The Lars Word: acclaim from a big Sam fan

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As Lars Knutsen says, the season’s not over yet, writes John McCormick. But we’re all walking just that bit taller and smiling just that bit wider. The reason, according to Lars, is that we have a manager who is not just up to the job of keeping us up but who is also capable of taking us forward …

Read moreThe Lars Word: acclaim from a big Sam fan

The Lars Word: six things Big Sam has brought to Sunderland

Lars Knutsen - Wearside through and through
Lars Knutsen – Wearside through and through

Malcolm Dawson writes…….Lars Knutsen might sound as if he was brought up on gravadlax and smorgasbord but with his East Boldon roots he is more of a corned beef and potato pie or stotty cake kind of guy. Having said that he now spends time working in the US but will soon be back in the UK to take in a few games and see extended family. Kudos to him for predicting Sam’s arrival at the club in his last column. Here is the latest of his occasional observations of what’s going on at the Stadium of Light in which he reflects on the impact that Big Sam Allardyce has brought to Wearside.

Lars Knutsen touching base
Lars Knutsen touching base

So where are we now as a football club?

Big Sam has been appointed to stabilise matters and has already given us a fighting chance of avoiding the drop. There is still a long way to go, and it has been tough for him in many ways; coming in, hitting the ground running and having to instantly assess the players at his disposal, make an impression with the media, and to settle into his new rôle.

I will say he already seems to have won the respect of everybody, aside from a couple of miserable, headline-seeking Daily Mail journalists. It is of course on the field where he will be judged, and winning two games in a row has changed the whole complexion of the season. Allardyce seems like a man who is now in the perfect job for him and his personality, in the right place at the right time.

I do feel a certain level of satisfaction having predicted Sam Allardyce being hired into the club. I quote from my last “The Lars Word” piece in June of this year:

“So we are now looking forward to 2015-16 in the hope that the “Advocaat effect” is extended into the new season and next year, with future transition to another experienced manager who can bring consistent success to the Stadium of Light. That choice will be absolutely crucial, and my vote would be for our former player Sam Allardyce, after his planned sabbatical. ”

The “Advocaat Effect” just did not materialise in the current season for a whole series of reasons, which I will not speculate about at this time. The Dutchman, who we will always be grateful to, stepped aside without requesting a payoff, and Ellis Short approached “the outstanding candidate”, who jumped at the chance of moving north.

Despite the intensity of performance seen in recent games, Allardyce’s first few weeks with the Black Cats has not been straightforward. The initial loss at West Brom. did not sit well, and although the win over Newcastle was a true high point, it was very necessary as our first win of the season.

At Everton, it became clear that Big Sam needed to work harder at cutting out individual errors. I would prefer not to dwell on that performance, and that dreadful spell of seven minutes when three goals were conceded. But oddly there were in some ways more signs of encouragement in that game than the tame and defensively naïve 4-2 defeat at Leicester on the opening day.

One positive from Everton was the impression made by Duncan Watmore. The team started well but Brown and Coates played like strangers, so the defence was not convincing, and to be honest, Everton were terrific.

Impact player or ready to start?
Impact player or ready to start?

However, it soon became clear that some lessons had been learnt. A robust performance at home to Southampton followed, which ended in a self-inflicted 1-0 home defeat through a penalty. Another individual error cost us against the classy south coast side.

It was in Allardyce’s fifth game in charge that we finally started looking like a true “Big Sam” side. We were fearless and actually quite dominant at Selhurst Park against what has become a resurgent Palace team. He emphasised after that game that clean sheets are the key to the club’s progress away from the relegation zone.

We cannot win games though without effective strikers, and looking at the Premiership scoring charts we have Fletcher and Defoe on four goals. That puts them both level with Raheem Sterling, Juan Mata and Christian Benteke. Then we have the wonderful emerging talent that is Duncan Watmore on three goals, despite his limited playing time this season. He is still on a par though with Martial, Costa and Berahino.

So what have we learned so far about Sam Allardyce?

