Pete Sixsmith eulogises a thumpingly good display by Sunderland, heaping praise on supreme gifts and honest endeavour alike. He will return to the matter of the disappointingly low attendance but, for now, revels in the warm glow of resurgent times for the club …
As a retired 60 year old, I am less inclined to shout my head off at games and join in the singing than I was as a callow youth. But once in a while, something happens to make me forget my East Stand reserve and wish that I was stood in the Fulwell End again or even sitting in the South West Corner.
Saturday was such a day as we comfortably saw off the poorest Arsenal side I have seen for many years. I joined in with a couple of choruses of “They are by far the greatest side the world has ever seen” and contributed to a rousing rendition of “Sunderland, Sunderland, Sunderland” as our team battered the North Londoners into oblivion.
At no stage in the 90 minutes did I feel that Arsenal would threaten us as our midfield closed them down and our defence was resolute. Plus, we had by far and away the most accomplished player on the pitch in Stéphane Sessegnon, who was a constant threat to the visitors back line and who showed skill levels I have never seen in a Sunderland player.
Towards the end of the game, he chipped the ball over the head of Vermaelen, took the ball forward and delivered a great, low cross that McClean was a fraction away from. For a Sunderland player to do this to an international defender was the stuff of dreams and cements him as a true legend in the pantheon of Red and Whites. Of course, his tireless running and his all round vision we more or less take for granted, but specials like this are what excite us and make us watch football.
He is the class act in this team, but he is joined by perhaps less talented individuals who are just as vital to the team ethos that MON has created in little over three months at the SOL. Jack Colback, a fringe player in the past, has flourished and is showing many more people what we Reserve team watchers saw four years ago.
Colback’s confidence levels are high and he benefits from being given a specific role, which allows him to get forward, rather than being told to sit, as he was by the previous management team. He never let the Arsenal midfield settle, looked far superior to Ramsey and, along with Cattermole and Gardner, ratted around in the centre of the park, reducing Arteta to a peripheral player who looks nice on the ball, but who delivers nothing.
Once again, our defence easily absorbed the limp and flaccid attacks that were offered by Arsenal. Apart from one run and shot by Gervinho, neither he nor van Persie (who has contributed nothing in 180 minutes) posed any threat to Mignolet’s goal. In fact, the Masked Belgian will have few easier afternoons and he looks increasingly secure behind O’Shea and Turner.
Both central defenders were so strong. O’Shea reads the game as if he were John Gielgud reading Shakespeare – calm, collected, but reaching the high points when necessary, while Turner is so strong and determined and looks the centre half he was before he set out on this debilitating run of injuries.
But it is back to midfield, the engine room of the team and that is where our success lies. Whether we play four or five there, we know that the commitment and strength will be on show for 90 minutes.
Cattermole returned for this one and he proceeded to do all the things that he had been doing before his injury – well timed tackles, constant harrying, brave blocks, while not diving in and getting booked early on. He is a rejuvenated player under Martin O’Neill.
Larsson was restored to the wide right position for this one and he must have ran the equivalent of Sunderland to Stockholm and back. What his former club could do with a player who never gives up and who has the skill and ability to get into dangerous positions. He was there to force Oxlade-Chamberlain to push the ball over the line for the clinching goal.
It really was a triumph of teamwork and organisation over a languid and disinterested Arsenal side that had a number of players who looked as if they can’t wait to get away from Ashburton Grove in the summer.
Evewry Sunderland player made a significant contribution to this win. There were no weak links as we showed the virtues of team work and organisation over the dilettante approach of the likes of van Persie, Gervinho and Arteta.
O’Neill has taken a squad of players who were bereft of confidence and who were heading for a relegation battle, which, under the previous manager, they would have lost. Instead, we are in the Sixth Round of the Cup and are a team that nobody wants to play.
It was the second half of an excellent sporting double for this writer as I had seen a similar gritty and gutsy performance from Leeds Rhinos as they overcame the Manly Sea Eagles in the World Club Challenge at Headingley on Friday night. Both clubs are coached by hard bitten Brits, both clubs have players who put themselves on the line and both clubs have a tradition and a genuine feel for the game.
Great weekend and even better ones to come …