The transfer window is an opportunity for some players to move on and restart their careers. And so it is that, while saying welcome to Jan Kirchhoff and Dame N’Doye we also say goodbye to Costel Pantilimon and Danny Graham.
Neither will be rated as amongst the finest signings the club has made. They will not be spoken of in the same awed terms that are reserved for the likes of Chris Turner or Marco Gabbiadini (48 today).
Malcolm Dawson writes….traditionally Boxing Day was when wealthy folks distributed alms to the poor and needy of the parish, but yesterday the millionaires and billionaires who are Manchester City were not in a charitable mood. Indeed it was a case of role reversal and it was the players of a poor Sunderland side who were gifting presents left, right and centre to their hosts. Pete Sixsmith has also been handing out presents in the days up to and including Christmas but yesterday saw him swap the red and white costume of St Nicholas for the red and white scarf he has been wearing since before we won the cup and he wasn’t impressed with what he saw. Mind you neither was anyone else who calls themselves a Sunderland fan. He and I will be there on Wednesday (weather permitting) and I predict optimism will not be on the agenda.
Manchester City (a) 26/12/15.
Manchester is a city I have got to know quite well over the last few years what with trips to the National Football Museum, The Peoples History Museum, Old Trafford for cricket, football and rugby league and Eastlands for rugby league and football. The shopping is excellent (so I am told), the transport infrastructure is probably the best outside of London and it has breweries – no city can truly describe itself as great if it no longer brews beer in significant amounts.
And so it was that I partook of Joseph Holt’s splendid Bitter in one of their city centre pubs, The Ape and Apple where I was joined my Madame Salut (for about thirty seconds) and M.Salut for considerably longer. Pints of bitter were quaffed in an almost empty pub where the bar staff seemed to outnumber the customers. No doubt the wine bars were heaving as Manchester’s finest sipped Prosecco and/or Gin; they should be back to Holt’s before the credit card bills land on the laptop.
A short tram ride to Eastlands followed and once in the stadium after the obligatory frisking, old acquaintances were renewed with friends and former students as we digested the team news. It looked like we could be in for an interesting afternoon. Interesting was not the word we were using at 3.23 p.m. when Bony headed in the third after a particularly pathetic challenge by the rapidly fading John O’Shea. This followed an equally pathetic “challenge” by Jones on Sterling for the first and then we had a defensive parting that was reminiscent of Charlton Heston leading his people across the Red Sea, allowing the massive, bear like Ya Ya Toure to fire past a flailing Vito Mannone. Throw in some more comedy capers at the back by Billy Jones leading to a fourth by the impressive Kevin De Bruyne, and another Southampton was on the cards until City felt sorry for us and switched off. Borini’s 59th minute goal was no more than a consolation – and not much of a one at that.
Why the changes? My suggestion is that Sam wanted to see if any of these fringe players could produce when the chips were down. They didn’t and I would imagine that Mannone, Gomez, Graham and possibly Coates will be talking to their agents now, trying to get a contract with a new club in either January or July.
In fact, he could throw in a few more as Jones, Van Aanholt, Fletcher and Johnson hardly cut the mustard and will almost certainly leave when (not if, when) we are relegated at the end of the season.
This was the game where I saw the paucity of the players that the manager has at his disposal. I have missed the last three games due to work commitments and the contrast between this performance and the one when we beat Stoke City was frightening. Since that win, the Potters have beaten both Manchester clubs and look nicely settled in the top half of the table. We have played tolerably well at Arsenal, poorly at home to Watford and cravenly at Chelsea.
This was the worst of the four though. There was a lack of organisation on the field which is down to more than the fact that City were simply better than us. When playing against the likes of Silva and De Bruyne the key word is concentration. Ours lasted all of seven minutes. Players seemed not to know what to do. Do we tackle or back off? Well, first of all, let’s be aware of what is going on around us. Take the first goal which came from a mishit cross by the always impressive Kolarov. Did anyone watch it go to De Bruyne? If they did, did anyone close him down? Did the defenders in the box think “Mmm there’s a cross coming in here; we need to be alert?” The subsequent goal from the weasely Sterling says not.
We appear to have gone as far as we can with these players. Four seasons of constant struggle and managerial changes have left them bereft of self believe and confidence. Both goalkeepers have struggled, we must have the poorest full backs in the league and John O’Shea looks like a First World War line officer who has led his men over the top so many times that he has lost all faith in the conduct of the war/club.
