Sunderland’s year in review: (4) O, O-O-O O’Neill


As the old order crumbles, a new era begins in this, the fourth and final part of Salut! Sunderland‘s review of the year.


So we can agree that Martin O’Neill, who arrived with the broadly warm and enthusiastic consent of supporters, has had a decent start – two wins, a draw and the defeat at high-flying Spurs. Whatever happens in tomorrow’s tough home game against Man City, his aim now will be to steer us away from the relegation area and into mid-table at least.

SUNDERLAND AFC: 2011 IN REVIEW
* Part one … click here
* Part two … click here
* Part three … click here
* Part four … click here

October

* Niall Quinn announces that his term as chairman is over. The big man has won a huge place in the affections of supporters, as player and chairman and general good guy, and deserves much of the credit for the revival of recent seasons. The news catches Salut! Sunderland a little by surprise but the hurried posting attracts a big postbag …

… maybe Niall wasn’t meant to be a hard nosed chairman or manager for that matter but whatever the reasons behind his new role, I think he should be rewarded for his tireless contribution to the club both as a player and chairman before he drifts off into obscurity. Maybe rename a stand in his honour? (Roker101)

* Amid all the mayhem, it is time to tell the Johnny Crossan story. The man some of us are old enough to have idolised as a player is, well, still a player (scoring five goals at 5-a-side just after he gives this long and fascinating three-part interview) …

The Sunderland team of 1962 that I joined were all good. Clough scored four (the record books say three – ed!) and missed a penalty in my first game against Grimsby and I hit the bar with my first kick. I didn’t play well for five or six weeks though; I didn’t believe in those days that you needed time to settle in but you do. Cloughie was sensational. In the end we became very friendly and I have stayed friendly with his wife since he died.


* October also sees the outrageous, arrogant call by Liverpool’s chief executive Ian Ayre for more TV money to be concentrated into the hands of the “big” clubs. Pete Sixsmith had a fully justified rant about it …

Liverpool are the first club to break cover on this. For the distribution to change, 14 of the 20 need to vote in favour of it. Let’s assume that Wigan, Bolton and Blackburn are not turkeys voting for Christmas ( although with Rovers’ current owners, the poultry analogy may be too close to home), then the pressure moves on to Sunderland, Newcastle and Villa. Will they stand up for equity or will they vote for a more uneven distribution of wealth?

If it is the latter, I suspect that I will be watching an awful lot more Northern League football in the future.

* Luckily, there is still good in the game or on its fringes. Salut! Sunderland was proud to be able to reproduce this wonderful piece of writing by Jonathan Wilson, a Guardian sports journalist, author and SAFC supporter …

My dad grew up about 200 yards from Roker Park, Sunderland’s old ground, and his mother lived in the same house on Appley Terrace until a few weeks before her death in December 1995. When I was a kid, we often used to go there for tea on a Saturday. When I was six, my dad started to take me to the ground for the last 15-20 minutes of games, sneaking in when they opened the gates to let people out. The first thing I saw was Steve Williams sidefooting an equaliser for Southampton. I’d been to about a dozen games before, a year later, I saw Sunderland score for the first time, Gary Rowell heading in at the back post against Leicester.

* We bring you, before anyone else so far as I know, the extraordinary story of Sunderland – not the club, not the city but the play of that name that has been a big success among critics and theatre-goers in Paris. Monsieur Salut plans to see it soon and will be reporting back …

Sunderland is the title of a play running just now at the Petit Théâtre de Paris in rue Blanche (9th arrondissement). It sounds as if it might be something Molière would have come up with if given some old Likely Lads scripts and asked to portray life in a northern English town dominated by rain, factory closures, bird flu (bit out of date there, mind) … and the shortcomings of the football team. A comedy à l’anglaise where emotion and laughter constantly intermingle, according to the blurb.

* But forget frivolity. Storm clouds are gathering and Bruce’s tenure is looking more and more flimsy. It is probably already too late for him but I set out my own limited support for giving him a chance to turn the tide …

I would wait until we have seen what we manage to do not only this month against Arsenal, Villa and Bolton but also in the November matches, which start with what most would see as near-certain defeat at Old Trafford but then bring Wigan and Fulham to the Stadium of Light (a pathetic five points in the event).

If the owner agrees with my assessment, I’d then expect Bruce to keep his job if he managed reasonable return from those six games. If the run ends with SAFC in relegation trouble, I would hold the even weightier expectation that Mr Short already had someone firmly in mind to take over.

And football being about results, I would add a very big proviso: if that someone has already been identified, but needs a quick decision, the sacrifice of Bruce might be made as early as necessary, a brutal act but in the interests of the greater good of SAFC.

November

* In the end, we must wait until the end of November – Ellis Short, coincidentally no doubt, sticking to the timetable set by me – for the inevitable to happen. There was an awful lot of other writing on these pages about Bruce in November; this was the story we ran once the news was official. From the owner’s mouth …

It is my job as chairman to act in the best interests of our football club at all times and I can assure everyone that this is not a decision that I have taken lightly. Sadly results this season have simply not been good enough and I feel the time is right to make a change.

