This season, Monsieur Salut has decided not to offer his own end-of-season report. Not because he felt so demotivated at the end of it, though he did, but because it is not really fair to make such an appraisal on too few games attended and the rest followed by a combination of consistently admirable coverage by Nick Barnes and Gary Bennett for BBC Radio Newcastle (heard via the SAFC club site), lamentable stop-start internet streams – Jake did point the way, late in the season, to a slightly more reliable link but even that failed on the final day – and even, once or twice, Pete Sixsmith‘s text messages.
Pete, you see, was at every game; his accounts for these pages were a mixture of superb football analaysis and eloquent travelogue, but also of hope and despair. His commitment reached a level unseen from most of the squad at the back end of the season and his words were a pleasure to handle. Here, to end Salut! Sunderland‘s 2012 series of reviews, is his verdict …
That’s another one gone without a trophy. When Monsieur Salut introduced me to the delights of Roker Park in 1962, we both had great hopes of getting into the First Division and challenging the giants of Burnley, Wolves and Nottingham Forest for League titles, FA Cups and proper European Cups.
Fifty years on, we have one FA Cup and a whole portfolio of disappointments to show for it.
This season really was a sandwich. The outer part was rather disappointing British mass produced bread from the Mothers Pride/Wonderloaf bakery – unpalatable, tasteless and something you wanted to get rid off asap – which we did.
But the filling was wonderful: white truffles and the finest Parma ham topped with a slice of Fully Mature English Cheddar and sprinkled with gold dust, a veritable feast that one hoped was never ending but knew could not go on for ever.
I suppose the signs were there to be seen in pre season. An unpromising tour of Germany followed by an unconvincing win against a Kilmarnock mix and match team and then two of the dullest games in the history of the whole wide world at Turf Moor and Easter Road, where 180 minutes passed by without anything eventful to wake two slumbering crowds.
Those players who represented the latest squad rebuild (now an annual occurrence and due to happen again) hardly hit the ground hobbling, never mind running.
Gyan looked uninterested from the start and the defence looked cumbersome. But we “kept the faith” and many of us (not all, I hasten to add) thought Bruce and Black, the Old Firm, would get them to gel and propel us up the table.
What looked like a decent point at Liverpool turned out not to be as Liverpool would have struggled to beat Ryton and Crawcrook Albion at Anfield. And then we went into the home derby match against a similarly rebuilt Newcastle side.
We were well on top first half only to run out of steam in the second, and a free kick from Taylor (the non-diving one) got the Mags off to a flyer and turned many against Bruce.
Abject defeats at Brighton and Norwich, the departure of a clearly unhappy Asamoah Gyan and the inability of the newbies (other than Brown and Larsson) to make much of an impression, had us in a relegation scrap.
After a wretched display against Fulham, I believe, Ellis Short made a decision to relieve Bruce of his duties as quickly as they could get Martin O’Neill in. That was made even more necessary when the team played against Wigan with all the confidence of Coronation Street’s Roy Cropper on a date with Lady Gaga.
The crowd at Sunderland are not stupid. They know when a manager’s time is up. Nobody booed Mick McCarthy in the 15 point season because they knew the players were not good enough and that McCarthy did as well as he could. Ricky Sbragia was never seen as a permanent appointment, so why get on his back?
Bruce was different. He had done ok in his first two seasons and progress had been made. He had lost Darren Bent through no real fault of his own and Gyan had not really settled. He had tried to bring in decent players in order to rebuild, not once but twice. The owner had been supportive.
But it was clear to all but himself, Mrs Bruce and their wee son Alex that he had lost it. The howls of derision that poured down from the terraces were justified as the loyal 37,000 saw before them a prolonged relegation battle and a manager who they had no confidence in.
He had seriously damaged himself by lambasting fans for “unrealistic” expectations, for constantly bringing up his Tyneside roots, when most fans couldn’t have cared less whether he had been born on the steps of the Sports Direct Arena as long as he delivered success and some attractive football.
He had to go and it was the arrival of Martin O’Neill, fresh from 18 months off after leaving Villa on a matter of principle or in the lurch, according to taste, that changed the season around.
Players who had looked confused by Bruce and Black, suddenly remembered that they were highly paid professionals, while a couple who had been neglected by the dynamic duo, came in and set our season alight.
