The Observer asked fans of the bottom seven clubs to say who would go down and who would survive. Perhaps to no great surprise, all seven – our own Pete Sixsmith included – said Sunderland would drop. Pete did allow for another possible great escape but without much confidence. Everyone apart from the Palace supporter thought they were doomed, too, with the votes for the third team divided between Hull, Boro and Leicester .
Monsieur Salut wrote: the old ones are not always the best, but our current plight – described with melancholy beauty in Pete Sixsmith’s report of Sunderland 0-4 Southampton – and the poor health suffered by a friend prompted me to dig out this piece, first published in November 2008.
The original article began with some references to racist behaviour, happily rare and irrelevant to today’s situation, so I will skip them here. The rest seems all too applicable now, though I have slightly edited it.
Fill in the gaps from your own experiences (mass walk-outs, instant social media responses etc have become features of some supporters’ lives since this posting first appeared) of following SAFC through thick, thin and thinner. And please get better Graham Noble, friend, former colleague and the subject of the final anecdote …
Malcolm Dawson writes…..with Pete Sixsmith bringing joy to the faces of the youngsters of North Tyneside after ducking into a phone box and swapping his everyday togs for those of his alter ego St Nicholas, it falls to me to bring you today’s soapbox. If only someone had warned me in advance I might have been able to mimic Peter’s insightful and witty style in my take on yesterday’s proceedings. Instead you’ll have to make do with my unexpected observations. By the way – just in case you haven’t twigged Pete will be back when festive duties don’t interfere.
Sunderland 2 Leicester City 1
A pre-match catch up with some of the lads from the Heart of England Branch meant that I only just took my seat at the Stadium of Light as the minute’s silence for the victims of the Colombian Air crash began. That, plus other events closer to home, reminded me once again that in the grand scheme of things, there are more important things in life than the result of a football match. But that said, here was another in a series of games where a positive result would have a direct effect on the fortunes of the club over the rest of the season.
Having lost ground to West Ham and Crystal Palace earlier in the year, match ups with Bournemouth, Hull, Leicester, Swansea, Watford and Burnley before we enter 2017, all give the team the opportunity to make up ground in the annual relegation struggle and the results against the first two have given us hope. Another 10 or 12 from the other four and things would look a lot brighter. Yesterday saw the first three of those go on the board. Anything against Chelsea and from the trip to Salford will be a bonus.
I think most followers of English football were glad that Leicester had broken up the cartel that has dominated the game since the advent of the Premier League, but the truth is that they haven’t the resources of the Man Cities and Uniteds, Chelseas and Arsenals of this world and their league form this season is a more realistic reflection of their status. Here was another winnable game against a team that had only taken one point away from home all season.
After the Arsenal match I criticised certain sections of the home support but yesterday, right from kick off, they were behind the team and it showed. It looked too as if Moyes had sent the side out with a positive mindset and unlike the Hull match we dominated the early stages of the game. Here was a team and its fans pulling together and we could easily have had a two or three goal lead with the game clock still in single figures. More of the same please. I am convinced that positive support leads to increased confidence and more effort on the pitch, even if it comes about subconsciously.
We lined up in a 4-4-2 with Denayer sitting in the holding midfield role, Djilibodji in for O’Shea and Anichibe playing wide left in a more advanced position than he had at Liverpool. What a difference he has made to the team. Not only is his ability to win the ball and subsequent hold up play excellent, the difference in Defoe’s body language is noticeable with Anichebe alongside him. In fact the whole team seem less fearful when in possession having him as an outlet.
So we set off at a pace. Watmore had a decent shot within the first two minutes and Anichebe and Defoe both had good efforts diverted over the bar by Morgan. We could have had a penalty when Anichebe was manhandled inside the box by Robert Huth and Defoe scuffed a shot which he would expect to convert seven or eight times out of ten.
