At first glance, the League one table makes for depressing perusal. Sunderland and down to ninth and are now eight points behind the convincing leaders, Ipswich Town, with no games in hand.
The second glance makes it seem more respectable. We are just one point behind a top six place and have two games in hand over Blackpool in sixth with the same pathetic goal difference of +2.
This Saturday’s opponents, Wycombe Wanderers, are second and only four points ahead of SAFC having played one game more. So leave aside Ipswich’s so far exemplary sprint to the top and we remain competitive.
A lot of Salut! Sunderland readers go nowhere near Twitter and as one who spends far too much time there, Monsieur Salut can but say: “Bear with me. I am hopeful of finding a cure.”
But I must admit I have been flabbergasted by the names that have been more or less officially linked with the search for a successor to Jack Ross – and what those names say about our status and ambition.
First we hear in effect that Ross was not good enough. “.. with three quarters of the season remaining, we did not feel things were going as well as they should be,” our executive director and my own former colleague Charlie Methven tells The Daily Telegraph.
Malcolm Dawson writes………our publication of Pete Sixsmith’s twin series, The First Time Ever I Saw Your Ground (before our away fixtures) and The First Time Ever I Saw Your Team (for our visitors to the Stadium of Light) is normally the remit of our Associate Editor John McCormick but his ageing laptop has finally succumbed to the Millennium bug and left him strictly non PC.
So it falls to me, fresh from watching the young Lads comfortably progress in the FA Youth Cup after beating Oldham Athletic Youth 4-1 despite centre forward Connor Slack failing to convert a penalty in the dying minutes for his hat-trick, to bring you this instalment. Despite the missed pen it was a good game nevertheless.
Mr Sixsmith was there of course, but just before he went was able to trawl through his memory banks and recall the occasion he first saw the Chairboys when they took on a team in black and white playing within spitting distance of the Tyne.
TFTEISYT WYCOMBE WANDERERS
Another tricky one as we have never, ever played them in a competitive match. Not an FA Cup tie in the early 20th Century, not a pre-season friendly. Not anything.
Like Fleetwood Town, they arrive at the Stadium of Light as Wearside virgins.
Not only have they not played us, I have hardly ever seen them. Fortunately, without recourse to hypnotic regression I can remember two viewings of them. Firstly at Gateshead in 1992 and my sole visit to Adams Park which was 13 years later almost to the day.
The Gateshead game was an interesting one. Wycombe, under Martin O’Neill, were nip and tuck with Colchester United in what was then The GM Football Conference. There was only one up, one down then, so that made it even more interesting. They came to Tyneside on the 25th April.
On the same day, we were preparing for Wembley and had travelled to The Goldstone Ground where we drew with Brighton and Hove Albion.
Our team that day was: Tony Norman; John Kay, Gary Bennett, Anton Rogan, Kevin Ball; Gary Owers, Paul Bracewell, Gordon Armstrong, Brian Atkinson; Don Goodman, John Byrne. Subs; Paul Hardyman, Peter Davenport (for Gordon Armstrong).
Goals from Anton Rogan and Don Goodman gave us a point which just about guaranteed our place in the second level and we could prepare for what became the non-event at Wembley two weeks later.
So a game was looked for and we (Pete Horan and I) opted for Gateshead’s home game with Wycombe. It looked an attractive tie with the visitors looking for wins in order to overtake Colchester United at the top of the Conference. Gateshead were comfortably ensconced in the upper bottom half of the table so they would presumably play to win rather than stick men behind the ball.
But the main reason for going was to observe events over the bridges in Newcastle, where the Mags had a must win game against Portsmouth. Not for promotion to the about to be formed Premier League, but to avoid their first ever relegation to the Third (soon to be second) Division.
They had sacked Ossie Ardiles and replaced him with Kevin Keegan. The Halls and Shepherds had taken over the club and knew what relegation would mean for the club and Keegan was brought in to unite the febrile atmosphere that surrounded the ground which was to become The Sports Direct.
They were involved in a 5-way battle to stay up, with Port Vale, Oxford United, Brighton and Hove Albion and Plymouth Argyle as their rivals. Had they lost the Portsmouth game (the penultimate one) they would have gone. Not even a win at Leicester in their final game would have kept them up. We had one eye on Gateshead v Wycombe and eyes and ears on the events over the water.