Sam Allardyce is a competent manager who has come in, looked at the rag bag of players that has been thrown together with no coherent plan (interesting that he has told the Director of Football to go and tend his petunias rather than involve himself in signing any more sub-standard players) and who must now spend time pouring over DVD’s of players in the lower regions of European leagues who may improve this team.
It is a difficult, if not impossible task. We have to ask ourselves if there are three worse teams in the league than Sunderland and the answer that most of us will come up with is a resounding “No.” Rabbits need to be conjured out of hats in the next 10 days as the last thing we want is to be scrambling around for players on the 28th January.
What are his priorities for that window? Here are some suggestions:
1 Recall Jordan Pickford from Preston North End. Neither Pantilimon nor Mannone inspire much confidence at the moment. If Pickford is any good, now is the time to find out.
2 Find a central defender who is strong, has pace and can tackle. We seem to be lacking that at the moment. Alas, they do not grow on trees. He seems keen on Kone – who could be another Diakite.
3 Bring in a centre forward who can control the ball and who can work with Fabio Borini, who must start up front – our best player yesterday and he would not get in the City first team squad. Fletcher has had his good run and Danny Graham….. well.
4. Hope that Newcastle, Norwich and West Brom implode and that Villa remain as dismal as they have been all season. Fail to win that one next week and that will be the end of it all.
5. Find out why clubs like Stoke, Watford, Palace and Southampton can succeed on crowds that are far, far less than the 40,000 who regularly troop through the gates of the Stadium of Light – and who regularly go home disenchanted and unfulfilled. Solve that one, Sam and you will be the hero to end all heroes.
On current showings, I can’t see much of Joseph Holt’s splendid Bitter being supped next season.
From a late cameo role to help preserve the lead at Crystal Palace, Danny Graham – in his 31st year – went straight into the Under 21s lineup to face Liverpool in a league cup tie. Top of the Barclays U21 Premier League, SAFC had already beaten the Scousers once and surely started favourites. Graham taught the young ‘uns a thing or rather two, but it wasn’t enough. Pete Sixsmith braved the cold to bring you this report on what went wrong …
Safc.com has had some fun with quickfire Q+As, posting the resulting clips at YouTube.
Here – broadly speaking, not word-for word (some answers were slightly unclear) – is what Danny Graham, clearly speaking just after his deflected goal set Sunderland on the path to victory at Goodison, made of his questions. See the whole clip – you’ll hear his answers to a couple of other questions (best player played with, best advice given – neither answer Sunderland-related). He seems a decent lad …
The whole Salut! Sunderland team owes our old mate Jeremy Robson a huge apology. He was one of the first out of the blocks to submit an end of season review (you can read the rest by following the link below Jake’s image) but somehow it got lost in the ether. Putting things right, here is his slightly amended contribution edited to reflect events at Stamford Bridge and Dick Advocaat’s subsequent decision not to stay – both of which occurred after Jeremy’s review was written. MD
End of season review time again. There’s no point in recanting the events of the season per se. We were all there and saw what happened, so I won’t. Most of it is best forgotten anyway.
Comparing this season to the previous one might simply read as follows. “Couldn’t manage a point for weeks on end” and “couldn’t do much other than draw for weeks on end.” There’s a line from Boy and Bear’s “Old Town Blues, which is “Shadow of the carving knife, is not the danger but the warning sign”, which sums up this season’s tedious and faltering start and the incredible number of draws. Optimists consoled themselves with the satisfaction of not losing. Realists recognised that a defeat followed by a win would be a more accurate sign of progress. The truth is that there wasn’t any progress. Failure was simply wearing different clothes.
The previous season had seen us lose regularly but not heavily. This was also to change. A capitulation of mammoth proportions away at Southampton knocked ten bells out of the goal difference, and we witnessed one of the finest strikes on goal this season from a SAFC boot. Vergini’s finish was sublime. Unfortunately, it was past Mannone and not Forster. If only Messrs Wickham, Fletcher, and Graham (you can only dream Jozy), could muster such a thing at the right end.
As memories of a League Cup Final appearance faded to distant memory, goals were becoming a rarity. It looked as if the goal drought might be over for Fletcher as he netted twice in November away at Crystal Palace. Apart from his hat trick for Scotland against the Isle of Lundy (sorry Gibraltar – which isn’t even an island), the goal well remained dry until the fat lady was giving her rendition of “Oh Sole Meo”.
Freshly back to the UK having become fed up watching Raptors games and hitting the town with Drake, hopes of ending the goal scoring embargo saw Mr Defoe arrive in a swap deal for the lumbering and hopeless Altidore. Remarkably, many Canadians think they got the sweet end of the deal. Laugh? I thought my pants would never dry. Defoe’s return has not been high but his contribution has been significant, even when playing out of position.