Jake capture's Big Sam
Jake captures Big Sam

1. He is passionate about the club.
His body language and obvious pride at recent performances shows that his heart is in the club. As a former Sunderland player he knows about the fanatical support that can sell out the away end at Selhurst Park on a weeknight, even after a terrible run of one win in in 14 games. Sam understands how the passion of the fans can drive the team forward.

2. He coaches players individually and gives all of them a chance to impress.
A number of players who were under performing such as Van Arnholt, Kaboul, Yedlin, Coates and Jones have now stepped up a level. Sam has given them all confidence by good man management and working to a thought-out defensive system.

3. He plays with the cards he has been dealt.
Sam had studied the record of the team in the 2014-15 season and knew that we had a strong defence, which ultimately kept us in the division. So that has been his initial focus, using the current players to provide a system. Cattermole is the perfect Allardyce type of player and as usual, when Catts plays well the team plays well as in the last two games. It is no coincidence that the team fell apart once he came off at Goodison Park.

4. There is no hangover from his time at Newcastle.
Buoyed by his relative success at West Ham, it appears that any post-traumatic stress after a brief tenure at St. James’ Park has evaporated. He is safely south of the Tyne and only needs to go there once a year, for this season at least. Next season is open to question after the Magpies’ 1-5 collapse at Palace last weekend, and Shearer may again have to stray onto Wearside and come to the Stadium of Light to see Premiership football.

5. He shows great attention to detail.
Unlike in many other games this season, the players obviously knew their rôles and exactly what was expected of them. To enter each match with a game plan is absolutely crucial. We could see from his face that he was in despair from the loss of the shape of the team at Goodison Park. Fabio Borini has compared new Black Cats boss Sam Allardyce to former Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti. The Italian striker has been impressed by the former West Ham manager’s attention to detail. “It’s something that you notice because the details always make the difference,” said the 24-year old, in quotes published by the Shields Gazette. “I found out with Ancelotti and the big managers that they were caring about every single thing from set plays to throw-ins…that’s what the manager has been doing here since day one.”

6. He is the Manager of our football club, and not the Head Coach.
This fact is illustrated in an extract from the recent Football Focus interview at the Academy of Light, with Alan Shearer:
Allardyce: “I’m not a head coach, I’m a manager, and that’s a good start. You know me, I have to manage the club.”
Shearer: “So if any player comes in to this football club it’s because you want him?”
Allardyce: “Yes that’s right, absolutely…“I say to the player, we’ll support you, we will give you as much as we possibly can to help you go on the field and perform to your level, but make sure you perform to your level because otherwise you’re going to be left out of the team no matter who you are.”

So it is prediction time again. And readers may feel that I am too euphoric after the dizzy heights of the two back to back wins, but I predict that Sunderland will be clear of relegation by the evening of the birthday of Queen Margrethe of Denmark, which is after the away game at Norwich on April 16th, 2016. That will guarantee a less “exciting” end to the season, and will take a monumental effort from everyone at our beloved football club, but I do reckon on recent evidence that we have it in us to achieve that.

The Lars Word: from Keano to Advocaat – and then Big Sam?

Lars Knutsen
Lars Knutsen

Lars Knutsen has had about as much ‘excitement’ as a Sunderland supporter can take. He wants the S word – stability – along with enhanced Premier status. Here, he looks back with some admiration on Roy Keane’s time at the club and ponders Dick Advocaat and succession. His choice for the Dutchman’s successor, assuming his stay is limited to one season, will divide fans …

Well we have had yet another “exciting” end to the campaign, and obviously all Sunderland fans are delighted that we stayed up, after what has become our usual late run.

Dick Advocaat did well for us, and won the hearts of the fans. Those tears at the Emirates told us that the club had got under his skin. With the right signings and his more attacking tactics we can do a lot better in 2015-16.

Read moreThe Lars Word: from Keano to Advocaat – and then Big Sam?

The Lars Word: Sunderland is in England too ye knaa!