Leicester were playing a narrow formation and this gave Jones and PvA plenty of space down the flanks and we looked dangerous every time we got wide behind their defence. Denayer was looking assured in front of the back four, winning the ball when necessary and distributing it effectively. The centre back pairing looked more like an established centre back pairing than earlier in the season. Djilibodji actually played like a centre half and a lovely little bit of trickery to create space for a clearance indicates a growing confidence. Kone seemed more like his old self, using his muscle and radiating enthusiasm, something we haven’t seen for a while. Team spirit seems much improved and at last Moyes seems to be getting them playing as a unit, with the new dimension that Big Vic has brought being the catalyst.
N’dong is a curate’s egg. He ran around winning the ball, and negated Albrighton and Mahrez but every now and then he would dwell on the ball or a loose pass would undo his good work. Still he seems to be finding his feet and with Cattermole out long term he will play a key role in the run up to New Year. Watmore too looked lively combining well with Jones down the right and obviously has been told to get in the box more and his long range shot on twenty minutes had Zieler beaten but flashed wide.
As it was we couldn’t find the net and Leicester gradually established themselves. At one point a shot/cross scraped the top of the bar but in truth Pickford was rarely troubled. After 30 minutes it was a more even contest and I was beginning to fear that we might rue not capitalising on the chances we had had.
Last season’s wunderkid, Jamie Vardy was largely anonymous and a shot that was well wide of the target and a poor header when he eventually found some space in front of goal showed why he has failed to score for 16 or so games.
Pienaar who had been lively in midfield, putting in a shift and breaking up Leicester attacks suffered a nasty blow to the head just before half time. I didn’t see it but the animated bloke in front of me claimed it was an elbow. Marriner gave nothing.
Nil-nil at the interval was scant reward for a decent first half performance from the lads in red and white.
The early season hasn’t been kind to us with regards to injuries. With Gooch and McNair the latest victims it was just as well Kirchhoff and Larsson had reached a stage where they were fit enough to make the bench and boy did we need them. With Pienaar suffering from the blow he took to the head just before half time and with Denayer apparently suffering from a virus both came on for the start of the second period.
Leicester had the first chance of the second half but the ever improving Djilibodji got into the right position to deny Slimani allowing Kirchhoff to clear the danger. Then five minutes later the substitutions bore fruit as we won a corner, the Swede banged the ball in from the right and the big German climbed above the crowd. His header wasn’t the best but Huth running back to cover could do nothing as the ball struck him on the chest and he bundled the ball into the back of the net to a crescendo of sound from the home support. Who needs cardboard clappers?
Not long afterwards Seb and van Aanholt played a neat one two in the left corner, PvA repeated the move with Anichebe and as he drove into the box he was clipped quite clearly by Danny Simpson. Not the most malicious of fouls but enough to cause the Dutchman to lose his balance and a certain penalty. Except in the eyes of André Marriner who shook his head and waved his arms. Later he was to book van Aanholt for a dive when he was again fouled, waved play on when Defoe was manhandled off the ball then booked Larsson for a similar foul. The referee was never on my Christmas card list but he’s not going on it either after yesterday’s performance.
Still it mattered not as once more some interplay down the left hand flank presented Watmore with a chance to shoot. The unfortunate Huth stuck out a boot to block the shot and simply deflected the ball straight into JD’s path and another clinical finish brought him his 151st Premier League goal. Game over. Well not quite.
A few minutes earlier JD had a powerful shot well saved by Ziegler and as always I never feel relaxed until we have at least a three goal lead and the Foxes pulled one back when Okazaki made a good run to steal in front of Djilibodji at the near post to reduce the deficit. But we hung on. Towards the end of the 6 minutes of added time (necessary because of what looks like a nasty injury to Watmore) City had a corner and up came their big keeper to see what he could do. Not a lot as it happens but after a bit of ping pong in and around the box Pickford got up off the deck to make a stunning save from Morgan whose follow up mercifully went sailing into the North Stand.
At half time a few of the 73 Cup winning side made the 50/50 draw and a somewhat embarrassed Jimmy Montgomery was pressed into a half time interview as Bobby Kerr, Vic Halom, Micky Horswill all sloped off feigning deafness as the stadium announcer pleaded for a few words. Pickford’s last minute save might not have been as good as Monty’s in 73 but his celebration was and as the final whistle blew the manager did a slightly understated version of Bob Stokoe’s tracksuit, overcoat and trilby charge to congratulate the young keeper.
