Sixer’s U23s Soapbox: Sunderland Triumph in Washington DC (Durham Challenge Cup) tie

Malcolm Dawson writes……I was trying to decide whether take the car and go to see our U23s in action in Durham last night or walk up to the local for the Wednesday pub quiz, when I decided that I needed to escape the ever pervading smell of some pan fried mackerel I’d had in an effort to follow the latest dietary guidelines. So leaving the Fabreze and Glade plug ins to do their work I elected that the footy had to be the sensible choice. After a bit of banter with the lady in the shipping container which serves as the refreshment centre (£1.40 for a cup of tea!) I made my way into the stand as the teams took to the field. I was about to take the nearest empty seat, which just happened to be next to one Gary Bennett, when I heard my name called from a couple of rows behind. It was none other than Peter Sixsmith. Was I surprised to see him there? Well of course not but especially as we had both been at the Shildon v Guisborough game the previous evening and talked about going to this one. 

Both were enjoyable games played in a good spirit by four teams all trying to play good football. On Saturday there’s another enjoyable trip to Accrington and a couple of beers in the Peel Park Hotel before the game. What’s not to like about football outside of the Premier League? Oh yes – the Stanley drums but then you can’t have everything.

I know Pete enjoyed last night’s game as much as I did – let him tell you why.


It was a nostalgic evening at New Ferens Park last night when our Under 23’s took on Washington F.C of the Northern League Second Division in the Preliminary Round of the Durham Challenge Cup.

Nostalgia for the days in the 90’s when our Reserve team turned out there on Monday nights and crowds in excess of 2,000 turned up to watch Andy Marriott, Neil Wainwright and Danny Dichio strut their stuff on what was probably the best grass pitch in County Durham.

Did you ever see him use his “other” foot?

Nostalgia too for some of the opposing players we saw. Paul Merson, then of Villa and playing in a side that were 6 down, turning to the crowd and saying “What the f*** am I doing here? And what the f*** are you lot here doing watching me?”

Gazza in one of his more reflective moments

Or Paul Gascoigne, recovering from injury at Everton, being jeered at the start and then winning a deserved standing ovation as he went off after 70 minutes for his sheer good nature as he smiled, chuckled and gurned his way through his latest recovery and made it very clear that he just loved playing football.

No such stars last night, as our Under 23 squad had a comfortable 5-1 win over a Washington side who played football throughout, refused to lump the ball upfield, committed no egregious fouls and who scored a spectacular goal that, briefly, brought it back to 4-1.

They are playing at NFP because it is available and nothing else is. They left their Albany Park ground a while ago after a long running dispute with the owners – I gather the site is now being converted to housing – and lodged at the Nissan Sports and Social Club for a while.

Now they are playing on an artificial surface at a ground where Durham City played until they too fell out with the owner – they now ground share with Willington – but they have not neglected their Wearside roots and there was a good turnout from the club’s many junior teams of both genders. Some watched the football, some played on their phones, most spent a large amount of the evening scoffing chips, ket and chocolate.

The Under 23s are not doing particularly well in Premier League 2 Division 2 but the purpose is not winning but trying to bring young players through. The Two Jordans started at this level as did Jack Colback (a better player than JH at 18 in some regulars’ books).

Of the current first team squad, Denver Hume, Elliott Embleton, Ethan Robson and to a lesser extent, Duncan Watmore and Grant Leadbitter all learned their trade at Under 23 level and the work done by the likes of Robbie Stockdale, Elliot Dickman and Michael Proctor, should not be dismissed.

Bali Mumba and Benji Kimpioka were missing as they have just returned from international duty so it gave some of the younger lads a chance to show what they could do. The player who really caught the eye was French full back cum winger Williams Kokolo, who has filled out well over the summer without losing any of his speed. He scored a fine goal, defended well and used his developing strength to edge out a couple of dangerous Washington breaks. Definitely one for the EFL Trophy games.

