in midfield. He hardly wasted a ball and gave an object lesson in how to be a slightly better player than your big brother.
Blues outpassed us and we slipped back into our bad habits at times by giving the ball away far too cheaply. We don’t seem to have players who can pass carefully and accurately; with Spurs and Manchester United to come, we must do our very, very best to correct this.
And so to Gordon. He has had his critics. I have wondered about him at times. People whose judgement I trust have written him off as an OK keeper, but not one to build a team around.
But he has shown this season that he is a top class player. He was doing well before his broken arm, and after a shaky return at Portsmouth, he has grown in strength and confidence.
Confidence comes from knowing who is playing in front of you. In his time at Sunderland, he has had a number of central defenders he has had to work with. Look at the names; McShane, Nosworthy, Ferdinand, Evans, Collins, Higginbotham. Decent players, but, Evans apart, not one of them a dominant centre half.
Now look at Mensah and Turner. One is a big man who wins the ball in the air while the other is as good a reader of a game as you will see. Both inspire confidence in a keeper and that confidence radiates out from the keeper meaning that he can concentrate on his own game and not wonder what his defenders are going to do.
Let us hope we have got the spine of the team right, that Cana and Cattermole will restore their early season dominance and that the return of Reid may give us a little bit of class and quality.
We have interesting games coming up. All of our opponents have something to play for, be it the title, fourth place, or avoiding relegation. While we are not completely safe, we can relax a wee bit and maybe play with the confidence and composure shown by Birmingham.
There is still work to be done by the management team, but we can now await the return of our beloved Tyneside neighbours with a degree of optimism, although I would have preferred them to be scrapping for a play off place. And Andy Carroll for England —- it beggars belief!!