The turning point in our campaign came in the closing stages of the home game against Blackburn Rovers when James McClean was launched on an unsuspecting world. With his first touch, he whizzed round the Rovers full back and whipped in a cross, the like of which had not been seen since the halcyon days of Nicky Summerbee.
From then on, the O’Neill bandwagon rolled and rolled. The players seemed to welcome a manager who, like Bruce,told them what to do but, unlike Bruce, told them how to do it. The likes of Gardner, Vaughan and O’Shea, who had struggled, began to look like good players.
The win against Los Millionairos of Manchester, followed by a crushing win at Wigan, were absolute pleasures to watch. The tactics against the soon to be champs, were similar to those employed by Chelsea in their CL heroics. However, O’Neill was criticised unmercifully by the national press and the clowns on the MOTD chairs while Di Matteo was heralded as a tactical genius of the first degree.
Brilliant when practiced in or on behalf of west London, negative when practised in the North East.
For three glorious months we terrorised the League. Chelsea scraped a win, Stoke were beaten on their own midden, Swansea and Norwich were cuffed aside. We should have won at The Sports Direct and would have done had we kept 11 on the field. We had the momentum of a good cup run. Life was lovely.
Of course, it couldn’t last. It was like a new relationship,where the initial euphoria of finding someone who actually likes you begins to wear off and things become rather more humdrum. It’s like that moment when meals are taken at Morrison’s rather than Maxims.
It was impossible for the players to maintain that level of concentration, and once we crashed out of the FA Cup, we only produced one more good performance – at Millionaires’ Row – thus becoming the only team not to be beaten there by the blue half of Manchester.
That the season petered out is not up for debate. That we are disappointed that it did is a testimony to the impact that O’Neill had on the disparate group that he inherited from Bruce.
He used Sessegnon properly. He resurrected Kilgallon from the footballing dead. He got some excellent play from the ever frustrating and strange Nicklas Bendtner. He completely transformed the life of James McClean from potential bit part player to full international. Godammit, he almost got Lee Cattermole to behave himself!!
We started the season with a manager who the majority of supporters wanted to succeed, but who made it clear that he did not have the wherewithal to do so. We ended with a manger who gave us a glimpse of the promised land before the cloud cover came over again.
Now, as we go into the hectic period known as “the close season” we are hoping MON can give us more of what we saw in that wonderful middle period. It has oft been stated that he will have learned more about his players in the moribund period at the end than in the glorious middle one. He will have an idea of what he needs to do.
As for the club, we have seen the sad exit of the great Niall Quinn, a man who personifies the word integrity. There is a feeling that the end came minus the amicability we wanted to believe and I am sure it will come out one day.
Ellis Short is now in complete control; he bankrolls the club, appoints the manager and points Sunderland AFC in a direction that we hope will give us some of the Glory Days that Springsteen will sing about at the SoL in June.
Unfortunately, the chances of a club like ours, provincial and perceived as “ordinary” (although it is anything but to us who have loved it for too many years) ever supping at the top table has virtually disappeared. We are in the middle rank, along with Villa, Stoke, Everton and Fulham.
Newcastle were part of that group and made a bold attempt to break out which almost worked. They have an unloved owner and a manager the majority of their support was unsure about 12 months ago. What they have done is to lift their heads and sign some exciting players. The gamble came off. Hopefully, they will sell them all in the summer and drop back into the “middling” group, with the rest of us.
I set out to watch every game this season and succeeded. I enjoyed Brighton (the trip, not the game), Cromer, Lichfield, Wigan and The Leigh Arms for our Goodison games. I appreciated McClean, Mignolet, Colback, Kilgallon and (occasionally) Bendtner. I particularly enjoyed Sessegnon.
I didn’t think much of Shepherds Bush, Tottenham, Chorley and the interminable trip to The Sports Direct. I was disappointed with Gyan, Elmohamady, Wickham and Kyrgiakos.
And I was particularly disappointed by Steve Bruce’s refusal to accept that he deserved to be relieved of his duties. That disappointment intensified when I saw that he had a personal fortune of £9m. Like head teachers and bankers, football managers are rewarded for failure.
Roll on 2012-13 – I think.