By the time Defoe had arrived, many of our fans were sensing déjà vu, with Gus Poyet sounding increasingly like Steve Bruce in his later period as manager. Eager to criticise everyone other than himself and unable to see the glaring limitation in his tactics, style and team selections. Remarkably and against all odds, we saw the return of Danny Graham from a loan spell at Wolves which was cut short. They weren’t terribly impressed by Danny at Molineux, yet here he was. Not only back in the fold but even more remarkably back in the team, where he more or less stayed. Disastrous home performances and results of which the lowest ebb was the first half collapse against Aston Villa, ultimately saw Poyet leave with only 8 games left.
Enter the Little General. Contracted to the end of the season. We can only assume that Lee Congerton was responsible for this coup (so thanks a bunch Lee!). The most accomplished manager to ever arrive at Sunderland AFC in my life time had come to try and save us. Most fans had more or less given up the ghost. We were as good as relegated. Except of course we weren’t. All of a sudden there was some cohesion, organisation and a much more attacking formation which might actually pose a threat to the opposition. Dick Advocaat knows that to be successful, you have to score at least occasionally. Having said that we were also stronger defensively and that was down to the manager having the courage of his own convictions, dropping the likes of Vergini, Revelliere, and Alvarez on the final run in. A more positive outlook from the team saw our luck change as we got the two penalties at home to Southampton and the two fluke goals away at Goodison. What was it that Napoleon said about his Generals?
When our own Little General arrived he was probably not looking beyond the end of the season. Would he want to stay if we went down? Would we want him to stay? How would he feel if he saved us from relegation? Putting aside Dick’s comments about Mrs Advocaat not wanting him to carry on working, it would seem from his comments and behaviour that he did reconsider. When he burst into tears at the end of the match at the Emirates, it raised the possibility that this was the end of the road for him and his assistant, Bert Van Lingen. The two men have worked side by side for almost three decades. We asked the question, was Sunderland to be the final staging post on their joint careers which had taken them to league titles and World Cups? Avoiding relegation would have been a strange way for Dick Advocaat’s career to end. Was it, we wondered simply the end of the closing chapter to a longer story yet to be written? Some of his comments suggested that he realised what needs to be done at Sunderland, and how to make those changes. In a very short time he established a bond with the players, many of whom he knows are nowhere near good enough, and with the tens of thousands of Sunderland supporters with whom he has found a special place in their hearts. Personally I never warmed to Gus Poyet, but took to Dick Advocaat very quickly. But he’s made his decision and again we find ourselves looking for someone new.
The most significant difference between this season and either of the two previous seasons is that Ellis Short seems to better understand not only what is needed to put this club where it should be, but what mechanisms need to be put in place for that to happen. I’m delighted for Ellis Short, as I’ve been very critical of some of his dealings in the past, and particularly his transfer policy etc. When he took ownership of the club, he must have thought that owning SAFC was a great idea, but not being a football man at all, he really wasn’t sure what that idea was about. There’s a sense that he now comprehends the issues and has made some strides towards finding solutions. The first part of this new jigsaw has to be finding a replacement for Dick Advocaat. Someone with a similar philosophy and feel for the game. Someone who will fall in love with the club and get the team onside. Someone who will be here for the longer term and produce the longed for stability we all crave. If he’s successful in doing that difficult task, then we will have good reason to look forward to the coming seasons with much more optimism than for many a good year.
Malcolm Dawson writes…..I wonder what the atmosphere was like on the supporters’ coaches which were delayed by the incident on the M62. Frustration at the knowledge they were going to miss a decent amount of the first half or a resigned sense of relief that they wouldn’t have to sit (or stand) through another disappointing performance as an expansive Everton team took us apart. At least that was the pre-match script. Dick wanted a point and most of us expected that even that might be beyond the lads. Of course there was some optimism from last week’s performance and result but Everton are thought of as our bogey team – or one of them at least. I watched on telly enduring the inane comments of Michael Owen as the BT coverage was a few seconds behind the Radio Newcastle commentary. I couldn’t believe our luck going one nil up but with the amount of possession, attacking flair and time left on the clock it’s a good job I don’t indulge in game betting, because I would have had us down for a 2-1 defeat. As the clock ticked I hoped we’d hang on for a point but surely it was only a matter of time. Then Defoe somehow got a hip onto Johnson’s shot and for the second time in the game the football gods smiled on us and relief washed over me. I expect Dick had similar emotions. Here in his very brief post match e-mail he acknowledges our good fortune, credits the wonderful support and shows a fine grasp of maths and an understanding of percentages. Thanks to John McCormick for the pictures.