Caught the eye

Lee Connolly scored two well taken goals but was caught offside at least three times as much, which reduced his effectiveness. He is quick and sharp but small so he has to rely on his speed to get away from defenders. Another one for the Trophy, I feel.

Jack Bainbridge and Ruben Sammut both looked very comfortable and these two venerable 22 year olds were withdrawn with half an hour left to allow them to get the pipe and slippers out and relax over a whisky and soda, while young keeper Ahmed Abdelkader made a couple of decent saves and ran his box well.

The crowd of 195, gorged on chips and chocolate, went home happy at witnessing a decent game of football, well refereed and on a pleasantly warm night. Far better than watching the telly, that’s for sure (c. Steve Bruce).

Accrington next and my third visit in 6 months.

Bet we get them in the FA Cup.

The First Time Ever I Saw Your Team: Sixer on Gillingham.

Malcolm Dawson writes…..I reckon I have seen Sunderland play Gillingham on four occasions. I must have seen them at home in 2004 and 2005 as I had a season ticket, but I don’t recall much of those games. The first time I went to the Priestfield was in September 2004, when we coasted to a 4-0 win early in a season when we finished top of what had become known as The Championship. I went down with some of my mates from the Heart of England Branch and we had such a good time in the pub pre-match, chatting with Gills’ fans who were enjoying the dizzy heights of the second tier that we decided to go back another time and in 2006 returned in our Sunderland shirts to see them play Walsall. Pete Sixsmith admits he hasn’t seen that much of them but has seen them at Roker Park and other assorted North Eastern football grounds as well as the Stadium of Light and down in Kent. I’ll let him take up the story.

Sixer by Jake


Kent’s finest, some would say only, Football League team, have not much appeared on the radar at Sixsmith Towers over the years. I have seen them three times at Sunderland, have visited Priestfield twice and have caught them at Feethams and Victoria Park. So, this piece may well be a short one (“Thank goodness” say the readers)

My first sight of them was on the 22nd October 1966 at Darlington. Our home game with Stoke City had been postponed due to the opening games of the Home International Championship being played on that day and we had three players involved.

John Parke and Martin Harvey played for Northern Ireland in their 2-0 defeat to England, the World Cup winners turning out the same XI that had triumphed at Wembley three months earlier. Second half goals from Roger Hunt and Martin Peters saw England defeat the home side in front of a huge Windsor Park crowd of 47,897.

John Parke
Martin Harvey

Meanwhile, in South Wales, Jim Baxter was strutting his stuff for Scotland at Ninian Park in a 1-1 draw. Ron Davies’s opener was cancelled out with four minutes remaining, by Dennis Law, and that was the only point dropped by Slim Jim and his mates as they defeated Northern Ireland 1-0 in Glasgow and then went on to win 3-2 at Wembley where Baxter played keepy-uppy and the Tartan Army, with whisky fuelled logic, proclaimed themselves “World Champions.”

So, with my paper round money sewn into my mittens, I caught the No.1 bus from Byerley Road and handed over a bawbee to the gateman at Feethams in order to watch Darlington play Gillingham, a town of whose location I had only a vague idea. A grammar school education in Geography focused on ox bow lakes, the economy of Nigeria and the rivers of Canada, rather than useful things like where on earth were places like Gillingham, Stockport and Cowdenbeath.

Thanks to an excellent website called “Gillingham Scrapbook” I was able to find out what the teams were that day and a report on the game. It was an undistinguished 1-1 draw which confirmed that the Quakers were struggling in Division Three (they were relegated at the end of the season), with the goals coming within 90 seconds of each other and both containing goalkeeping errors.

Darlington stopper Tony Moore failed to come for a cross and Brian Gibbs headed in but 90 seconds later stalwart Gills keeper John Simpson, a native of Appleby who made 571 appearances for them, let slip a fierce shot from Quakers full back John Peverell and the ball slid over the line.