With four minutes to go, it was 2-2 at The International Stadium and Colchester United were probably cracking open the champagne. At The Sports Direct it was 0-0 with Newcastle pressing but with Pompey playing up as usual and creating chances and we looked forward to watching the “Discarding of the Scarves” from the Tyne Bridge at 4.45.
Then it all changed.
Wycombe centre forward Keith Scott notched the winner for the Chairboys and at the same time, David Kelly was beating Alan Knight in the Pompey goal to send the 26,000 in the Sports Direct wild. Was it any wonder that Sunderland supporters never took to Kelly when we paid big money for him a few years later.
Both clubs held on to their three points.
For Wycombe, it was still not enough to win promotion to the Football League (they had to wait twelve months for that ) while for Newcastle it heralded a period when they were “everyone’s second team” and gave them a sense of entitlement which allows them to punch horses, shout at shops and scream into cameras while under the influence of whatever they have taken.
Wycombe and O’Neill went up the next year and the year after that. They have been good members of the Football League, having previously played in the Southern, the Great Western Suburban, the Spartan and the Isthmian, where they played from 1921 to 1985.
They were invited to join the newly formed Alliance Premier League in 1979 and again in 1981, but they declined, citing travelling costs. They wouldn’t get away with that in 2019. The FA has decreed that promotion is now compulsory and that if Shildon were to win the Northern League, instead of travelling to Bishop and West Auckland or Newton Aycliffe, would have to travel to Stocksbridge, Sheffield and Frickley.
Wycombe have history with Bishop Auckland, having crossed swords with the all-conquering, all paying amateur champions three times in the 1950s and losing all three games. Two were FA Amateur Cup semis and the third was the 1957 final at Wembley which Bishops won 3-1, fielding such famous names as Bob Hardisty, Jimmy Nimmins,, Harry Sharratt (“The Red Nosed Carrot” as he was known at Dean Street) and Bob Thursby.
Whereas Bishops have declined, an eventually forward-thinking Wycombe have progressed and have spent 25 years in the Football League. Promotions and relegations have been frequent and they have twice made it to Cup semi-finals, losing to Liverpool in the FA Cup in 2001 and Chelsea in the FL Cup in 2007. They were also dangerously close to going back to the fifth tier in 2014, only goal difference keeping them up at the expense of Bristol Rovers.
They have a good manager in Gareth Ainsworth who had a long playing career, taking in Preston North End, Lincoln City, Port Vale, Wimbledon, Cardiff City and Queens Park Rangers before falling into a comfortable shell hole at Adams Park.
He played 112 games for them and was then appointed manager after Gary Waddock was sacked in 2012. He also plays in a band called “Dog Chewed the Handle” and is highly regarded as a manager, but more importantly, as a man.
His comments when we took Luke O’Nien from them, saying that it gave him “immense pride that a player we took on as an apprentice is moving to such a big club” show his qualities.
Compare that with Steve Evans and what he said about Jack Baldwin……
He brings with him a team that is not well known outside of Buckinghamshire, with the exception of a trio of veterans in Nathan Tyson, Craig Mackall-Smith and “The Beast”, Adebayo Akinfenwa, who is widely regarded as an all round (geddit!!) good egg.
They will provide stiff opposition for us but we all hope that their inaugural visit to The Stadium of Light is an unpleasant one results wise, but an enjoyable one socially.
Ha’way the Lads
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Monsieur Salut writes: I may have said it before but League One is a treasure trove when it comes to Who are You? interviews, or is once I can locate a warm, witty and/or wise supporter from each club. There will be stumbles as the season progresses – the FA Cup draw left me with the task of finding not one but two Walsall candidates (it was often hard enough to get one when we were in the Championship), the Barnsley game has crept up on me and I haven’t even started thinking about Accrington Stanley and Bristol Rovers. Walsall (one fan covering both the forthcoming games) and Barnsley are sorted after a burst of energy yesterday, but recommendations for other coming games would be appreciated.
Jon Dickinson‘s* Who are You? makes the effort worthwhile. I love the pride he takes in supporting his own unfashionable local team but most of all, I love his responses about Martin O’Neill, Wycombe Wanderers’ amateur football history, what colleagues made of Sunderland when he conducted a straw poll at work and the manager who, when not managing, belts out rock music ….