EVERTON 0 SUNDERLAND 2
The players gave 100 per cent and the support of our fans was brilliant from beginning to end. We had a bit of luck on our side but that sometimes happens.
We worked hard and it was very effective. The back five, including the goalkeeper, were very positive and the other players had to work very hard too. Last week’s shape was good, today a little bit less, but the players keep on working and that’s important.
It was a special goal for Danny; he works so hard. He deserved that – a reward for the attitude he has shown. Jermain has a God’s gift – he knows where the ball will go and it was a good goal for him too.
The fans were fantastic again. They stood right behind the team – it was great.
Malcolm Dawson writes….Recent victories for Leicester and Hull Cities, West Brom and Aston Villa see Sunderland still in the bottom three. It is becoming increasingly likely that it could be the free falling Magpies who will be the target if we are to avoid demotion to the Football League. Yesterday’s game versus Southampton was the latest in a series of “must win” home games but the difference this time was that we actually won. A win against Leicester in the final game of the season at the Stadium of Light might be enough but if we need more than three points then the remaining away matches offer little in the way of optimism. But as last season showed, funny things happen at the back end of the season. With a game in hand you could say the players of SAFC can still determine which division the club plays in next season but we have by far the hardest run in of the clubs in danger of the drop. Pete Sixsmith still clings on to the belief we can stay up but that optimism is balanced with the realism that it will still be tough as his report of yesterday’s proceedings shows.
SOUTHAMPTON HOME 2nd May 2015
Is it a case of too little, too late or is it the beginning of The Great Escape III? Will we pick up wins against Everton and Leicester to give us what should be a secure 39 points or will we fall at the last hurdle at Stamford Bridge in three weeks’ time? Will our Friends from the North continue to implode with the force of a dark star having a particularly bad day or will they scrape the points that they need to welcome their new Head Coach as a Premier League side?
Well, that’s a few rhetorical questions and here are some more. Has anyone seen a cooler pair of penalties than those taken by Jordi Gomez yesterday? Why has no previous manager/coach been able to coax a performance like that out of Danny Graham? And how did the man sat next to me manage to eat a pie while texting at the same time?
But let’s not carried away. Although it was an important win it wasn’t a scintillating display of classy football that tore the opposition to shreds. Nor did we ever look comfortable – competent yes, but comfortable, no. What we did do was play solidly, avoid a series of catastrophic errors and get into the opposition’s box a number of times. And that is what we need to do for the four final gut wrenching games that we have left.
Both penalties were correctly awarded by Mike Jones. I thought the first one a bit soft from my lofty perch, but television showed that Fonte had no need to lift his leg and he did bring down Graham, who was ahead of him. No red card was also a correct decision.
The second one was the result of a superb ball by Cattermole, a splendid chase and cross by Graham and a needless second touch by Defoe before Ward-Prowse clattered into him. Penalty yes, red card probably not – although it galvanised a torpid Saints side into actually stirring themselves and playing some football.
In between the penalties, we had played with some tempo and urgency and had shown that when we play to the strengths of the players that we have, rather than expecting players to fit into a rigid tactical plan, we aren’t quite as bad as the league position has indicated. The back four is still prone to drop the odd clanger and I don’t see that changing. To gift Southampton an equaliser within ninety seconds of going ahead was one example. The lack of communication between Pantilimon and Coates was on a par of that between Basil Fawlty and Mrs Richards as the Giant dropped the ball allowing the tetchy Mende to equalise.
There were other first half chances with Connor Wickham ending as good a move as we have put together all season by leaning back and putting it over the bar.
The changes that Advocaat made were simple and effective. Three forwards who were prepared to work and work, with Graham used as a battering ram to unsettle the Saints defenders. Wickham played wide left and Defoe tucked in, often appearing to be an extra midfield player. All three made a massive contribution to a vital win and I expect to see the same three lining up at Goodison next week.
In midfield, Larsson returned for the perpetually disappointing Rodwell and had a typical Larsson game with lots of running, prodigious energy and the odd really sharp and incisive pass. Alongside him Cattermole played effectively particularly in the second half, playing a sublime pass for Graham to run on to for what turned out to be the second and winning penner. The two full backs looked sound rather than solid, although that was a huge improvement on the previous home game. Jones gets forward well – although not as much as the BBC Football site suggests (they confused him with Graham for the first penalty) and Van Aanholt is a good outlet and his defending looked better.