John Simpson

The game had been held up in the first half when Darlington winger George McGeachie suffered a serious injury, the entire crowd heard his knee cartilage snap as it made a sound like a bullet being fired and there was a long wait while he was moved and taken to hospital. McGeachie had played for Dundee when they won the Scottish League in 1962 and ended up at Darlington as he worked as a chemist for ICI on Teesside. He never played again.

There was a crowd of 5,819 and I remember walking around the cricket pitch and back to the bus station, pleased as the proverbial punch that I had managed to exchange a Sunderland badge for a Gillingham one from a travelling Kentish Man (or is it Man of Kent?), replete with Invicta, the rearing white horse.

The last time I saw them was a few months ago at Hartlepool where they were seconds away from being dumped out of the FA Cup by a National League side. Pools had drawn 1-1 at Priestfield and, with seconds left, were 2-1 up in the replay. Goals by Carl Magnay and Paddy McLaughlin in the first half had put Pools in control, but Max Ehmer had pulled one back.

With six minutes left and the visitors desperately looking for salvation, Pools manager took off forward Luke James and sent on defender Conor Newton to shore up the back four. There was a rumbling of discontent amongst the home support as James was perfectly placed to take advantage of the gaps that Gillingham were leaving in their quest for the equaliser and their fears were founded as keeper Scott Loach missed a cross and Carl Magnay handled to stop the ball going in. Impressive striker Tom Eaves rattled home the penalty and the Gills went on to win 4-3 in extra time.

As far as Sunderland goes, I first saw them in a Division Three game at Roker on the 30th January, 1988, just over 31 years ago. I had missed the play off game as I was committed to taking the Aged P’s to East Midlands airport for what turned out to be my mother’s last foreign holiday before she died and I remember picking up scores from it on the Radio 2 news as I sat in the passenger seat of the Mini Metro and my father drove and dropped lighted cigarettes on the floor.

That day in 1988 ended in a 2-1 win for us, with Gary Bennett opening the scoring in the 9th minute and Marco doubling the lead in the 27th before he went off ten minutes later. Mark Cooper, then Gillingham’s record signing, pulled one back in the second half but we saw the game out (would that we could do that now!!!) to remain top of the pile.

Marco and Benno in their Quaker days

The teams who performed that day, in front of 16,195 people were’

Ian Hesford; John Kay, Gary Bennett, John McPhail, Reuben Agboola; Paul Atkinson, Paul Lemon, Steve Doyle, Gordon Armstrong; Eric Gates, Marco Gabbiadini subs; Frank Gray, Keith Bertschin (for Marco 36)

Ron Hillyard (who ended up 8 appearances behind John Simpson); Karl Elsey, Graham Pearce, Gavin Peacock (ex Mag, now a pastor in Calgary), Gary West, Colin Greenall (713 games for various clubs including Blackpool, Bury and Chester) Howard Pritchard, Trevor Quow, Steve Lovell (their current manager), Mark Cooper, David Smith subs; Les Berry, Irvin Gernon.

They have slipped a bit recently and could well be in the relegation places when they pitch up at the Stadium. This is their fourth visit in the league and they have lost two and drawn one. That was in 2003-04 and was a 1-1 draw.

You knew that was coming didn’t you…….

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Branch Lines: Sunderland supporters in the Heart of England

Malcolm Dawson writes….back in 1997/98 despite living in the Midlands I made 43 Sunderland games over the course of the season but as I hadn’t bothered with a season ticket, I was not guaranteed a ticket for the play off final at Wembley and when they went on general sale I was working and unable to get to the ground or even to a phone, so I missed out. What made it even more galling was hearing tell of people who had never ever been to a match before queuing up and getting seats for the big day while I ended up watching it on the telly.

At the first game of the new season, where if memory serves me right, Tommy Sorensen made his debut and Lee Clark broke his leg, I saw an article in ALS about the formation of a new Supporters’ Association branch, based in Coventry, got in touch next day and joined up. That branch was the Heart of England and at that time there were loads of season ticket holders and soon membership took off to the point where there were coaches to every weekend home game. 

