Sixer’s Cardiff Soapbox: sometimes life is just beer and skittles (or football)

Never one to miss the opportunity to combine two of his favourite pastimes, real ale and watching footy, Pete Sixsmith took advantage of the holiday fixture list to take a tour of the English Midlands and Welsh Borders to work off his post Christmas over indulgence by over indulging some more. Having taken the Supporters’ coach to and from Merseyside he turned his trip to Cardiff into a mini break and leaves him just a little more optimistic than he had been a week earlier.

CARDIFF REDS GET LAST MINUTE BLUES.SoapboxCARDIFF

Apologies, dear readers, for the delay, but Sixsmith has been meandering around this green and pleasant land on his way to and from Cardiff, sampling beers, ticking off grounds and seeing road signs to places that have only been read about – of which more later.

The result at Cardiff was undoubtedly a good one, the performance less so. Every one of the 1200 Sunderland fans, standing in the corner of The Vincent Tan Memorial Stadium, sponsored by SunglassesForYou, was absolutely delighted with the two late goals which dragged us into the relegation scrap rather than becoming the equivalent of Robert Redford in All Is Lost – cast adrift and without hope.

Despite turning in a distinctly moderate performance for 80 minutes, we took advantage of an over cautious Cardiff temporary manager and showed tremendous heart and commitment to claw back the deficit.

Once Fletcher had got us back into the game – and what a good goal it was – there was a feeling amongst the raucous and ever so impressive Sunderland support, that we might just get something. Roberge nearly got the leveller (would have made up for his awful error to give them the opener) and shots were blocked, saved and went over the bar and round the post, before their full back decided to give the ball to Ki and his short pass was put away by Colback, with help from a massive deflection by the hitherto resolute Stephen Caulker.

For me, the game hinged on substitutions. Colback and Gardener gave us a bit more strength in the centre and David Kerslake took off their most effective player, Kim Bo-Kyung, who had tackled well and had got in the faces of our midfield and stopped us moving the ball around. He had also had a couple of interesting tussles with Dossena in the six yard box, which the excellent Chris Foy treated it as a teacher on Yard Duty would when he sees two Year 7’s circling each other – a kind of amused detachment.

His departure gave us a chance to get hold of midfield and Cardiff suddenly looked a very nervous team indeed. Kim’s absence allowed Giaccherini to come into the game and his sublime ball to Fletcher brought us back from the dead. Then came the equaliser and all hell broke loose as grown men wept and wailed and rent their clothing and gave praise to the Lord for the point that could prove crucial at the end of the season.

Jake captures that rare moment  as Colback celebrates his goal
Jake captures that rare moment as Colback celebrates his goal

The Sunderland fans were brilliant all night. When we went 2 down, the younger ones started with the old New Labour song, Things Can Only Get Better and kept on with it for ages. Did it inspire the players? Maybe it did. Maybe some of them yearn for the days when New Labour ruled this disparate land of ours and rosy cheeked urchins skipped happily to school and the men and women who ran the food banks sat round all day with nothing to do. Whatever, it certainly lifted spirits in the crowd, so a big hand to the younger generation from one of the oldies. It stopped them singing those rubbish songs about Taylor and Shearer as well. Don’t like those.

It wasn’t the greatest of performances and Dossena and Altidore did nothing to enhance their reputations. Our Italian left back was given a thorough going over by Craig Noone, while Jozy had an absolute stinker, one that was even stinkier than that awful moment at Christmas Dinner when the impact of the Brussels sprouts moves around the table and Grandma drops one that makes one fully understand what The Pals Battalions went through in the trenches in Flanders as Jerry lobbed the poison gas at them.

The big American is struggling badly and needs a run of goals to rebuild his shattered confidence. The sitter he missed in the first half put him in the Rod Belfitt, Tom Ritchie, Dave Swindlehurst category of big signings wot ‘ave flopped on Wearside. He is approaching Brett Angell standards.

As for Cardiff, they seized the initiative and once our defence had been undressed, put to bed and given a smack on the bum, looked in complete control allowing Frazier Campbell to score. The mood amongst the home fans was relatively upbeat, but there was little support for the owner (ok, none) and much for the dismissed Malky McKay.  They became very anxious after Fletcher’s goal and there was a feeling of doom and gloom as they walked back to the city centre to quaff pints of Brain’s excellent beers.

My journey started on Friday with a stopover in Tamworth, once the capital of England in the really olden days, when we had Mercia, Wessex and Northumbria. Three good pints in The Globe and an excellent hour in the company of a Villa and Birmingham fan was a good way to start.