O’Shea was concussed in the first half and went off allowing Vergini to make amends for his spectacular O.G. at St Mary’s. The disappointingly low turn-out of Saints fans demanded that he “shoot” every time he got the ball but he failed to oblige. I say disappointingly low, because if we were challenging for a Europa League place, our allocation would have been oversubscribed – theirs was considerably under subscribed.
Coates did well and showed that a good, solid stopper in the middle of the back four can make a difference. Take away the clattering into Pantilimon and the dreadful sideways pass to the newly arrived Djuricic and he looked decent. He stuck to his task and it will be interesting to see how he faces up to the likes of Lukaku, Vardy, Giroud and Costa in the remaining games.
Pantilimon held up his giant hands for the equaliser and then used them to tremendous effect to keep out a shot from Steven Davies in the 93rd minute and secure a vital win for us. He was feted as a hero by his colleagues and the crowd and he may well have other miracles to perform between now and May 23rd.
Should we start sounding more optimistic?
And now for a quick expansion of the poll to find out who Salut! Sunderland readers (who, don’t forget, may well again include supporters of the other six clubs) think will go down.
It does not need a tactical genius to dig out wins in the Premier League – Mark Hughes, Tony Pulis and Gary Monk have shown that. All three of them have produced sides who know exactly what they are supposed to do and do it without fancy plans for playing like Real Madrid or Chelsea. They are pragmatists while we have employed dreamers in Di Canio and Poyet. Now, with a pragmatist at the helm, we have given ourselves a chance of swapping Chelsea for Charlton and Liverpool for Leeds (and possibly both Manchester’s for Middlesbrough) but it is only a chance. Two wins and a draw would give us the required 40 points and would probably see us safe but seeing as we have not managed back to back wins all season, the chances are not great. Four more draws would probably not be enough – although Newcastle are in desperate straits at the moment.
Malcolm Dawson writes…..For this and the next few weeks a few lucky adolescents on North Teeside are the beneficiaries of Peter Sixsmith‘s years of experience of teaching History in his idiosyncratic style. “Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?” (Click here to put into context!)
He wasn’t there at Craven Cottage but he kept up with events via Benno and Barnes and numerous texts from those who were, thus flummoxing John McCormick with his customary Seven. But you can’t do a match report second hand and so it is the fine figure of Bob Chapman stepping into the breach and onto the soapbox to bring us his take on the events from a chilly West London. Bob had to do a day’s work today but here is his view of Tuesday night’s win.
FULHAM 1 SAFC 3 – FA CUP REPLAY CRAVEN COTTAGE
Working in Bedford, I am in the fortunate position that I can travel to watch Sunderland during the working week. With a speedy escape from school, out of the door even before the kids have their coats on, I can get to most grounds in the country ready for an evening kick-off. I even made it to Exeter for a League Cup match 25 years ago, although that would be impossible today with the state of the current motorways.
So getting to Fulham on a Tuesday evening posed no problem whatsoever. I didn’t need to be first out of the door and even had time to set my year 7 class their homework on the science of icebergs and their role in the sinking of the Titanic. (Bet that went down well! MD)
Picking Mick up round the corner we headed for Bedford station for the train to St. Pancras. By the time some of my students would have arrived home, we were both sat down in The White Horse on Parsons Green. I invariably drink in this pub for both Fulham and Chelsea matches as it has its own micro-brewery and serves a good selection of guest beers. I decided on a pint of First Class made by the Titanic Brewery. (Bet that went down well! MD)
Mick had an obscure lager and we found ourselves without any change out of a tenner! London is a different world. With the amount of money they are charging it’s no wonder that this pub can afford to have patio heaters on full blast at 5.30 on a freezing cold winter’s evening and nobody sat outside. We had a couple of pints and discussed, because of the expense, whether it would be appropriate for a couple of middle aged men to get involved in an old student activity and in Mick’s case an army activity of ‘minesweeping’. I suppose it’s technically not legal but neither of us like seeing beer wasted! We decided against and left – back towards the underground station, past an estate agent with flats to rent from £3000 per week. London is a different world!
With a couple of pints of Titanic inside, a full moon and a cold northerly wind, I was hoping that we were not going to be hit by an iceberg and an exit from the cup. Although the match at the SOL had been awful I was confident that we would get a result tonight and I was even more convinced when a really strong attacking side had been selected, with Defoe and Wickham upfront supported by Giaccherini and Alvarez. Like the majority I was surprised to see Fletcher appear rather than Wickham. I like both of them. They both have good technique but are very different players. Gus will have to make difficult choices as to who plays up top with Defoe.