So three valuable points. West Ham, Burnley and Swansea all lost and we make our highest league position so far this season. With Boro playing Hull tomorrow we may find ourselves back in 19th position or four points behind the Teesiders but things are looking better.
The injury list is a worry and the African Cup of Nations may impact in January but yesterday showed something of the spirit, effort and organisation that will be needed if we are to climb up the table. It’s still a work in progress but the signs are better. A win in Wales would be good.
John McCormick writes…..
I was at our previous game, which we lost. We did, however, have the semblance of a team and it was our first loss in three games, against a full-on Liverpool team. So full on, in fact, that I endured loads of stick on Monday from deluded scousers who, having listened to Klopp, thought we did nothing but defend. But I knew better and had a feeling we would show what we could do when we played the Premier League champions.
Not that it matters what I think. The really important words come from our manager, who writes to Colin (and maybe one or two others) immediately after each game. And Colin, in his turn, passes the letter on to his team so we can share it with you:
Monsieur Salut writes: what a massive win. Jermain Defoe added to Robert Huth’s own goal to provide the cushion, a fabulous last-minute save from Jordan Pickford cut Leicester’s recovery short and the return of Jan Kirchhoff and Seb Larsson was crucial to the second-half breakthrough.
Pete Sixsmith had donned red and white, headed up past Durham and then … those with memories of his activities this time each year will know what happened next. He carried on due north to the chosen location for his Santa duties. These took him not to the game, but to the dark side of the Wear-Tyne divide, safe in today’s kind of red and white. Meanwhile, A N Other chips in with the seven-word verdict …
Monsieur Salut writes: Tim Burke* has Millwall connections and should perhaps be wearing a ‘you all hate us, we don’t care’ T-shirt. Instead, he fell in love with the Foxes after moving to Leicester and much of the footballing world fell in love with his adopted team in May. It was a season he enjoyed for a reason never experienced by a Sunderland supporter who was not alive in 1936. This season? Tim’s happy, even if tongue in cheek, to avoid the drop . Great attitude and great replies – and maybe he can take heart from Sunderland’s history; we won the FA Cup in the season following our last top flight title …
The season before last we won only 7 games and we stayed up. We even finished above Aston Villa, who won 10, as well as QPR and Hull City, whose 8 wins each could not stave off relegation. The other relegated team, Burnley, had 7 wins, the same as us.
The difference between us and Burnley was that we achieved 17 draws, and lost only (only??) 14 games. They could manage only 12 draws, and their five fewer points meant they finished second bottom, three places below us.
And thinking about that got me started on the notion of win-loss ratios, which became the tool I used to track clubs in last season’s relegation watch.
Malcolm Dawson writes…..last year Marcus Procopio, as Aussie as pie floater, vegemite and snags and tomato sauce joined our happy band of contributors with an early season summation of all that was wrong at SAFC. It’s well worth a revisit by clicking this link. In it he suggests that as long as a combination of a badly run organisation and a poisonous culture in the dressing room and on the training ground prevailed, Sunderland AFC would find it hard to progress. Consider the changes in personnel both on and off the field since January and correlate that with the most positive and optimistic feelings for years that currently surround our club (despite let’s not forget finishing 17th) and it’s hard to disagree. Although he lives about as distant from the Stadium of Light as is possible he continues to watch from afar and still doesn’t like what he sees. However, as always, he remains hopeful…
“Listen, here’s the thing. If you can’t spot the sucker in your first half hour at the table, then you ARE the sucker” – Mike McDermott in Rounders.
This take on an old poker proverb has become increasingly apt in describing Sunderland in the Premier League. Half way into each of the last few seasons, it’s been incredibly difficult to find three obviously worse teams than ours. The remarkable thing is that, somehow, we haven’t been cleaned out and sent packing.