* November is so heavily dominated by the approaching fall of our manager that everything else takes a back seat. But Jeremy Robson does interject with a very decent tribute to Gary Speed, who has apparently taken his own life …

It is hugely to Gary Speed’s credit that he was able to maintain such an illustrious playing career for so long.

Possibly, the football field was the only place he could escape the inner demons which gripped and tormented him, and it was only when he stopped playing that he could no longer keep them at bay. We may never know of course. It is only by speaking openly about this dreadful illness that we will help remove that stigma so unjustly associated with it and hopefully prevent the tragic waste of good lives. RIP Gary.

December

* No long agonising wait for a new boss: Martin O’Neill, to broad approval, is appointed and we look forward to a new and more successful era in the topsy-turvy world of Sunderland AFC. We are delighted, too, but keep feet rooted to ground …

… we read less than many into the ‘boyhood Sunderland supporter’ line. Everyone in Northern Ireland who likes football selects an English football club to follow, having first made the tribal choice between Rangers and Celtic. His affection for us may have been deeper than that; his achievements for us will matter a whole lot more.

* New manager for Sunderland, new look for Salut! Sunderland. To test that all is going well with the redesign – namely that readers can actually visit the site and see how it is now meant to look – we scour the archives for a tale worth re-running and come up with the story of Peter O’Toole long-forgotten SAFC allegiance. This is his agent’s putdown …

It was all really to do with Roker Park. Since they moved to the Stadium of Light, he has not really considered himself to be in the Sunderland AFC group or family or whatever. So he thanks you very, very much but says sorry, it’s not for him. He has not considered himself a supporter since the move. Everything they meant to him was when they were at Roker Park.

* Martin O’Neill gets off to a dream winning start. Just. Seb Larsson’s expertly taken free kick brings us last-gasp victory over Blackburn Rovers. Pete Sixsmith sees it in evenhanded terms

In truth, we did not play particularly well and O’Neill and his coach Steve Walford saw all the failings and weaknesses that had led to the dismissal of the previous management team. There for all to see was the litany of our season so far: hesitant defending, a lack of pace down the flanks, few incisive passes in the centre of midfield and an attack that rarely looks like scoring.

He also saw a degree of resilience that we had seen too little of in the closing weeks of the Bruce/Black period. Heads did not go down. Players kept plugging away. The crowd did not groan and seethe as it had against Wigan.

* Narrow defeat at Spurs – no shame there – is followed by a second MON win, 3-2 in a pulsating game at QPR. Pete Sixsmith dealt with the business end in customary before spilling the beans, for all and sundry to follow, on Jarvis the Sunderland-supporting cocker spaniel and his owner Billy Longworth …

Sobs, of A Love Supreme fame, and I clocked Billy before the game, but did not see Jarvis. Presumably he was sitting under the allocated seat. However, we did see him on TV later, when the dog’s pride and joy was shown to the Match of the Day audience as the cameras honed in on a Great Dane celebrating in front of a spaniel. Great stuff.

* The playing year ends with a shocking penalty decision by Howard Webb that gives Everton a draw they deserve but hardly look like gaining. Attention then focuses on the Toffees’ Leon Osman. Does he know it was his own legs he tripped over or does honestly believe someone has clipped his heels? We may never really know. Every onlooker knows, though, even if their opinions are as divided as Cameron and Cleg on Europe. A huge response flows in from supporters of both clubs to a robust piece about Osman’s actions…

It is difficult not to conclude that Osman knew the cameras would show there to have been no contact whatsoever, and that what he then did amounted to a blatant act of dishonesty in the hope it would bring an instant return. If that was his mission, he succeeded because Everton will therefore have won the point they deserved not by a fairly struck goal but by fraudulent means. If he has been misunderstood, as many Everton and one or two Sunderland supporters believe, and genuinely thought he had been clipped from behind, then what a pity this was not stated immediately after the match.

* That’s it, then. 2011 is over, 2012 about to begin. The O, O-O-O O’Neill chant is heard at every game, spirits – come whaty may tomorrow – are high. Happy new year to all readers and heartfelt thanks to all the people whose help has made Salut! Sunderland possible to maintain. I could fill a book – and maybe one day should -with the great things other people – Malcolm, Joan, Eric, Jeremy, Pete, Luke, Bill, Rob, Hilary, Tash, Andy, Andy II, Ian, Ken, Martin, Bob and all the others I have doubtless overlooked – not, however, forgetting our professional grump, Birflatt Boy – have written or done for the greater good of Salut! Sunderland

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Colin Randall

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1 thought on “Sunderland’s year in review: (4) O, O-O-O O’Neill”

  1. It’s been an interesting year; never a dull moment as a Sunderland fan. The odd one would be nice, though!!
    Here’s hoping for a good 2012.

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