Malcolm Dawson writes…..whilst we are waiting for those who could get to The Cottage last night to send us their stuff, we’ve time to fit in a piece from Lars Knutsen who despite the Scandanavian name is as Mackem as they come and now lives part of the time in Cambridge UK and the rest of the time in Pennsylvania USA. Native North Easterners know that we inhabit a different world to those in the Home Counties and the trendy parts of the capital and those of us who have lived away from the region are aware that there is something unique about the area stretching from just south of the Tees to just north of the Tyne. Those who live in The Black Country, The Potteries, The West Riding etc. will also claim a shared culture of their own that distinguishes themselves from other parts of the UK but what we maybe have in common with them, is a feeling that when it comes to the national media we are somehow viewed as less important than the area within sniffing distance of the M25. Lars certainly thinks so as he shares his thoughts on southern bias.

Lars Knutsen
Lars Knutsen

All through my 40+ year Sunderland-supporting career, I have been aware of the London/Lancashire bias in England’s top division. It is not an illusion, it is real.

All thinking Sunderland fans know the feeling when for example, we win at Chelsea and the headlines are all about goings on at Spurs or Manchester United. Or when the otherwise excellent 5Live Monday Night Club does not really go in depth on any win for the Black Cats, but the pundits prefer to talk about Liverpool’s substitute list or even Mike Ashley’s latest loan, and the prospects for a subsequent takeover attempt at Rangers FC..

I do not usually buy the Daily Mail, but when handed one on January 30th on boarding a BA flight, I did actually spend time reading it. An article on page 95 stated that Sunderland AFC is the Premiership club whose fans have to fight sleep the most, as this season they have the longest to wait to see their team on Match of the Day. “Gus Poyet’s team have held the bottom slot on a Saturday night – which usually airs close to or after midnight – seven times this season, once more than goal-shy Aston Villa, and twice more than Crystal Palace or Swansea”. Clearly the BBC producers assume that our solidly northern city is in a different time zone.

Nobody around London seems really to know where Sunderland is, never mind who the players are. Why should any self-respecting sports journalist waste column inches on a club that Villa fans taunt in the terrace chant: “Small team in Scotland, you’re just a small team in Scotland, small team in Scotland”?

The feeling I am sure is mutual, in Tyne & Wear – (and who ever thought of putting those two areas together? Bring back County Durham, I say) – London often feels like it is on another planet. I grew up with the Roker Park, Fulwell End chants of “we hate the Cockneys”, which would be directed at the supporters of teams even to the north of Watford Gap – Luton Town for example. I know the feeling from when as a young lad in East Boldon – I could cycle to the match, leave my bike in my aunt’s back garden on Park Avenue, Roker, and walk to the Fulwell End. But to get to London I had to cross Hadrian’s Wall by train and stray into Newc**tle. It was almost worth taking the train to Durham from Mackem territory to avoid that particular horror…

OK, I exaggerate slightly to make a point, but when I viewed the recently-screened 50 Best FA Cup moments on TV, timed with the third round, that wonderful May 5 1973 victory over Leeds United was inevitably featured. The deeply revered social commentator speaking about that game said “none of even us knew who any of the Sunderland players were”. I might understand that about David Young or Ron Guthrie, but Jimmy Montgomery, Bobby Kerr and Dave Watson must have been well known by then even to the southern-based media.

Lars Knutsen touching base
Lars Knutsen touching base

Did they not watch The Lads win 2-1 over Arsenal in the semi-final? We can still see it now at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j3vm8sh48tg, but obviously since the game was in Sheffield, nobody from London registered its existence. Or did they simply prefer to forget that trauma for the Gunners? The quarter-final, second leg 3-1 win over Manchester City: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hg3vvCEqh-U was also an amazing victory but since that match took place in the frozen North, it clearly did not count. The YouTube images of the latter game are in black and white – it obviously being too much trouble to send a colour camera to Roker Park. Even “The Blair Witch Project” in a handheld, “found footage” format looks professional compared to those grainy 1973 shots.