A leisurely drive to Cardiff via Ross-on-Wye to my hotel, a small, family run place in the city centre and next to a fine pub called The Cottage, where Bob Chapman and John Marshall were supping. We thought that this might have been the pub that we occupied in 1980 and where Ian Douglass won a lot of money playing cards with some Welshmen, but it wasn’t. I was tempted to say it was so as to make a good story of it, but journalistic integrity dictated otherwise.

On that day, when a 1-1 draw courtesy of a Pop Robson equaliser set up by Barry Dunn, meant we had to win the final game of the season at home to West Ham, the City fans had been hostile and aggressive to the nth degree. Unused to having 7,000 Englishmen and women in their ground, they decided that the best way to prevent Sunderland from going up, was to open the minimum amount of gates so that most would not get in much before half time. This was a challenge and the gates were stormed as teachers, surveyors, respected journalists and men who dipped metal in hot acid baths, clambered over and under the turnstile and refused to pay the cowering and quivering child behind the grille, his £2.00 or whatever it was. During the game, bricks, stones, leeks, sheep and Max Boyce LP’s were thrown from the South Bank and the walk back to Cardiff Central was not much fun. Cardiff fans had a poor reputation in those days and their trips to Millwall Leeds and Swansea in the lower divisions, were allegedly used by the SAS as training sessions before they decamped to Iraq or Afghanistan.

Not now. I liked the stadium. The concourses were wide and they even opened the gates at half time so that the smokers did not have to congregate in the toilets. I liked the signage in the ground and the rendition of that fine old Welsh song, Men of Harlech, which reminded many of us of Ivor Emmanuel belting it out as the Zulu nation appeared over the hill and Michael Caine did a little poo in his pants at the sight of them. The walk back was fine, with City fans disappointed and quite legitimately worried about what was going to happen next. They had heard that Ole Gunnar Solksjaer had said no and were worried that no decent manager would be attracted. I almost said that Paolo Di Canio was available, but realised that that would lead to a return to 1980, as stones would shower on my head.

I left Cardiff on the Sunday morning, heading for Northampton and Coventry City’s game against Oldham Athletic. I could have used the motorways but decided to meander across country and went through Cheltenham, Bourton-on-the Water, Stow-on-the Wold, Chipping –on-the Norton and Banbury-on-the Cross. These towns are not the natural habitat of a grubby industrial town dweller like me, but I have to say they looked lovely in the winter sun. I peered over the fields hoping for a glimpse of Rebekah Brooks and David Cameron riding to hounds, but, not for the first time in my life, was disappointed.

What I did see were three road signs pointing to places that seem to epitomise the English countryside. Two I expected, but one took me by surprise, that being a sign for the village of Adlestrop, which is the setting for a beautiful poem by Edward Thomas. He is on a train that stops at the village station and sits there for a while and he writes of “all the birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire singing” and of the calm peace that he felt, both inner and outer. Thomas was killed a few weeks later at The Battle of Arras in April 1917, where the calm and peace of this rural station must have seemed a million miles away.

The next one was Hook Norton, home of the finest brewery building in England, a traditional three floor brewery where they mash at the top, boil in the middle and ferment on the bottom, a bit like Vincent Tan when his team concede a 95th minute equaliser.  Finally, as I approached Banbury, there was the road to Cropredy, where Fairport Convention live together in a big house, emerging for their annual tour and their annual festival. I may well spend some time in this area next year.

The Coventry game was a tight 1-1 draw, with Blair Adams playing well for City. They had a forward called Callum Wilson who looked promising, while Oldham’s Canadian winger Michael Petrasso shone for the Latics. He’s on loan from QPR, so maybe Good’Ol ‘Arry isn’t as smart as he thinks he is. The Sixfields Stadium at Northampton is functional and a fair few Coventry fans had bitten the bullet and turned up. The man sat next to me had been a season ticket holder since 1980 (so was not involved in the 1977 fiasco) and he had missed the first three games, but felt that he had to come back. He despaired of the club and the owners of the Ricoh and was convinced that City would find it very difficult to get back into the Championship, let alone the Premiership. I made no comment.

Sunday night was spent in the small Nottinghamshire town of Kimberley, once the home of Hardy Hanson’s splendid beers. The brewery is now crumbling but the ale in The Stag and The Nelson and Railway (where I stayed) was excellent. Heather, the Body Art Queen of Notts, even sent out for a pizza for me when I arrived too late for a meal.

And so, as the sun sets in the west, the intrepid traveller puts down his pen, says his prayers to the god of no relegation and nods off to sleep – which is what you will have done if you got this far. Make sure you wake up for the Villa game on Wednesday.


