Malcolm Dawson writes……it’s a proven fact that we all feel better when our chosen football team is doing well and that poor on field results can bring disappointment and depression.
It may only be a game but football fans are stuck with their team. Some glory hunters might chop and change but the true supporter has no options. I was a fresher at college when Sunderland last won anything meaningful and now I’m only a couple of years away from a state pension.
Our first FA Cup win happened 17 years before I was born and the last League Championship Sunderland claimed was the year before that. Eighty years ago in fact. So success is not something we are used to.
Should we be doing better? Surely we should at least be doing as well as Stoke City, West Ham or Spurs. Surely we should be better than Watford, Southampton and Leicester City and no disrespect is intended towards those clubs. 1973 apart Sunderland AFC have been perennial underachievers, at least in our own eyes for eight decades now. Little windows of optimism have promptly been slammed shut again.
We all have views on the causes of our current malais but if he hasn’t already done so, maybe the owner of the club should take a long, hard look at his tenure in charge.
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.
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.
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?
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.
For Metro, it was the signing of the summer, or at least Dick Advocaat’s summer.
Then you look to see which foreign star has been lured to the Stadium of Light and realise they meant the new six-year contract for Lee Cattermole. To be fair, the Metro piece was one of its club-by-club blog postings and the writer, Gary Johnson, is one of us.
And he is right. The close-season progress may seem leisurely, but it is progress. Tying Cattermole to Sunderland until 2021 is a good move. It means that even if Roy Hodgson suddenly woke up and did what he’d have done already, if only Catts played in London or the North West, our tenacious midfielder would be a very valuable asset should another club come sniffing.
Malcolm Dawson writes….Peter Sixsmith was not held up on the journey over the Pennines. He was there to see the whole thing through and for the second year in a row, the trip to Goodison was one he was glad he made. Everton hasn’t been much of a happy hunting ground for SAFC in recent times but this was a big result. Of course there is still much to do but time is running out and we are out of the relegation places. Next week a resurgent Leicester City will be no pushover but by the end of that game we may easily know if we will be watching Premier League football again next season. Pete is certainly more confident than he was a few weeks ago but takes nothing for granted. Here is his account of a good day out on Merseyside yesterday.
EVERTON (A) 2015
Napoleon once said “Bring me lucky generals.” On that basis, the ghost of Bonaparte is stalking the Stadium of Light as we carried a fair amount of good fortune in our second successive win at Goodison Park. It’s not that we didn’t play well in a limited kind of way. The players’ concentration levels were light years away from that exhibited in the Palace game and they were disciplined, organised and completely committed to the cause.
The two Sebastians typified that. Coates, who has hardly played since his arrival from Liverpool, was tremendous in the middle of the back four and played a significant part in keeping Lukaku as quiet as a Labour supporter was on Friday morning. The Uruguayan read the game well and put in some great tackles when he had to, as well as blocking the ball on numerous occasions. The other Seb, the Swede Larsson, did exactly what it says on the tin. He harried and carried all over the pitch and was always there to pick up a loose ball and move it on. Sometimes the unspectacular is needed and Larsson gives us that in spades.
However the two outstanding players were regulars; The Giant Pantilimon and Cattermole. Both were simply magnificent and showed that, should we go down, there will be a queue of Premier League clubs looking to employ them next season. TGP kept us in the game in the first half with two stunning blocks and was the personification of calmness and authority as he controlled his box in the second. A stream of corners from the Toffees came unstuck as he punched them away, caught them and, on one occasion, calmly raised a giant paw to swat away a header that looked to be heading in. Cattermole had the kind of game that would have him as a shoo-in for an England place if he played for a more fashionable club – or indeed, one that Roy Hodgson is actually aware of.
This was his kind of game, a “backs to the wall – let them come at us” kind of encounter, where he could exhibit all of his abilities as an interceptor, tackler and shrewd passer. He squeezed the life out of Ross Barkley, a player who looks destined to end up at Sunderland via Manchester City and end up as a “whatever happened to” midfielder, à la Rodwell. Gareth Barry was withdrawn relatively early as he lost the battle with the former Boro man and in the last half hour Cattermole was magnificent. It was his interception and pass that set up the second and clinching goal.