Walking up from Putney Bridge station it was evident that there was going to be a good turnout. The only disappointment being the “Steven Taylor” chants that you hear at every away match. A steward told me inside that they were expecting up to 4000 and that he liked us because we are never any trouble.
The game started and within 30 seconds Alvarez had made a strong tracking back run, to alleviate Fulham’s opening gambit. I thought to myself, that Poyet must have told him that if he is to play regularly he would have to improve the defensive side of his game. This was a good sign and from the start we began to dominate the game. I lost count of the number of corners we had in the first 20 minutes and was beginning to think that just like the Titanic we were unsinkable and it was just a matter of time before we scored. Then in 28th minute, against the run of play we hit that iceberg! A McCormack corner caused a scramble in the box and Rodallega put it away off the crossbar. They didn’t deserve it to be honest, but you have to defend properly if you are going to win games.
However, the usual post conceding goal slump didn’t materialise and we continued to dominate. We were playing really well as a team and our quietest player was Defoe. Giaccherini, Alvarez, Van Aanholt were all having good games, causing all sorts of problems down the flanks for Fulham. However there was no breakthrough and I was beginning to worry at half time. That continued into the second half and I began to really worry when PvA missed an easy chance early on.
With a lingering depression beginning to kick in at the thought of meeting up with a Fulham supporting A level student next day at school, Fulham hit the iceberg! Bettinelli had the easiest of tasks collecting a high loose ball, but allowed it to slip from his grasp and it went over the line. With goals like that you always assume that there must have been something dodgy and double check with yourself before celebrating. Even at my age I don’t want to look a fool!
Nothing to worry about and it was game on for the win. Alvarez had been outstanding throughout the match.
Even though the Fulham players were doubling up on him they couldn’t contain him as he demonstrated his international class. With 15 minutes to go he cut in from the right wing beating players and unleashed a shot that flew into the net. A goal of real quality and let’s hope one of many to come. He has the potential to change our season, just like Borini did last year. Remember, Borini couldn’t get a regular start, just like Alvarez, when he first arrived.
Another plus has to be the form of Danny Graham. He seems sharp and has done well in all the substitute appearances he has made. He made a good run in the final minute to win the penalty which finally sealed the game. So with the game won and not feeling the cold it was a pleasant walk back to Putney Bridge station. It was great to hear the chant changed from one about Steven Taylor to that of “Cheesy Chips down Wembley Way!”
Malcolm Dawson writes….Pete Sixsmith has had a busy time since Lee Mason blew the full time whistle yesterday. First thing this morning he stepped in for M Salut and did a blog for ESPN. Read it here. Then he caught Carver, the below stairs boot boy, temporarily standing in for recently departed faithful manservant Pardew, staring wistfully at the family silver as he applied the Brasso. Peter gently reminded him that although it had been at Sixsmith Towers for 42 years there is still a chance it could be replaced this May if things go well on Tuesday but there was no way that Carver himself would get his hands on any. Following that it was time to get the old soapbox out and reflect on a job done to a not so hot Burnley side. Versatile Sheffield singer/songwriter John Shuttleworth, not quite knowing what day it was, was on stage at the Gala theatre in Durham last night. One of his numbers reflects on the realisation of a man half way through his treacle sponge, that there is in fact some unconsumed Shepherd’s Pie still to be had. Hear it here after you have read Pete’s bit. A more positive, forward thinking style of play paid dividends yesterday so surely Gus will see that the ultra cautious approach should not be the blueprint for the rest of the season. As John Shuttleworth nearly said “we can’t go back to safety now”.
BURNLEY STADIUM OF LIGHT 2015
To paraphrase the poet Burns in the week of the anniversary of his birth, “A win’s a win for all that.” It wasn’t overwhelming, it doesn’t make us safe and it wasn’t a mind blowing performance. But it was a win and on a weekend where every side around us lost bar Everton (and they will not be down amongst the dead men for long) there may be a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.
The two goals from Wickham and Defoe were well taken. The crosses put in by the full backs for them were excellent. The defence looked sound and solid. But the opposition was weak and, on this performance, they looked relegation fodder – unfortunately. A day at Turf Moor is infinitely preferable to a day at Selhurst Park or Loftus Road.
The latest formation adopted by Gus looked a lot better than the shambles we witnessed last week. Vergini and O’Shea combined well in the middle and the presence of the excellent Reveillere gave us some stability at the back. The former French international is a fine player and goes down in the pantheon of good French players at Sunderland alongside Eric Roy and er… that’s it! He is certainly better than Christian Basilla and Lilian Laslandes but that’s not saying much, is it? The cross that he put on to Connor Wickham’s head for the opening goal was brilliant – perfectly delivered with perfect pace and it produced a perfect header from a rejuvenated Wickham to give us the lead – a lead which we never once looked like losing. When our other full back, Patrick Van Aanholt, took delivery of a killer pass from Jordi Gomez and sent in a low cross into the six yard box, there was our new striker Jermaine Defoe, a player who has scored almost as many goals as his predecessor Jozy Altidore has missed, to guide it over the line to make it 2-0. Game over.