The branch is still going strong with our regular contributor Wrinkly Pete (Lynn) being a stalwart and although I have been back in the North East for seven years now I still meet up with my old mates when we can. Branch Chair Sue Laffey takes up the story.

Quinny at the HoE


The Heart of England branch was formed in 1998 so this is our 20th anniversary! We were formed after the 1998 play-off final by our stalwart members Chris Herriott, Julie Harris, Steve Hay and Paul Walsh who wanted to find a group of like-minded fans to watch games with. It all took off from there and we are still going strong.

The branch covers pretty much the whole of the Midlands. We have just over 60 members, many of whom live in the area around Coventry where we are based, but we also have fans from as far east as Corby, as far west as Monmouth, as far south as Trowbridge and as far north as Nottingham. We also have a few exiles in London and the North East. Because we cover such a large geographical area, we find it hard to get everyone together but we organise coaches to home games as often as we can. We are always represented at away games too. There are around a dozen members who travel to virtually every home game despite the distance involved.

Monty signs Wrinkly Pete’s Cup Final programme.

We are honoured to have Kevin Ball as our President and he has been to Coventry to visit us. We have also had visits from, amongst others, Niall Quinn, Gary Rowell, Bobby Kerr, Dave Watson, John O’Hare, Len Ashurst, Gary Bennett, Jimmy Montgomery, Dick Malone and Micky Horswill.

In the early years we had a monthly newsletter “Turnips are Big and Purple” the name of which came about through the regional confusion between what is a turnip and what is a swede – you have to live down south to understand! That’s been replaced with regular email updates as we move with the times.

We do an annual predictions competition and last year gave half of the proceeds to the Bradley Lowery Foundation continuing a history of charity fundraising which started in 2002 when five branch members went to all 92 football league grounds in 69 hours, raising £4000 for the British Heart Foundation in the process.

Dick Malone’s visit to the HoE Branch with member Mark Strong

We have many amusing anecdotes that have involved branch members.

One of the best featured a member who had lived in the Midlands for a while and then moved back home to the North East. In those early days we were running coaches to every home game and many of us would have a pre match pint in the Howard Arms where we would meet up with friends and family.

On one occasion this former member came in and told us that on his way to the City Centre he had passed a pony which he was sure was lying dead on a grass verge at the side of the road. After stopping his car he went over to check and though convinced it was dead gave it a kick. Of course the poor beast had only been sleeping and jumped up, startled.

Two weeks later at the next home game on his coming into the pub we are regaled with the story of how he’s had a letter from the RSPCA outlining the incident and how having been reported by a concerned member of the public who had taken his car registration, they were obliged to investigate whether or not there was the possibility of an animal cruelty charge and asking for a written statement from him. He’s devastated, claiming he only went to check to see if the poor pony was alive.

No animals were harmed in the making of this website

What he had failed to see was the name of the RSPCA Inspector a Mr. T Hickhead and that the address was that of a member in Houghton. However, he dutifully responded claiming ‘there was no sign of life, snorting, panting or movement as I gingerly edged up to the rear of the animal’.

At the next home game after receiving his branch newsletter he was not amused at the antics of some of our members. Even today he still gets reminded of his brush with the pony whenever we see him.

A few seasons back, after an enjoyable visit to Gillingham a few of us decided that we would go back the next season, even though we were in different divisions, for another of their games and visit the pub where we had received a warm welcome and had a great night. We chose to go for their final home fixture of the season when they were due to play Walsall. We turned up in our red and white shirts and got some rather strange looks from the home fans, telling us we were at the wrong ground and stewards trying to direct us to the away end! After the match we went back to the pub where they were ordering pizzas and invited us to join in with their end of season party but unfortunately we had a train to catch back to the Midlands, via London.

Other incidents, too detailed to go into here, involved breakfast beers and lobster before a trip to London and the attempted (though ultimately unsuccessful) unfurling of a branch flag at a live broadcast of the National Lottery following a game at Loftus Road.

