Sunderland report cards: (8) Pete Sixsmith tastes the delight and despair

For the final part of our series of end-of-season reports, we turn to Pete Sixsmith, whose previews, commentary and match analyses distinguish the pages of Salut! Sunderland, proving that the sum of the parts can indeed be greater than the whole. Concluding a fascinating collection of reviews published over the past week or so, Pete offers a balanced assessment of what Steve Bruce has achieved, and where he has under-achieved …

Another season gone, the 47th of my regular Sunderland-supporting life – and the third most successful if league positions are the sole criteria of a good season.

The only ones to beat it were the two seventh places under Peter Reid, so Steve Bruce has exceeded anything that Alan Brown, Ian McColl, Bob Stokoe, Jimmy Adamson, Ken Knighton, Alan Durban, Len Ashurst, Lawrie McMenemy, Dennis Smith, Malcolm Crosby, Terry Butcher, Mick Buxton, Howard Wilkinson, Mick McCarthy, Roy Keane and various assorted caretakers and stop gaps have achieved. And yet…….

We have some very good players in Gyan, Sessegnon, Bramble, Meyler, Henderson, Richardson etc, far better than the likes of Murphy, Stokes, McShane, Miller and Wallace of three years ago. And yet …

There have been performances as good as any I have seen from a Sunderland side in the top flight. There was that wonderful win at Chelsea, the draws at home to Manchester United and at Liverpool, a brave and gutsy performance at Villa. And yet …

The club appears to be as financially sound as any Premier League club is. The owner is a shrewd man who works well with the chairman, who works well with the manager. We have added another dimension to the boardroom with David Miliband, a player on the international stage. It’s a stronger line up than Irish publicans, Consett accountants and Sunderland motorbike salesmen. And yet …

We have achieved an average attendance of over 40,000 in the midst of a recession that has (as usual) hit the North East harder than most other regions. Our fan base is loyal and knowledgeable and desperately wants the club to do well. The away support is outstanding: 4,000 at Bolton for a team who could hardly beat a carpet is a staggering achievement. Outside of the top four or five only our Dear 12th-placed Friends from Tyneside can match our consistent away support. And yet …

And yet … there’s that nagging feeling that it all should have been better. As always in football, the attention turns to the manager, and ours has had a rough ride since February, when it all started to unravel. He was blamed for injuries, for failing to replace Bent, for a lack of Plan B (some would say a Plan A) and, by some of his sternest critics, for the Japanese Earthquake and the demise of Cheryl Cole on the American X Factor.

Let’s give him some credit as he has brought some solid players into the club. Titus Bramble and Michael Turner looked a very sound partnership at the back until the latter decided to run into a post in the Everton home game. Simon Mignolet is a good keeper in the making, Asamoah Gyan an exciting, if overpriced, centre forward. We could have a real gem in Stéphane Sessegnon, who finished the season looking real class.

He hasn’t bought many pups compared with the last two managers. Kilgallon was one and Mensah has been a disappointment second time around, while the South American gamble did not pay off and I don’t imagine that Angeleri and Riveros will be back next season. You win some, you lose some; he had a good track record with Rodallega, Valencia and Figueroa but not this time round.

His style of play can be criticised – in that we don’t appear to actually have one. Look at most other teams and they have a distinctive style. Stoke are direct and play with wingers; Bolton play it through Davies, Everton through Fellaini and Arteta, the North East’s Second Best Team via Barton and Nolan.

With us it’s all huff and puff. Cattermole does well until he gets booked, Malbranque until he runs out of steam. And we don’t have a proper winger in the club. Henderson is a better player than some give him credit for and I think that Bruce was right to stick with him. The England cap came far too early for him – but that wasn’t his fault. He has the ability to be a very important player for Sunderland.

We surely have better players than before and I would not exchange many of this squad for those we had in 2007 – Kenwyne Jones may well be the only one. Nobody misses the likes of Halford, Fulop and Chopra but there is the nagging feeling that the manager and the coaching staff have not squeezed the best out of this squad.

As far as performances go, it has been a real mixed bag. Delight at Stamford Bridge, despair at Sid James Park – our second worst performance of the season. The worst was the home game, where a poor Newcastle side was far better than we were. That was an awful afternoon, despite the euphoria of the very, very late equaliser.

At home to United and City we were excellent, away to United and City we were wretched. Similarly with the Merseyside clubs, a fine performance at Anfield and a dismal one at Goodison. London was the only bright spot, where we were undefeated for the first time in donkey’s years – probably since the Third Division season when we won our sole game in the capital at Brentford.