Living in The South in landlocked Hertford from 1978 until 1986, meant that my local First Division team was Spurs and The Lads briefly had a pretty solid record at White Hart Lane. In 1980-81, SAFC drew 0-0, in 81-82 (2-2) 82-83 (1-1) and we won powerfully 2-1 there in the League Cup Final campaign of 84-85. But my local friends and workmates were more likely to be able to actually name a Belgian than to recognise a Sunderland player. That was in the days when “Name a Belgian” was a pretty tough dinner party game, well before the emergence of Simon Mignolet or Jean-Claude Van Damme…and may I just underline how good it is to see those names in the same sentence.

My time in Hertfordshire coincidentally featured the last time Sunderland was top of the league in August 1980, but my inner voice tells me with some conviction that the London press considered that to be a misprint.

This “northern upstarts” image can all be used to our advantage, though. We can be perceived as the Wimbledon-like underdogs, but without the violent, nutty aura of the Crazy Gang. I mentioned the overlooked wins at Chelsea, but I felt like this when seeing the team win on my only two visits to see Sunderland at Highbury. In 1983, after a 2-1 win, in the era of the Chris Turner, Barry Venison, Gordon Chisholm, Ian Atkins and Barry Venison back five, we outscored and out-defended the miserly Arsenal. The best the press could say about us was in the use of the adjective “compact” to describe the team, even though the above list contains two England U-21 Internationals.

Something does resonate in me when people think Newcastle is in a foreign country, given their local language. Some 2012 press reports did confirm something that Sunderland fans have suspected for some time: Newcastle is in Scotland.

The Northern Echo reported “A CONF– — USED holiday company in the South of England is insisting that Newcastle is in Scotland. Bemused Jamie O’Neill e-mailed lowcostholidays.com – based at Gatwick Airport in West Sussex – to point out their geographical error. The 24-year-old, of Cumbernauld, near Glasgow, had been searching for holiday deals on the company’s website for airports north of the border – but the results kept including Newcastle. “I only e-mailed with the subject heading ‘Newcastle isn’t in Scotland’, didn’t expect a reply.”

But he was left astounded when Rajesh Bangera from the firm’s customer services department did reply and insisted: “Newcastle is indeed located in Scotland. It is a city, not a capital. Please feel free to call us for further assistance.” See: http://www.thenorthernecho.co.uk/news/9662598.Expert_holiday_firm_insists_Newcastle_is_in_Scotland/ – that piece is priceless!

A final observation, before I rest my case: my passport says that I was born in Sunderland which is in England. I do wish London based journalists would treat us that way.

Wembley and Safe (6): Sunderland fans – long term lovers of pain

Jake is sleeping soundly
Jake is sleeping soundly

Malcolm Dawson writes…..Fans of the radio show “I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue” will know that one of the long term favourite rounds, inevitably at the end of the programme, is the “Late arrivals at the …….ball.” Panellists are given a theme and come up with terrible puns based on it. For example if the topic was “Late arrivals at the Publicans’ ball” someone, probably Tim Brooke Taylor would say “Will you welcome please, Mr and Mrs Bitter-Shandy and their son…Arfur Bitter-Shandy. Graeme Garden’s running gag was always along the lines of “All the way from Sweden, Mr and Mrs Orders at the bar please, aven’t you all got homes to go to and their son Lars Orders at the bar etc., which is a very long winded way of welcoming, all the way from Sweden, regular contributor Lars Knutsen with his take on the season just gone.

We are football fans. We understand the pain and suffering of following that Sunderland football club can entail, experiencing the highs that are very high and the lows that are almost indescribably low. I was at most of the games for the amazing high 1973 FA Cup run, but also in attendance at Vicarage Road in September 1982 when we lost 8-0 at Watford in the top League, then Division 1.

If fans are defined by the people whose mood is affected by the fortunes of their club, we have had ups and downs to a bipolar level this season. As a BBC Radio 5Live commentator put it: “There are the makings of a good side in there somewhere”…and happily the players found that chemistry in a dynamic fashion at the right time to get the team out of trouble.