After the early days of the branch we now find it less viable to run coaches to every home game now but we still get to two or three fixtures a year, co-ordinate lift shares and apply for tickets for away fixtures, though we can’t always guarantee success, especially with the small allocation the club gets from some clubs in this division.

However, for exiles living away from the North East, those who through family connections grew up supporting The Lads or for those in the region who chose to follow SAFC for whatever reason the branch is a great way of forming friendships and sharing the joys and tribulations of following the team.

Live in the Midlands and want to join us? Contact our membership secretary, Karen, at

Sue Laffey

HoE committee with Benno
HoE members complete their tour of the 92 league grounds for the British Heart Foundation

Nick Barnes: ‘what’s it like covering a normal club instead of Sunderland?’

Nick Barnes, interviewing Grayson’s equally hapless predecessor

Monsieur Salut writes: one saving grace of supporting Sunderland from afar, whether from France or London in my case, is the need to rely on Nick Barnes and Gary Bennett‘s commentary on each game at BBC Radio Newcastle. It’s not free as it used to be but for once, that is not the club’s fault – the Football League insists that commentary via club sites should be paid-for.

Someone I follow at Twitter said last night that Benno’s moaning got him down. In my case, it’s the cause of that moaning that depresses me: the utter dross and incompetence he and Nick are required to assess. But I believe they do it, the commentary and the punditry, in style, Nick’s measured eloquence combining effectively with Benno’s footballing nous and passion for the club he captained.

Here, from a Facebook posting he has given me consent to reproduce, Nick – read more about him here – reflects on the club’s predicament and suggests we will rise again. As for when, he is less sure.

And if you read on, there’s a response from Graeme Anderson, another man who knows the joys and other emotions of reporting on Sunderland …

Read moreNick Barnes: ‘what’s it like covering a normal club instead of Sunderland?’

Sunderland’s 10 relegations: down with a Wembley twist

Pete Sixsmith

Pete’s going to be busy for a while, so there’s a good chance we’ll have a new manager – maybe a new owner (not to mention the possibility of a new prime minister) – before he gets back to this series. In the meantime, here’s his take on relegation number 4.

Like the first three, and like his other musings, it’s excellent stuff

Read moreSunderland’s 10 relegations: down with a Wembley twist

Sixer’s Burnley Soapbox: thank heavens he can write about travel, too

Malcolm Dawson writes…..Shildon play Whitley Bay in the Northern League Cup this evening. Peter Sixsmith will be there hoping to see a team in red and white progress in a knock-out competition. He travelled to the North Lancashire hotbed of football that is Burnley last night, more in hope than expectation of seeing a team in red and white progress in a knock-out competition. Burnley is a proper town, with a proper football club and proper folk drinking proper beer. It has a lot to commend it. If like me you agonised with Gary Bennett, whose commentary grew more and more agonised as the match went on, you’ll perhaps be relieved that you weren’t there in person to witness another shabby performance. Pete was. Here are his thoughts.


Another away game, another disappointing journey home and another search for the words to describe a dismal performance.

So let’s look at the trip and do a bit of a travel piece. The fact that the Durham Branch were prepared to run a bus was a pleasant surprise. So along with a rival writer, we were waiting in Spennymoor at 3.00pm as the dinky 33 seater (without a toilet) rolled up to the bus stop.

There were 10 of us scattered around the coach, all stretched out and with ample reading material. The aforementioned rival had his nose in Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome (Quiz alert – What does the K stand for? Which Midlands town did JKJ come from?). I read the remnants of the weekend papers and The Rugby League Express while The Sunday Times circulated.

Off we went over Blubberhouses Moor, past Menwith Hill and Skipton (one of my favourite towns) and into the hill top town of Colne. A break for an hour or so took us to a micro pub called Boyce’s Barrels, situated opposite the Colne Hippodrome – a splendid old cinema.

Boycie turned out not to be an Essex second hand car dealer with a pneumatic laugh but a jolly East Lancs lad who clearly loved his ale and who wisely sold beers from outside the area. A splendid pint of mild was quaffed from a Somerset Brewery called RCH and a half of bitter from a brewery whose name I have forgotten.