The goals were not things of beauty like Messi’s on Wednesday night. They were probably the scrappiest pair I have seen in a win at Everton, but they were worth their weight in gold. Danny Graham stuck out a leg to divert a weak shot from Gomez for the first and Defoe bundled his over the line after an excellent combination from the two subs, Johnson and Fletcher. Both made a real difference when they came on. Johnson had replaced a tired Danny Graham and his ability to hold the ball and take defenders on gave us an outlet. Graham’s departure left Wickham alone up front, not a role that he enjoys. He had done well as the third striker in the first half and even better when he dropped behind Graham and Defoe in the second. He has so much potential but just lacks the bite that a top class player needs. Maybe next year?
Fletcher’s arrival gave us someone who would hold the ball up and it was his run across the box (complete with falling down) that allowed Johnson to set up Defoe for the clincher. Jermain’s last goal was the stunner against the Mags – this one was a tad more prosaic.
As the game finished, there must have been a shudder around the Sports Direct and the KC Stadium. Although it was hardly “the shot that rang around the world” it was a statement of intent that these players will not lay down and die and that the Head Coach has got them organised. It’s not smooth flowing football and the purists will not be purring, but it is effective and it shows that the players will listen to someone who asks them to do the possible rather than the impossible. Defenders now win the ball and release it quickly up front. Midfield players move the ball quickly. Forwards no longer have to wait for the ball to arrive to them. It is simple, straightforward and, on the evidence of the last three games, effective.
There is much to do. Leicester are on a genuine roll and will not want to get dragged back into the trouble from which they have almost extricated themselves. Hull go to a torpid Spurs side needing the points while Newcastle could well be QPR’s last Premier League visitors for the next millennium. No room for complacency then – but I don’t think Dick Advocaat does complacency.
Finally, a word of praise for Everton supporters who showed their class on several occasions after the game in the Soccerbus queue, on the platform at Sandhills station and on the train back to Birkdale. They are very much like us; a proud club, somewhat over shadowed by arrogant neighbours and with a real feel for the game. I look forward to making their acquaintance again next season.
Malcolm Dawson writes….Recent victories for Leicester and Hull Cities, West Brom and Aston Villa see Sunderland still in the bottom three. It is becoming increasingly likely that it could be the free falling Magpies who will be the target if we are to avoid demotion to the Football League. Yesterday’s game versus Southampton was the latest in a series of “must win” home games but the difference this time was that we actually won. A win against Leicester in the final game of the season at the Stadium of Light might be enough but if we need more than three points then the remaining away matches offer little in the way of optimism. But as last season showed, funny things happen at the back end of the season. With a game in hand you could say the players of SAFC can still determine which division the club plays in next season but we have by far the hardest run in of the clubs in danger of the drop. Pete Sixsmith still clings on to the belief we can stay up but that optimism is balanced with the realism that it will still be tough as his report of yesterday’s proceedings shows.
SOUTHAMPTON HOME 2nd May 2015
Is it a case of too little, too late or is it the beginning of The Great Escape III? Will we pick up wins against Everton and Leicester to give us what should be a secure 39 points or will we fall at the last hurdle at Stamford Bridge in three weeks’ time? Will our Friends from the North continue to implode with the force of a dark star having a particularly bad day or will they scrape the points that they need to welcome their new Head Coach as a Premier League side?
Well, that’s a few rhetorical questions and here are some more. Has anyone seen a cooler pair of penalties than those taken by Jordi Gomez yesterday? Why has no previous manager/coach been able to coax a performance like that out of Danny Graham? And how did the man sat next to me manage to eat a pie while texting at the same time?