From then on, we were in a kind of comfort zone, probably for the first time this season. The back four was solid and easily negated any real threat from Barnes and the disappointing Ings.
John O’Shea is a very solid player who has done well for us and in games like this he cruises through it. Santiago Vergini also looks far more solid in the middle rather than being stuck out on the flank – he reads a game well and looks to move the ball forward. Could it be that he stays in that position for the rest of the season? He certainly looks more assured than Coates and as the venerable Wes Brown is unlikely to be offered a new contract for next year, the Argentinian can create a genuine niche for himself.
The midfield three did exactly what they were supposed to do. Larsson maintained his phenomenal work rate and used the ball effectively. Bridcutt seemed far more at ease in midfield rather than sitting in front of a back three and Gomez deserved his place purely for the wonderful ball that he played through to Van Aanholt for the second goal. He is a frustrating player. He moves at one pace and is probably caught in possession too easily, but he has the Eric Roy (two mentions in one piece for the man from Nice) knack of being in the right place at the right time. When he plays a ball, it often opens up a defence, particularly when the opposition is about the same standard as we are.
With Defoe being used as a spearhead, it allowed Johnson and Wickham to play wide. The former City and ‘Boro player had an excellent game, pulling the Burnley defence and midfield around almost at will. He played a major part in the second goal and the ball he played to Van Aanholt early in the second half to allow the Dutchman to set up Defoe, was an absolute gem. Had we scored a third goal at that stage, I suspect that Burnley might well have folded.
The second half was a tad anti-climactic as the Clarets struggled to get into the game. Neither Ings nor Barnes worried Vergini or O’Shea and although Marney and Jones worked hard, they achieved very little. The game petered out and the crowd began to leave early, knowing that it was highly unlikely that Burnley would take a point from us.
So is this the beginning of a renaissance, similar to that we went through twelve months ago? We can but hope. That there is much to do is not up for debate. There is still a lack of quality in the team – Borini and Ki have not been replaced and there is a more prosaic feel to the side. The introduction of Defoe and the quality of Johnson and (hopefully) Fletcher and Wickham gives us something to cling on to.
There is a long road ahead of us but this is an important first step and needs to be maintained at the old fashioned delights of Craven Cottage on Tuesday and the more up to date concrete of the Liberty Stadium on Saturday.
Duncan Sutcliffe, who contributed that excellent WAY on Burnley, joined me for a pint in The Isis pre game. He was optimistic at 2.00 p.m. but that optimism had dissipated by 5.00 p.m. and he was genuinely worried about Burnley’s remaining games. I thought they looked well organised but there was no real creative spark and I fear for them.
The other results were too good to be true and Villa’s thrashing at Ashburton Grove adds to the glow of satisfaction. Hopefully Poyet has a team that may excite him and the 40,000 others who turn up week in and week out to give this perennially unsuccessful club, the sixth highest average crowd in the Premier League. Like many others, I wonder what would happen if we could actually go through a season playing attractive, attacking football, finish in the top half and genuinely excite the fans with a solid midfield and a genuine goalscorer, similar to what we did when we hoofed it up to Quinn and Phillips.
Malcolm Dawson writes…..Sunderland have won fewer games than any other team in the Premier League. Even QPR who haven’t mustered a single point away from home have won two more games than SAFC and no prizes for guessing who their first victim was. Even Burton Albion beat them before they tasted victory against us. The view of many at the start of the season was that with a whole host of winnable home games after Hogmany, if we weren’t in the bottom three at Christmas then a mid table position would be well within our grasp. Well those regular attenders at the Stadium of Light are revising their opinions. One home league win so far this season and only three in the whole of 2014 doesn’t auger well when all the relegation candidates are still to visit us. Most of us thought we would get three points against a poor Hull City side and look how that turned out. As usual Peter Sixsmith turned up yesterday and once again he left feeling more than a little disgruntled.
NOW IS THE WINTER OF OUR DISCONTENT – LIVERPOOL – SSOL – JANUARY 10th 2015
This is twenty one hours after the latest awful performance so I have kept my promise not to write straight after the game and to reflect on the positives and the negatives before enlightening the readership of my views on the current state of Sunderland AFC. The use of the word “awful” in the first sentence may give you some idea of how I felt about this game. I could have used abject, appalling or abysmal – and that is just the As. The rest of the alphabet would have thrown up many, many more.