From Colne we traversed the M56 several times before we entered Burnley from above and saw the gleaming lights of Turf Moor in the distance. The coach was parked outside the ground and it was straight in and into the wooden seats of the Cricket Ground stand – state of the art 40 years ago but looking a wee bit tired now.

That’s the good bit over. On to the reason for us being there…………

Moyes shuffled his cards a little bit. He started with three at the back – Jones, Djilobodji and Denayer – with Manquillo and Van Aanholt playing as wing backs. Donald Love combined with George Honeyman in midfield (Love and Honeyman – Florists to the Polari) with the chosen skipper Seb Larsson in the middle. Up front those two powerhouses, Borini and Januzaj (I gather Wakefield Trinity are looking at them to play in the second row in the upcoming Rugby League season) were there to rattle in the goals. A decent selection under the circumstances – those being that we appear to have no more than 13 fit senior players.

And as the Countdown stalls at the first hurdle Benno is less than impressed with Don Vito’s distribution..

It started reasonably well. The three central defenders coped well enough and we buzzed around a little bit in midfield. Unfortunately, we appeared to be completely incapable of passing the ball to our own players while Burnley, entirely unreasonably, persisted in passing to their own men. For 43 minutes we held out until Jason Denayer lost his concentration and lost Sam Vokes who, entirely unreasonably, turned a fine header past Vito Mannone. One down at half time, there was hope for the second half as we attacked the goal behind which the 1800 Sunderland supporters (including a group of Belgian groundhoppers who happened to be Anderlecht fans) were massed.

Unfortunately we never saw much action as our defenders decided to kick the ball to anyone wearing a claret and blue shirt. Barton and Defour ran the midfield while Keane and Tarkowski swatted away the “threat” posed by Borini and Januzaj. And so it went on. Aimless long balls from the defenders, plenty of pointless running from the midfielders and absolutely nothing from the forwards. Defoe replaced Love (what’s Love got to do with it?) and we reverted to a back four but the midfield guile was still lacking and we never threatened.

On came Andre Gray and he terrorised Billy Jones sufficiently to wrap the game up before Seb Larsson finally forced a save out of Burnley’s third choice keeper Tom Pope in the 90th minute. Sean Dyche could have played his club’s Under 11 goalie in this game as our attacking threat was so puny.

Back to the coach in time to catch the rousing commentary from Sincil Bank as Lincoln City dumped Mick McCarthy’s Ipswich Town out of the old tin pot and Blackpool’s 50 travelling fans danced with delight at Oakwell when they grabbed a 119th minute winner.
Much of the talk during the day had been about a hard exit from the EU. Not for the first time, Sunderland found an easy way to exit the FA Cup. The exit from the Premier League draws ever closer.

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Barnes and Benno: eloquence meets passion, football inspires art

All roads lead to the Nick Barnes Matchbook
Nick Barnes and his Matchbook

We have been wanting a chat with Nick Barnes and Gary Bennett for a while. In some ways an unlikely pair, the tweed-loving culture vulture with a passion for the countryside and a former player and manager, fondly remembered for the sheer commitment he gave in red and white, who eschews tweeds in favour of the heart he wears on his sleeve …

Read moreBarnes and Benno: eloquence meets passion, football inspires art

Pure Poyetry: Defending the defensive but defending too much against Man Utd

Jake: 'i didn't expect much - and got nothing'
Jake: ‘i didn’t expect much – and got nothing’
Malcolm Dawson writes….Sixer and I saw SAFC concede twice today and have a man sent off but they not only maintained but in fact strengthened their title challenge. No I haven’t gone mad – we were at Dean Street where Shildon scored two cracking goals after twice going behind against Northern League leaders West Auckland. With games in hand Shildon now have control of the Championship’s destination. I was kept up to date with the goings on at Old Trafford thanks to the modern day wonder that is the i-phone – events relayed to me by a couple of lads sitting behind. So I can’t say much about the game. Gary Bennett’s comments on Radio Newcastle indicated a decent first half performance but a worrying observation that Jermain Defoe seems to have lost the spark he brought with him to the club. He’s only been there five minutes. Another refereeing howler provided the post match talking points. The other teams around us lost so things could have been worse and in his post match e-mail Gus remains positive but then that’s part of his job.