But let’s not carried away. Although it was an important win it wasn’t a scintillating display of classy football that tore the opposition to shreds. Nor did we ever look comfortable – competent yes, but comfortable, no. What we did do was play solidly, avoid a series of catastrophic errors and get into the opposition’s box a number of times. And that is what we need to do for the four final gut wrenching games that we have left.
Both penalties were correctly awarded by Mike Jones. I thought the first one a bit soft from my lofty perch, but television showed that Fonte had no need to lift his leg and he did bring down Graham, who was ahead of him. No red card was also a correct decision.
The second one was the result of a superb ball by Cattermole, a splendid chase and cross by Graham and a needless second touch by Defoe before Ward-Prowse clattered into him. Penalty yes, red card probably not – although it galvanised a torpid Saints side into actually stirring themselves and playing some football.
In between the penalties, we had played with some tempo and urgency and had shown that when we play to the strengths of the players that we have, rather than expecting players to fit into a rigid tactical plan, we aren’t quite as bad as the league position has indicated. The back four is still prone to drop the odd clanger and I don’t see that changing. To gift Southampton an equaliser within ninety seconds of going ahead was one example. The lack of communication between Pantilimon and Coates was on a par of that between Basil Fawlty and Mrs Richards as the Giant dropped the ball allowing the tetchy Mende to equalise.
There were other first half chances with Connor Wickham ending as good a move as we have put together all season by leaning back and putting it over the bar.
The changes that Advocaat made were simple and effective. Three forwards who were prepared to work and work, with Graham used as a battering ram to unsettle the Saints defenders. Wickham played wide left and Defoe tucked in, often appearing to be an extra midfield player. All three made a massive contribution to a vital win and I expect to see the same three lining up at Goodison next week.
In midfield, Larsson returned for the perpetually disappointing Rodwell and had a typical Larsson game with lots of running, prodigious energy and the odd really sharp and incisive pass. Alongside him Cattermole played effectively particularly in the second half, playing a sublime pass for Graham to run on to for what turned out to be the second and winning penner. The two full backs looked sound rather than solid, although that was a huge improvement on the previous home game. Jones gets forward well – although not as much as the BBC Football site suggests (they confused him with Graham for the first penalty) and Van Aanholt is a good outlet and his defending looked better.
O’Shea was concussed in the first half and went off allowing Vergini to make amends for his spectacular O.G. at St Mary’s. The disappointingly low turn-out of Saints fans demanded that he “shoot” every time he got the ball but he failed to oblige. I say disappointingly low, because if we were challenging for a Europa League place, our allocation would have been oversubscribed – theirs was considerably under subscribed.
Coates did well and showed that a good, solid stopper in the middle of the back four can make a difference. Take away the clattering into Pantilimon and the dreadful sideways pass to the newly arrived Djuricic and he looked decent. He stuck to his task and it will be interesting to see how he faces up to the likes of Lukaku, Vardy, Giroud and Costa in the remaining games.
Pantilimon held up his giant hands for the equaliser and then used them to tremendous effect to keep out a shot from Steven Davies in the 93rd minute and secure a vital win for us. He was feted as a hero by his colleagues and the crowd and he may well have other miracles to perform between now and May 23rd.
Should we start sounding more optimistic?
And now for a quick expansion of the poll to find out who Salut! Sunderland readers (who, don’t forget, may well again include supporters of the other six clubs) think will go down.
It does not need a tactical genius to dig out wins in the Premier League – Mark Hughes, Tony Pulis and Gary Monk have shown that. All three of them have produced sides who know exactly what they are supposed to do and do it without fancy plans for playing like Real Madrid or Chelsea. They are pragmatists while we have employed dreamers in Di Canio and Poyet. Now, with a pragmatist at the helm, we have given ourselves a chance of swapping Chelsea for Charlton and Liverpool for Leeds (and possibly both Manchester’s for Middlesbrough) but it is only a chance. Two wins and a draw would give us the required 40 points and would probably see us safe but seeing as we have not managed back to back wins all season, the chances are not great. Four more draws would probably not be enough – although Newcastle are in desperate straits at the moment.