Tom Williams* answered the call at Twitter for a Saints fan to do the honours ahead of Saturday’s match. We hope he wouldn’t gloat about last season and he doesn’t. Tom is not a fan of Big Sam – ‘an overbearing, self-serving boor,’ no less – but accepts he’s good at what he does. Tom also has a ‘cool’ Mackem pal and fancies us to pull off another escape …
Salut! Sunderland: This fixture was not a pleasant one for those of us who populated the away end. Were you there, too, and what did you make of it?
Tom Williams: It was all a bit surreal, and Koeman actually said later in the season that he felt like we used up all our luck for the season in that one game. That said, for all the jammy goals and Sunderland incompetence, there were a couple of spells in that game where we were irresistible.
And Saints: sixth top until last weekend’s results, with some really notable wins like the thrashing of Arsenal – you must be chuffed with this season and indeed recent seasons.
I certainly am, although as is the case with most clubs we’ve had a few fans wetting their knickers and even calling for Koeman’s head during our poor run either side of that Arsenal game.
In the summer we spent less than anyone bar the newly promoted clubs and sold Morgan Schneiderlin, who is one of the finest players in our history and was the heartbeat of our team. While the MUFC tweeps and tourists don’t seem to rate him, it’s hard to overstate how important he’d become to us. We’ve done very well in the circumstances, but let’s be honest- it’s a bang average league. Personally I’m just chuffed to have got to 40 points so early, although I do think we’ll be a good side next season.
How far can the once-derided ownership, and Koeman take the club?
Barring a Leicester-esque miracle, not much further. The Liebherrs have bankrolled our ascent from League 1 and, a few spoiled brats aside, we’re grateful enough that we don’t expect them to throw money at the club in the hope of making the top four. Leicester’s season should give hope to everyone, but “Soccernomics” tells us that generally you need an amoral Russian or some nutter in Dubai. For my part, the point of a football club is to provide a hub for the local community and to entertain. The Liebherrs have given us that.
Are you old enough to have experienced previous Saints glory days? If so. how does
the present squad compare with the greats of earlier eras – Ball, MacDougall, Channon, George, Shilton; then Keegan, then Le Tiss and brief enjoyment of Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain?
I’m not old enough to remember the ’76 cup win, finishing second or signing Kevin Keegan, so for me, these are the glory years. The early part of last season was like a dream, and as much as I now despise Pochettino (I don’t think people realise just how badly he and Tottenham have screwed us over), the football we played under him was the best I’ve ever seen from a Saints team.
While I don’t remember the McMenemy days, I do remember Matt Le Tissier, and the chances are that we’ll never have another player like him. The closest we’ve come to that kind of talisman was Rickie Lambert, who was one of those old-fashioned, everyman folk heroes, but even if someone comes along to match Matty’s genius, I doubt they’ll match his loyalty and humility.
You’re right when in saying “brief enjoyment” of Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain, but you forgot Bale [he must have taken one of his tumbles and dropped out of my view – Ed]! It was obvious those players were going to be stars as soon as they made their debuts. We’ve still got some seriously talented youngsters who you might not have heard of yet (Ryan Seager, Jake Hesketh, Callum Slattery…), but for all the clubs bluster about providing a “pathway”, the fact of the matter is that it’s going to be much harder for the next batch to break through. Luke Shaw and Calum Chambers had to displace Danny Fox and Frazer Richardson. The players in the current U21s will have to supplant experienced internationals like Steven Davis, Shane Long or Dusan Tadic.
And yet there was that spell in the wilderness. What was that like?
Seeing some old school grounds with a bit of character and watching the team learn to win again in League 1 was fun, and the Championship promotion season was exhilarating. Watching players who either weren’t good enough or didn’t care in relegation battles in the second tier, followed by going to the brink of extinction in ’09… not so much.
Your own highs and any other lows as a fan?
The JPT win, which was less about the result or the trophy and more about the restoration of the supporters’ pride in the club.
The back to back promotions, which brought, by turns excitement, agony, catharsis and, ultimately, euphoria.