In the seven, I questioned the Head Coach’s selection and tactics. Basically, he got them wrong.
Here was a Liverpool team which, in the last ten days had been embarrassed by the pace of Leicester City and the physical strength and crossing power of AFC Wimbledon. They appear to have no decent forwards, play with three at the back and attack down the wings. They do, if given space, have some pace. What do we do? Defend deep. Allow them to come at us. Hope to stop them getting past us on the edge of the box with resolute defending as we had at Anfield. Catch them on the break and pick them off.
These are not tactics to warm up a large crowd on a cold day. Many of those sat around me are beginning to realise that we are slow, ponderous and prone to make mistakes. The Head Coach is rapidly running out of goodwill, something which Sunderland fans will show to those who are at least prepared to have a go. The team selection and the use of substitutes did nothing to endear Poyet to the increasing number of doubters in the East Stand seats and Gents. Why continue to play a centre half at right back when there is a fit right back on the bench? Why persist with a clearly out of form Jordi Gomez and then play him for the whole ninety minutes? Why play with one up front against three defenders? Why allow Liverpool to dictate the way that the game should be played?
On Monday Akinfenwa and Tubbs put pressure on Skrtl and company and thus made it difficult for Mignolet. Neil Ardley, the AFC Head Coach had identified the weaknesses that are still there in Brendan Rogers’s side and he nearly got a draw out of the game.
Unlike the fourth level side, we completely failed to take the game to Liverpool. They could have been one up in the first five minutes when the referee gave Brown the benefit of the doubt when he appeared to trip Markovic. There was no doubt a few minutes later when the same player picked his way through a succession of feeble tackles to score what turned out to be the winning goal. It could and should have been more as we continued to pass the ball sideways and backwards and then whack it up to Connor Wickham, who was totally dominated by Skrtl. The ball was given away so easily and so often that Liverpool probably found it difficult to believe that this was the self-styled “difficult to beat” team.
Not so much difficult to beat as difficult to watch. This was a truly painful experience which made many realise that here comes yet another relegation struggle. We avoided the drop last year because we had nothing to lose and because the three who went down were clubs in chaos. I don’t see much of that this season as West Brom and Crystal Palace have made their coaching changes, while Burnley and Leicester appear to be coming to terms with the division and have pace in their teams.
That leaves Villa, where the fans are turning on Paul Lambert, QPR who are useless away from home (they come to us next month; put your mortgage on a 0-0 draw) and Hull, whose manager is now preparing for a second career as a High Court Judge if his asinine comments on the Ched Evans case are anything to go by.
But what about Sunderland? Are we going to rely on others or are we going to do something about it? And if so, what?
First of all, we could try playing two forwards up front instead of sticking one of them out wide. I had some sympathy for Wickham yesterday, who had to feed off the proverbial scraps – although he gave up far too easily and being replaced by Danny Graham shows how much off the pace he was in the second half.
Secondly, we could try to start a game with some tempo and not allow the opposition to dictate the way that the game should be played. How do we do that? Moving the ball forward would help. Liverpool are vulnerable to players who run at them – look at Schlupp’s goal for Leicester and the performance that Rigg turned in for AFC – but we consistently fail to do this.
Some of Poyet’s after match quotes are worrying; “I’d have thought that by now I would have had a better impact on how the team plays. Some players are taking a long time to learn the basics of how I want to play.” What to make of this? We have a decent sized squad, many of who have arrived at the club in Poyet’s 15 months here. Are there players here that have been imposed on him? Is he still looking at those that O’Neill and Di Canio brought in and who do not fit his style? What is his style?
The last question is the key one. He clearly likes to play on the counter and two of the paltry three wins that we have had this season have come when the opposition have been chasing the game. Palace ran around making errors allowing us to catch them on the break, while Newcastle did the same, allowing us to pick them off. Giaccherini, Alvarez and others thrive on this kind of play. How many good games has the Italian had at the Stadium? He has looked a far better player away from home as has Alvarez and, believe it or not, Gomez.
But at home we can be awful. We have not had a crowd of less than 40,000 this season, a testimony to loyalty, hope and the club’s marketing policies, but that loyalty cannot be relied on as the winter of discontent descends on us.
The next home game is against a quick, lively and uninhibited Burnley side who really must fancy their chances against a plodding, out of touch Sunderland. And there is Spurs away before that. It could be a long, hard winter and a not very bright spring.