Is the club a going concern? Probably not – so it is in good company as the only one that appears to be is Wolves. As long as Ellis Short is there, we are viable. The boardroom seems stable and sensible, unlike other clubs, where owners ignore managers or bankroll absurd wage demands. The Muntari case highlights how reality has bitten. Short says no; Drumaville would have said yes.

And what about the fans? What do they expect? Do they really believe that we can break into the top group? Or would they be satisfied with one of the cups? Now there is a rod to beat Bruce’s back with. Our record in both knock out competitions is abysmal, with the Notts County result vying with the two Mags games as Shocker of the Year. Teams should be properly prepared for games like these; if Birmingham can win one of them and Stoke get to the final of the other, what’s to stop Sunderland from doing the same?

Most of our fans are, like the fans of every club, patient, long suffering and desperate to have some success. We care. When Bruce, Short, Quinn and whoever else have gone, we will still be there, in our dotage, reminiscing about Johnnie Crossan and Marco and Vic Halom. But I do wish that some of them would be less objectionable. At too many away games, I have heard vicious verbal attacks on management and players alike, usually from people whose judgment may well be clouded by an excess of alcohol. Away games are becoming far too expensive; you can add QPR to the list of clubs I won’t be patronising next season.

At the end of the day, we finished 10th in a competitive league. It could have been seventh, it could have been 14th. We brought some good players in, lost an outstanding one for reasons that are still rather murky and probably turned in the performance of the season at Chelsea. And we finished as the North East’s Best Team for the third season running. But there’s just that nagging feeling that it all could have been better, if only …

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6 thoughts on “Sunderland report cards: (8) Pete Sixsmith tastes the delight and despair”

  1. Good ending to a good series of report cards, shame mine ended up with so many comments based around one or two words rather than the whoel article – whereas this has barely any comments yet is the best written piece so far. Such is life.

    A fair and accurate assessment of our season, of course there is the “if only” line but to be honest I’m reasonably happy with this season. This is also the 3rd best league performance of my lifetime! And I’ve been a fan since about 1997, so it shows how long-suffering our fanbase is as a whole. I long to hark back to the days of the two 7th place finishes, when the likes of Phillips, Thome, McCann and Rae were good enough to compete in the league, it’s a completely different era and for the amount of time we’ve spent in the Premier League, I think we’re doing about right.

    Easy for people to look our spending and say we should be doing better, and sometimes it can be hard to disagree with them but if we factor in the Roy Keane years where our spending was by large atrocious, then we’re recouping a lot of what we spend (something we never really used to be able to do.) It’s testament to how far we’ve come when we can sell a striker for £18m rising to £24m – as well as a sign of transfer fees going ballistic.

    All in all a fantastic final piece from Pete, and yet another great year or reporting from Salut! Not without its complaints from others, not without its insinuations of biased reporting, and not without its spelling errors I’m sure! But a good year nonetheless, and here’s to hoping next year is better – and so is the football we watch.

  2. Couldn’t have put it better myself Mr Sixsmith! I’m relatively happy with Bruce, but next season is make or break for him.

  3. An excellent summary of our season. Is it not the lot of all football supporter to be never fully satisfied at season’s end?
    I bet plenty of Man U supporters feel the same way.

  4. A wonderfully well-balanced review of the season with which there is very little to dispute.This is the end of my 46th season and I can recall a huge number which have been far more disappointing.Over-all we have under-achieved but I’m definitely in the ‘glass half full’ camp and (a sign of old age perhaps) am optimistic about the long-term future of the club.Undoubtedly next season is going to be absolutely crucial in retaining the goodwill and good humour of our excellent support.

  5. Well done Pete. A great assessement of the season. As fans we have to accept that footbal is often about ‘if only.’
    If only we had enough money to compete with top six. If only the ref had given us the penalty we should have .If only Darren Bent had honoured his contact.If only Riveros and Angeleri had live up to their reputations. If only we hadn’t sacked Alan Durban. If only Quinn and Phillips were 25 years old.

    But footbal sometimes a has the abilty to confound and maybe that’s what will happen next season. A well run club operating within a sensible financial policy and developing players through it’s acadamy will surely get its just reward; acup final and eighth place in the league.

    And to all those doubters concerned about marquee signings. How many of us thought Peter Reid had lost the plot when we signed the little known Kevin Phillips or the over the hill Niall Quinn and that young unknown Argentinian called Arca. Football is full of suprises which is why we all love it.

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