Jake captures the Bard, with thanks to Owen Lennox
Jake captures the Bard, with thanks to Owen Lennox

Dear Colin,

It was a very decent start from us, everything was going to plan and we did well, creating a number of chances through Connor [Wickham] and Jermain [Defoe] and we held United.

After that we dropped off a little too much; we defended too much and stopped creating chances and trying to pass and control the ball. There were too many actions to defend and when that is the case you concede a goal, and of course for us the penalty was the turning point of the game. We needed to readjust after going down to ten men and change how we could play.

[On the red card and penalty] When I saw Falcao get past the defenders and hit the ball wide I was delighted, but then I saw the referee give a penalty and then everyone was gathered around and talking, on the bench we weren’t sure who had made the foul. After that we needed to stay in the game, but we couldn’t cope after losing a player and United took their chance.

For long spells we defended really well today and we need to take that into the next two games and build on it. Now is our time to do that.

Thanks for your support,

Gus Poyet

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Jake flags the new feature allowing you to have your say on topic or off
Jake flags the new feature allowing you to have your say on topic or off

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Sixer’s Fulham Soapbox: Should’ve gone to Shields v Shildon

SAFCvFULHAM(FT)Malcolm Dawson writes……I couldn’t get to this game being otherwise occupied on the Fylde coast. Phew – got away with that one. Of course Pete Sixsmith gets to every home game and most away matches too but even his patience is being tested. The euphoria felt at Old Trafford and Sid James’ Park isn’t making up for the amount of dross and drivel he is being served up on a far too regular basis. Already he has taken the decision to cut down on the number of times he follows the Lads to away grounds and it sounds like he is not far from choosing to leave his seat at the Stadium of Light unoccupied. He’ll be back next week, as will I, but his commitment is being pushed to the limit. With many of the fancied teams now out of the competition the F.A. Cup offers us a realistic chance of silverware. Not, according to Pete, on yesterday’s performance. Here’s his somewhat downbeat assessment of the goings on on the banks of the River Wear yesterday.

Sunderland v Fulham FA Cup (H)

I could, and perhaps should, have driven off at 2.05 and headed for North Shields in order to watch Shildon put their Northern League challenge well and truly back on track with a 1-0 win against the then league leaders. Why 2.05? That was when Nick Barnes and Gary Bennett read the team out for this FA Cup Fourth Round game. First of all they said that McCormack and Rodellega were on the bench for Fulham, suggesting that the Cottagers were not over fussed about this game.

Jake so glad he couldn't get this game in Spain.
Jake so glad he couldn’t get this game in Spain.

Bennett suggested to Barnes that Giaccherini was almost certain to be part of a midfield three with Larsson and Rodwell and that hopefully the one time Italian international would be able to spark some creativity and create chances for new arrival Jermaine Defoe.
Then came the team news; no Giaccherini, no Alvarez but a three of Rodwell, Bridcutt and Larsson. There was a sharp intake of breath from Bennett – and from the driver’s seat of the trusty Mazda. “Where is the creativity going to come from,” said the pundit. “Should I head for North Shields,” said the fan.
Where's the creativity?
Where’s the creativity?

I made the wrong decision – which was several less than Gus Poyet made on a truly wretched afternoon, which did nothing to assuage the mood amongst the support that bothered to turn out -that we were sliding towards the bottom three and that the miracle of 2014 was unlikely to be repeated in 2015. The lack of tempo and pace at the start was frightening as we allowed a competent and well organised Fulham side to settle. The Dog and Duck could settle against us as we pass the ball sideways, backwards, anywhere but forwards, putting minimal pressure on whatever opponents we are facing.