Having completed yet another fortunate escape, the question now is whether we can become a real player at the Premier League table – or whether we’re destined to be the league’s perennial fish.
Whenever I write my end of season reviews, I like to look back at some of the things I wrote at the start of the season. This time around, a couple of gems stick out:
My early season article on Salut! which included the following:
An insipid pre-season has now been followed up by two losses to start the season – to teams unlikely to feature in the top half of the table at its end. There are plenty of questions and there is genuine concern that we do not have the answers.
(For the record, Leicester won the league…(!) and Norwich were relegated. One out of two isn’t so bad is it?).
My opening match day comments on the Not606 Sunderland forum:
As we all know, the league’s schedulers have finally decided to stop sodomising our club and we actually have a chance to get off to a good start this season.
Here are the possible outcomes for us after 4 games. What would you accept as a bare minimum?
WWWW (12 points)
WWWD (10 points)
WWWL (9 points)
I put these in the ‘not impossible, but quite unrealistic’ category. If we achieved any of these starts we’d be completely buzzing to say the least.
WWDD (8 points)
WWDL (7 points)
Either of these would be very solid for me and what we should be aiming/hoping for.
WWLL (6 points)
WDDD (6 points)
I would happy with either of these. Although, the 3 draws would be frustrating.
WDDL (5 points)
This is the minimum point of acceptability for me. Not a flyer, but still not a disaster either. Definitely hoping for better than this.
WDLL (4 points)
This would be below par, even by our modest standards. At least we’d have a win.
DDDD (4 points, and lots of stuff being thrown at the telly by me)
WLLL (3 points, with a call for some counselling)
DDDL (3 points and broken lounge room furniture)
DDLL (2 lousy points, a claim on my home insurance and me saying ‘the EPL is overrated crap anyway’)
DLLL (1 effing point followed by Di Canio coming out and saying ‘see, I wasn’t so bad and I never had that kind of budget’)
LLLL (zippo and work being started on Advocaat and Short effigies)
For the record, our first four games netted two losses and two draws – the third worst possible outcome out of 15.
Lowering the bar
It’s well documented that we’ve had some very poor starts in recent seasons. However, you really need to see the numbers from the opening 9 games our last 5 seasons to get a full appreciation of this:
2011-12: 2-3-4 (9 points) – Bruce
2012-13: 1-6-2 (9 points) – O’Neill
2013-14: 1-1-7 (4 points) – Di Canio
2014-15: 1-5-3 (8 points) – Poyet
2015-16: 0-3-6 (3 points) – Advocaat
That’s a total of 33 points from 45 games which pro-rates to 28 in 38 games.
If you take only the last three seasons, then it’s 15 points from 27 games – which prorates to 21 points over 38 games… delicious!
Aside from our disgraceful opening points tally, this season stood out from the four before it for one other major reason: we were winless, hopeless and gormless after 9 games – which included games against Norwich (H), Swansea (H), Villa (A), Bournemouth (A) and West Brom (A).
Not to disrespect any of these teams – but if you can’t beat any of them at all, then you’re not making a great case for staying in the Premier League and you’re going to have a bad time.
Yet another Messiah
We can now add Allardyce to the list of O’Neill, Di Canio, Poyet and Advocaat, as managers that have come in mid-season and miraculously and emotionally kept us up against the odds.
I want to believe that things are different this time around. I really do. Some encouraging things in this respect are:
* Adam Johnson is gone.
* Margaret Byrne is gone.
* Danny Graham is gone. (Bit harsh on the hard working Graham I think. I suspect Fletcher may have had a more negative influence on those around him – MD.)
* Allardyce is a highly distinguished, experienced, proven and savvy manager who Alex Ferguson thinks is ‘massively underrated’.
* Allardyce has made some positive cultural changes – most notably getting the youngsters involved with the first team.
* The Kone, Khazri and Kirchhoff combo acquired in the January transfer window were inspired purchases which completely changed our season and the whole nature of our first team.
As good as those things are, the most encouraging thing for me comes in the form of raw numbers. Here are the latter halves (i.e. last 19 games) of our last 5 seasons: