As the season enters its final phase a depressed Pete Sixsmith witnesses not so much a horror show as a no show at Upton Park. Be warned: this is not for the faint hearted …
West Ham was my fourth visit to London this season. The first three journeys back up the A1/M1 were more than satisfactory and the talk on the coach was of moving up the league and even looking for a place in Europe. It was a different conversation this time.
The average age of the people who sit in our bit of the bus is 50+. They have been Sunderland fans all of their lives. If there is one thing we know, it is the stench of a team sliding towards the relegation trapdoor. The stench filled our nostrils as we travelled north and is still there this morning as we look at the league tables and the fixture lists.
Teams don’t have to play badly to get relegated; they have to play with no discernible idea of what they are doing. The Len Ashurst side of ’85, Dennis Smith’s Class of ’91 and Reidy’s first stab at the top level in ’97 all slid away in March and April – and that is the situation we are in now. Marx said history happens twice: the first time as tragedy (’58), the second as farce. He wasn’t a Sunderland fan, so he couldn’t write about the third, fourth and fifth times.
The team has no ideas. The same style of football is played week after week and the opposition know exactly what to do. There is nobody on the field who can give us a change of direction. West Ham were struggling for the first half hour as their midfield attempted to come to terms with experienced pros like Malbranque, Whitehead and Richardson. Their young forwards made no headway against the likes of Collins and Ferdinand. Gordon had little to do other than wonder at a week that had seen him reinstated as Scotland and Sunderland keeper.
But we produced nothing more than a few long range shots from the hard working Grant Leadbitter. We never once got around the back of the West Ham defence in order to put the ball on to Cisse’s head. We did not run at their midfield with penetrating balls to exploit their weaknesses and our strengths. We employed Darryl Murphy wide on the left when David Healy up front would have been a better option and, as the last of the 45 first-half minutes ticked away, there was a feeling that we had blown our chance.
We had. Sloppy defending (Ricky and myself agree on that) allowed them to take the ball from one end of the pitch to the other and score. It was like a training ground drill where the coach says to the attackers: “Let’s see how we can control the ball in a quick break and I want the defenders to stand off.” We duly obliged and some 12-year-old managed to slide the ball over the line.
Bad time to let in the first, but hope springs eternal and there was a slight increase in optimism as Jones prepared to come on for Murphy. Unfortunately, we decided to implement another training ground drill, this time the one where the defenders allow the attackers a free header so they can see how accurately they can head the ball into the bottom corner of the net. Again, it worked perfectly and the game had gone.
There was more sadness than anger at the end, coupled with a widespread feeling that we would do well to reach 33 points, never mind 40. It must be a worrying time for some players as well, as they will have to take swingeing pay cuts next season, which means they will be visiting workingmen’s clubs rather than pole-dancing ones. But they can always move on. We’re stuck with this club for the rest of our lives.
I called Pete Horan a Jonah last week. Another example of how he always gets things spectacularly wrong: he took the plunge and renewed his season tickets on Wednesday April 1. Keep away from this man.