To many of us it was patently clear that the ball was not going to reach Defoe or Fletcher quickly and that when it did eventually reach them, the Fulham defenders were ready and waiting. It also became apparent that a week on the training ground is not sufficient to bed the players into this new 3-5-2 formation. They argued with one other, asked what they were supposed to be doing and generally looked as if they had little idea of what was expected of them. Of course, it helps if you can actually pass the ball to one of your team mates and this basic requirement seemed to be beyond too many of them, particularly those charged with the responsibility of driving the team forward. Only Larsson of the midfield three looked comfortable in this set up, drawing on his huge reserves of energy to push Fulham back and win the ball. His two colleagues showed little inclination to match him.

Bridcutt was, to put it mildly, poor but one expects little from a player who is clearly suited to the Championship. It is Rodwell who seems to encapsulate the problems that Sunderland AFC have at the moment. Hailed as a good signing by many (including this scribe), his first six months at The Stadium of Light have been distinctly underwhelming, culminating in a performance where the team actually looked better once he had been sent off. He could have gone in the first half, because the challenge that earned him his first yellow was as close as you will see to being a red. It was made after he had lost the ball, leading to him losing his temper and going in with his foot off the ground on Staflyidis. He then committed two more fouls which drew a quiet word from referee Anthony Taylor, before he got himself a mandatory yellow for obstructing the goalkeeper. “Idiotic”, “stupid” and “does he ever actually think” are words that spring to mind.
He had every right to be frustrated as his performance had done nothing to justify the large fee that Manchester City took off us for his registration. He struggled to keep up with the pace of the game which, for a man who is supposed to be a “box to box” player, is just not good enough. He appears to be yet another player who has come to Sunderland to maintain his lifestyle and who, on what we have seen so far, will not be an asset to the club and will bail out should we be relegated at the end of the season – something which is looking likelier as the weeks pass by and we show no pace, tempo or the ability to fashion chances.

Support for Gus's methods is flagging
Support for Gus’s methods is flagging

The support is rapidly becoming disillusioned with the football being played. A single home win all season in the league does not inspire. Chelsea apart, the games have been dull and uninteresting and there seems to be an inexorable slide towards relegation. There is an old adage that players are more important than systems and that good players will fit to whatever the coaching staff wants them to do – as long as they buy into it. Look at our players – fractious, unsure of themselves and seemingly not convinced by what they are being asked to do. They know that we are going into a series of home games that will define our season and will either propel us to mid table safety and obscurity or dump us in the bottom three, possibly for the rest of the season.

Some flair and imagination are required for the Burnley game on Saturday. Johnson should return and hopefully Cattermole, whose drive and energy has been sorely missed. If Defoe is to flourish, he needs players who will get the ball to him quickly and take advantage of his ability to make his own space against defenders. Whether Fletcher, who mysteriously spent much of his hour on the field in a wide position, is the man to play alongside him, remains to be seen. As does the ability of Messrs Poyet, Tarrichio and Oatway to get our season moving. Burnley could well be their make or break game.

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The Roker End: still standing, on a great site

Mrs Logic**
Hats off to Brian Leng and all others concerned with a website called The Roker End*.

Technically home to the Sunderland Former Players’ Association, it is packed with material of interest to every supporter of Sunderland AFC – and a good many supporters of other clubs, too, especially those our players also served.

There are interviews galore, proper features and Q&As, news of events and more besides. Try this list for size and quality: Len Shackleton, Johnny Crossan, Johnny Mapson, John Byrne, Nick Sharkey, Ritchie Pitt, Chris Makin. All of them – and more, yes King Charlie included (see comment) – have been interviewed or quoted. Some quotes are familiar – Shack’s “Listen, I’ve nothing against Newcastle – I don’t care who beats them!” – others less so (Mapson: “For the one and only time in my career, I received an approach to throw a game”).

Read moreThe Roker End: still standing, on a great site