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Sixer’s Norwich Soapbox: no wonderful life at the Stadium of Light

Whatever pre Christmas spirit there was in Sixsmith Towers on Saturday morning had evaporated like the fumes of flaming brandy on the Christmas Pudding, by the time Martin Atkinson blew for full time after yet another disappointing afternoon at the Stadium of Light. It was no secret that this was a game which could define the rest of the season. A win would still have left Gus Poyet’s men bottom but with a narrowing gap that would surely act as an incentive in the winnable games to come. Anything less would mean what was already an uphill task would involve taking the steeper route on gammy knees with no stick. Pete Sixsmith left in a mood reminiscent of George Bailey before his meeting with Clarence Oddbody. It’ll take a win at Everton, another in Wales and a third on New Year’s Day to convince him that somewhere, there is an angel yet to earn his wings, looking down on him.

Cats fail to clip Canaries' wings
Cats fail to clip Canaries’ wings

I SUSPECT THAT’S IT

Yet another disappointing performance against a side who are, in theory, at about the same level as we are i.e. hanging on to the Premier League and all the riches and entertainment that it brings. On Saturday, Norwich climbed a little further away from the precipice. We are over the edge and desperately clinging on but only because teams above us are proving to be almost as useless as we are.

As it is Christmas, we should look for some positives. We didn’t lose. We kept a clean sheet. It didn’t rain. And that’s about it. Not much is it? Oh, and Norwich didn’t look that good either.

However, the negatives far outweighed the positives. Another red card and this time one that will not be overturned. I haven’t seen it on TV as I was not prepared to sit through Match of the Day until the bitter end to have my views confirmed that this was a foolish and totally unnecessary blot on Wes Brown’s hitherto impressive season. It looked to me that all the frustration of being stuck in a side that is heading for the Championship came out and he clattered into the cartoon character that is Ricky van Wolfswinkel. Not a great example to set and indicative of the awful season that we are undergoing. So, Brown can have an extended Christmas break and will miss the next three games that will now define our season.

Anything less than 6 points will leave us with a hopeless task in avoiding the ninth relegation that I have witnessed. However, to get six points, it is essential to score goals. We have gone 180 minutes in the League without hitting the back of the net. Last week, we hit the bar and the post and forced Jaaskelainen into a couple of saves. Schwarzer had to extend himself on Tuesday night and we buzzed around The Pensioners’ goal.

However, John Ruddy had a quiet game in the Canaries net – a couple of catches and parries being the extent of his activity. Post and bar remained intact, although we did put a number of shots into the crowd.
That number was considerably less than it could have been as our players consistently failed to get a shot in. How many touches are needed to line up the ball? For good players it is one, occasionally two. Ours need three or four as they move, crab like, across the 18 yard line.

Jozy Altidore was the biggest culprit. He did well on Tuesday but had a shocker yesterday and looked like a player who cannot score. The Dutch league must be an absolute doddle, looking at the number of forwards who do well there and flop in this country. Remember Alfonso Alves at Middlesbrough? Has Wilfreid Bony been a success at Swansea? The midfield was pedestrian and allowed Norwich to filter back to stop any surges from Borini who looked as if he might do something. But the ponderous build up was not to his liking and he had to pick the ball up deep or move inside to collect it, negating his pace and his enthusiasm.

It really was a depressing afternoon. The teams around us are little better at the moment, but some or all may gather a bit of momentum and leave us stranded. To gain anything from this season, we have to pick up the pace and find someone who can play a quick, killer ball to whoever we play up front. That will almost certainly be either Fletcher or Altidore as neither Wickham nor Graham are likely to be recalled early from their respective loans. Mandron looks a work in progress and may be a season away from first team football.

What we need is a forward who can play alongside the big centre forward that we have been landed with. Could that be Borini feeding off whoever it is? Could we play with our forwards higher up the field? Can Poyet and his coaches encourage a quicker, more accurate final ball, played before the opposition smother us in midfield?

On Thursday, after we have all stuffed ourselves on poultry and pudding, we are at Goodison Park, a ground where our record of winning is about as long as a pleasurable Cliff Richard singles list. Everton are looking to offload Jelavic and Heitinger, both of whom are looking for regular football before the World Cup. We need a short term boost. These two may provide it – I can’t see many other players queuing up to don red and white stripes in the January window.
So, not a happy Christmas for Sunderland fans. Most of us are resigned to relegation, older ones like me knowing a relegation team when they see one. There is hope, but games have to be won and time is running out. There are other clubs in turmoil (Cardiff and their mad owner) and others who could get dragged into it (Norwich, who looked little better than average) but none are as poor as we are.

Bah Humbug!
Bah Humbug!