Selhurst Park ’99, when 12,000 of us descended on South London to support the team as they edged towards ‘The Great Escape’. Guess who came off the bench to inspire victory…
Speaking of Le God, his whole career was a highlights package really, bookended by his first hat trick against Leicester in the snow in 86/87 and that final goal against Arsenal in the last game at the Dell. What a man.
Being thrashed at Fratton Park on our way to relegation from the PL.
And your personal favourites as Saints players?
Matt Le Tiss
Sir Rickie Lambert
Who among past or present players should have been allowed nowhere near your colours?
In terms of ability (or lack thereof), Paul “Johnny” Wotton springs to mind, but he always gave his all. The same could probably not be said of Olivier Bernard, who stands out as someone who really didn’t care, as do the likes of Rasiak, Saganowski and Skacel, who after a whole season of under-performing or being ‘injured’, seemed to suddenly turn it on when their were scouts from other clubs in the crowd.
What did you make of the short spell away from traditional red and white stripes? There’d have been riots on Wearside if our lot had tried that?
I personally didn’t mind the all-red, but the kit designs were rubbish. I was a bit confused by all the talk of ‘tradition’, partly because when we were good in the early 80s we had that funny Rank Xerox, Ajax-in-reverse kit and partly because our tradition is mainly one of relegation battles, selling all our best players and never winning anything. Plus our original strip was white shirts with a red sash, and when we went back to that for the 125th anniversary in 2010 it looked the nuts.
Did you see our wretched season coming?
Yes, because the club didn’t seem to have learned from past mistakes. The transfer policy and the constant chopping and changing of managers/coaching staff are pretty much the opposite of what was required, to my untrained eye anyway. It’s ridiculous really- it’s a massive club.
Any other thoughts on Sunderland – club, fans, city, region, Big Sam?
I think Allardyce is an overbearing, self-serving boor, but he’s good at what he does. Sunderland are the one club in the current PL I’ve never visited, but I like the North East, I admire the atmosphere your fans generate, and my mate Bert’s from Sunderland, and he’s a cool dude.
Spare no feelings: give us this season’s bottom three
I’m not going to predict a bottom three as I don’t want stick from elsewhere. But my gut feeling is that you won’t be in it.
And the top four?
I’ve a horrible feeling Tottenham will win the league. I’d like to think Leicester can hang on to a top four spot. Beyond that, I don’t know which of the big brands will make up the numbers, and I don’t care. The biggest problem with modern football is that the good things generally happen to bad people.
Best ref, worst ref?
There are no good refs, but Mark Clattenburg is the worst.
Diving: since every club has its cheats, should we stop worrying so much about it or can it be stamped out?
If players were punished with a ban, retrospectively, using video evidence, I think it would help.
Part of the problem though is that there’s a difference between diving and ‘going down’ when fouled to make sure you get the free kick. And a lot of the latter happens because the refs aren’t good enough to spot it if a player stays on his feet. It’s not their fault- they’re middle-aged men chasing around after elite athletes.
Why doesn’t the FA get a load of lads who’ve not quite made the grade at the academies and train them to be refs? That way you’ve got refs in their 20s who’ve been immersed in the game since they were eight years old, rather than uppity twerps who like hanging around with rich men in shorts.
One steps Saints or the authorities could take to improve the matchday experience of the ordinary supporter?
There’s been a lot said in the media about ticket prices (which I agree with), but the reason the big clubs are able to charge ridiculous prices is that there are so many glory hunters willing to pay them. It’s less of an issue for Saints or Sunderland, but I wish Saints would just give any unsold tickets away to local kids.
Will you be at our game? What will be the score?
I’m a long time ST holder so I will be at the game. We’re favourites but this league is very difficult to predict, and Sunderland are particularly unpredictable, so anything could happen.
* Tom Williams on himself: I’m a primary school teacher, pretend Buddhist and ageing indie boy. I have a Masters in modern literary theory, which has not been the slightest bit useful. I have written a pretentious novel which remains unpublished (presumably due to its pretentiousness). I went to my first game aged six. That day we beat the Liverpool side who’d just won the double. It’s been downhill ever since.
Interview: Colin Randall