Fortunately we will indeed all remember the end of the season in sharpest focus. As Monsieur Salut will confirm, I had completely given up hope after the defeats at Spurs and at home to Everton. I sent in a piece of writing in which I was resigned to the drop, with trips to Millwall, Charlton and Blackpool (Yeovil and Doncaster were relegated!) on the horizon for next season, wondering whether Gus Poyet would keep his job. Fortunately, our editor was too busy with preparations ahead of the Chelsea game…I revised my contribution, and the team ensured that the rest is history.

I heard from a fellow fan from my home town of Boldon that the senior players, presumably galvanised by O’Shea and Cattermole, got together after the defeat at Spurs, and said, we will give this a real go, we are better than this. I credit Wes Brown for being psychologically robust enough after that tragic own goal against Everton, to put in cracking performances from then on. The same must be said of Mannone after his desperate efforts to keep the ball out of the net in City’s late equaliser at the Etihad. Even the commentator said that our keeper would not sleep that night.

We need to remember though that this season has served some truly horrible performances, many of those in the 11 home league defeats, as well as those terrific highs. Notably that truly dominant win at Newcastle, after which I was sure we would pull away from the bottom and move into mid-table obscurity, a pretty good outcome after the desperate start we had under Di Canio.

Lars Knutsen touching base
Lars Knutsen touching base

I know that Swansea were party-poopers on the final day, but miracle was almost too mild a word for what had happened at Sunderland over the preceding 4 weeks. A totally amazing series of results, which show what stringing a few good performances together will do for confidence. The side will look quite different next season, with Borini likely to return to Liverpool, Jack Colback possibly going to Newcastle and the club perhaps not renewing Phil Bardsley’s or Seb Larsson’s contracts.

Fans cannot blame the players for keeping their options open while we looked certainties for relegation. We signed Larsson, Gardner, Vaughan and Fletcher from relegated clubs, and to be honest, it must have taken them time to get over the losing mentality. I reckon though that the backbone of the team will be unchanged, with Connor Wickham staking his claim. The late season revival was based on having Wickham to put the goals away, but also on a solid defence, notably at Chelsea and Man. United. The centre backs performed well, but they are getting older.

Work needs to be done though in the close season to clear out underperforming players, who have been inconsistent and dropped below the levels of effort and professionalism demanded by fans of Sunderland Football Club. I would like us to keep Larson though, he may be scoring less but his deliveries into the box are excellent.

According to the Daily Telegraph, Poyet is the 4th best manager of the year, with Steve Bruce in 6th spot. I obviously hope and expect to see an improvement in that placing next year, if Poyet is allowed to rebuild the side and if we do as well teams that should be our peers, such as Everton and Southampton. We should definitely be finishing above teams like Stoke City.

In November 2013 I wrote in my column as a response to “Brucie’s” version of his time at Sunderland: “So we are happy to let Bruce manage a club in a Rugby League town, struggling to get over 22,000 for a home game, and to provide a home to our former players and have his deluded view of his time at the SSOL. I predict now that we will finish above Hull City Tigers or whatever they are called today”.

One prediction at least came true, we did finish above Hull City. But I am delighted that my late Spring expectation of relegation, shared by many, did not come true.

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This is the latest contribution to our Wembley and Safe series of end-of-season reviews. To see all postings in the series, click anywhere on this paragraph.

The Lars Word: sorry Steve Bruce and Hull, we’ll have last laugh

As seen by Jake
As seen by Jake

Tempting providence or not, Lars Knutsen feels Steve Bruce may be left with egg on his Newcastle-supporting, Sunderland-phobic face after missing a fair few grand opportunities to shut up with his whining …

Read moreThe Lars Word: sorry Steve Bruce and Hull, we’ll have last laugh

The Lars Word: take heart, PDC, things can only get better

Jake introduces the Firs(t) Lars Word of the season
Jake introduces the Firs(t) Lars Word of the season


Lars Knutsen
remembers Sunderland managers he has met, with especially fond memories of seeing Peter Reid and his players at what people rightly still call the Seaburn Hotel, celebrating a famous win at St James’ Park, and looks briefly at the records of those who had to make do without meeting him …

Read moreThe Lars Word: take heart, PDC, things can only get better