And a Merry Christmas to all our readers.

Sixer’s Peterborough Soapbox: relief all round as Cats purr their way to victory

SoapboxPOSH

The atmosphere around the Stadium of Light last night was not that of a club in crisis writes Malcolm Dawson. Mind you when I arrived outside the ground an hour before kick off it was obviously typical of a League Cup fixture – quieter than Bishop Auckland on a Friday night when the bouncers outside the pubs outnumber the punters within. Surprisingly perhaps there was little talk of Di Canio’s departure, player power or possible incoming coaches. It seemed to me that those inside the ground were hoping that a decent performance would erase the memories of the dismal start to the season. There was a decent turn out too of Posh supporters on a mizzly September evening – more than Fulham brought. Pete Sixsmith was there too.

NEWsoapbox(Without Score)

A WEIGHT OFF THE SHOULDERS

It was a cup tie and it was against a team who were two divisions below us, but there was a palpable sense of relief at the SoL last night as a predominantly British team shrugged off Peterborough United to make it into the last 16 of the Football League Cup.

Relief at the fact that the owner had taken action to arrest a situation which was looking critical if not terminal even after five games; relief at the fact that we have not stampeded into a quick appointment and are happy to look at several candidates while leaving the first team in the very English hands of Kevin Ball.

Nobody that I spoke to was anything other than pleased that the mercurial Italian had left. The players were welcomed with warm applause, particularly O’Shea and Larsson, who are reputedly the ones who led the delegation to Margaret Byrne. They looked like men who had had a huge weight taken off their shoulders.

It would be wrong to describe the 90 minutes that followed as a sparkling performance. Some of the team were rusty, hardly having played this season. Others were desperate to impress and maybe tried too much. But they won, are in the next round and looked like a better team than past results have indicated.

Cattermole had an immediate impact, sitting deep and winning the ball before moving it forward. At times, he reminds me of a parks player, constantly chasing the ball and then giving it away. But he played one exquisite through ball to Giaccherini in the 32nd minute, which saw the excellent Italian put us ahead.
Ball played him behind Altidore, in the role in which we always hoped Sessegnon would excel. He looked a very good player last night, quick, sharp and with the ability to create his own space. This one could work and his celebrations when he scored indicated that he had played a considerable part in ensuring that Di Canio was queuing at the Alitalia desk on Monday morning.

Another who looked quietly impressive was Ki, who does simple things well and also has the ability to create his own space. However, he let himself down with a nasty challenge on Lee Tomlin, raking his foot down Tomlin’s Achilles and putting the Posh’s most influential player out of the game after 10 minutes. Altidore worked hard, as always, and was unlucky with a thumping shot that hit the post in the first half and Johnson was always a good outlet on the left. He put in a wonderful centre for Roberge to head home to wrap the game up, having earlier curled one just round the post.

So, no embarrassment to a team below us in the pyramid and a feeling that players and crowd were united in the face of adversary. We go into Sunday’s game against Liverpool with a win under our belts and that sense of relief that a bully has been beaten and that there is the potential of salvaging the season and getting some points on the board.
Kevin Ball has said that he wants the job. He has done well with the Under 21’s – but so did Ricky Sbragia. Whoever takes over has to be vetted carefully and has to have either the credentials or the potential to make quick progress. Poyet seems to be in a strong position and could be an interesting appointment. I suspect that Tony Pulis or Alex McLeish will not be popular with fans, but they are honest and reliable men. I like the cut of Eddie Howe’s jib and he has done well at Bournemouth and I gather he was on the Everton short list in the summer.

Whoever it is has a decent bunch of players to work with, and more importantly, a group of players who have shown that they do care about the club and their own professional reputations. Talk of player power is nonsense – as Martin Smith said on Total Sport, if they didn’t care about the club they would just say they were injured and pick up their salaries as Angeleri and a few others have done over the years.

We await the appointment with interest – and hope that Bally can give his chances a real boost on Sunday.


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Sixer’s Soapbox: Arsenal, Altidore and Atkinson

NEWsoapbox(Without Score)There was a bevvy of Salut! Sunderland contributors in the Kings Arms on Saturday lunchtime – a bevvy being the collective noun for a group of like minded people meeting in a boozer – and we were all optimistically predicting a home win whilst secretly expecting to get nothing from the game. We elected not to drown our collective sorrows after the match but you will doubtless read our own thoughts in the comments sections of the post Arsenal articles and podcasts which appear on this site. M Salut, was not there, ensconced as he is in his French château but his thoughts can be found on his ESPN blog at http://espnfc.com/blog/_/name/sunderland/id/2060. As usual the esteemed Peter Sixsmith presents his own view of the game, as seen from his seat high in the East Stand.

SoapboxARSENAL

Where to start?
• With the team selection, which handed the first half to Arsenal?
• With the huge improvement in the second half that gave us a glimmer of hope in what is already looking like a very difficult season?
• With the undoubted quality of the Arsenal midfield?
• With the controversy arising from the Altidore/Sagna/Atkinson situation?
• With Di Canio being sent off?

It’s a tricky one!

The team selection came first so let’s have a look at that. Arsenal lined up with 5 international midfielders – Walcott, Ozil, Flamini, Wilshere and Ramsey, with four of them playing in the centre and only Walcott wide. We lined up with Vaughan and Ki in our middle with Mavrias and Johnson out wide. It came as no surprise that the Arsenal 4 completely bossed the midfield for the first 45 minutes as our two ran around trying to get the ball. Neither of them are tacklers and they were easily swept aside by players who were far better than they were.

We played two up front, which looks like a luxury if the midfield cannot get hold of the ball. It’s good to attack, but I can’t think of many teams who play two orthodox centre forwards as we did. It could be argued (and it’s a good point) that Arsenal were weak in the middle of the back four, with Sagna and Koscielny not the strongest combination. They had difficulties when we got the ball up to Fletcher and Altidore, but we saw so little of the ball in the first half that they were looking for scraps. Di Canio clearly wants to play football and the pedestrianism of the last two years is much less in evidence. But we need some steel in there as well in order to win the ball and spread it wide to our wingers. Vaughan and Ki cannot do that job.

As a result, a very good Arsenal side were made to look even better. After we made a decent start, they woke up, yawned, scratched themselves and went down and scored, with Ozil playing a delightful pass to Giroud who swept it home. A goal of the highest quality which started with Altidore losing the ball in their penalty area and finished with Westwood picking the ball out of the net.

Westwood kept us in the game in the first half, making three outstanding saves, while Walcott dithered over whether to head the ball or side foot it in and ended up doing neither. He had a disappointing game despite Colback and Mavrias giving him plenty of space.

Despite all their possession, we almost equalised when Diakite (a much improved performance from him) hit the bar with a header and Altidore forced a good save out of Szczesny. However, there was a feeling at half time that this could get bloody unless we improved.

Jake says it's good to have you back
Jake says it’s good to have you back
And improve we did. Gardner came on to put a bit of bite into midfield and within three minutes he was slamming home a penalty after Koscielny had brought down Johnson. A clumsy and needless challenge from the Frenchman as Johnson was heading away from goal, but it got us into the game, stirred the crowd and for a while Arsenal lost focus. Gardner is a consummate penalty taker and also a consummate collector of yellow cards and he got one a couple of minutes later, but at least he was tackling and harrying and the Super 3 of Ozil, Wilshere (still not convinced by him) and Ramsey looked distinctly rattled.

We had a goal disallowed for offside and at the 65th minute stage, we looked the likeliest winners. Then, our energy levels dropped a wee bit and they got back into it. We failed to mark Jenkinson, who received a short corner from Ozil, he looked up and picked out an unmarked Ramsey who scored with a cracking volley.

Now we come to the controversial bit. This one will take up acres of newsprint and will be done to death on radio and TV. So, let’s be short and sweet about it and say that Martin Atkinson was wrong, wrong, wrong on both counts. First of all, he should have waited a few seconds before giving the foul by Sagna on Altidore. He didn’t but having given it, he then had to send the Arsenal man off as he had clearly prevented a goal scoring opportunity. He didn’t. The assessor may well be having words with him after two very poor interpretations of the spirit of the game and the rules. As a result, he may well be appearing at Scunthorpe or Accrington next week.

There was enough time for Ozil to set up another good goal for the very impressive Ramsey and for our manager to get himself sent off after Atkinson inexplicably allowed Giroud to leave the pitch at the half way line rather than go off behind the goal. Make it Frickley Athletic or Bradford PA next week.

There was a sense of frustration and disappointment as we left, after warm and genuine applause for the players who had done very well in the second half. But the first half was a worry and the team selection was, once again, difficult to fathom. We really cannot start as badly as we have done for the last two games and rely on substitutions to get us back into the game. Chasing the game is difficult for the best sides, never mind one in transition as we are.

Next week at West Brom is as important a game as Di Canio has had at Sunderland. We need a win as points have to be picked up at the clubs who will be around us and we have already dropped seven to Palace, Fulham and Southampton. Albion scored their first goal late on at Fulham and will be looking to start their season. We must get ours under way, or I can see another disastrous campaign stretching out before us.

At least Durham won the cricket!!!


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