Monsieur Salut writes: games come thick and fast in League One. We’ve hardly had time to celebrate the emphatic home win against Scunthorpe before the long trip to Gillingham beckons. James Morgan*, our Gills fan, is not from Gillingham and has never lived in Kent. A gloryseeker then? No, he inherited his love of the Gills from his dad and that passes my arbitrary test of true support with flying colours (heaven knows, I was born almost as far from Sunderland as it’s possible to be and still be English). James has pals from uni who follow Sunderland and retains a soft spot for our club – and for a certain player who graced both the Priestfield and the Stadium of Light. I wonder what the Gills equivalent of Roy Keane’s assessment of Nyron – Tony Pulis or Peter Taylor maybe – might have been (Keano said ‘the less time Nyron spends on the ball, the better it is for all concerned’). Oops: forgot to ask him about the Gills sending us down to the third tier in the 1980s …
John McCormick writes: Pete Sixsmith’s broadband was playing up yesterday so, like Hutch, his report arrived late. In his e-mail Pete said it would be a short report because of the problems. Short, maybe, but, like Nick Sharkey, perfectly composed. Would that one or two of our current team could do so well, although, as Pete says, it was one of their best performances.
As Sunderland prepare for what Seb Larsson admits will be a “very tough afternoon” at Old Trafford if players do not rise to the occasion, we must acknowledge Tony Pulis’s contribution to the evolution of the English language.
First we should forget the muscular approach to defending that saw, for example, Jermain Defoe flattened twice in the penalty box even before a corner kick was taken. That is Tony Pulis’s way and he has imported the approach he adopted at Stoke City to his new job at WBA.
Malcolm Dawson writes….. “you must be pretty confident today” I said to the West Brom father and son combo as we grabbed a burger on our way up Millennium Way.
His reply “Not really – this looks like a nil nil,” led to my asking about his thoughts on Pulis and he admitted that although not his first choice the new manager had quickly got them organised and playing together. “He’ll have them sitting back and playing for the point,” was his spot on prediction. I probably enjoyed the burger slightly more than the game though not much more. It wasn’t a classic (burger or game) but if we’re going to draw 0-0 I’d rather we did it looking to get forward and win rather than by sitting back and risk defeat. West Brom rarely threatened and never looked liked scoring and we played most of the match in their half. But Johnson’s effort apart Ben Foster had a pretty easy time of it. He had one moment of nervousness after a cracking shot from Larsson but apart from that his only contribution was to catch the ball, run forward a few yards then throw himself on the ground unchallenged writhing around in agony as a vital few minutes ticked away. Pete Sixsmith was there and his post match comment to me “at least we didn’t lose” summed it up nicely. His slightly longer and more erudite take on things is here…..
It was better than Queens Park Rangers and it was better than Bradford City – but really, it wasn’t very good as we huffed and puffed our way to an uninspiring goalless draw with an equally uninspired West Brom team who will be down there with us until the end of May.
There was an improvement. We never looked like conceding and we worked hard, particularly Seb Larsson, who is probably our outstanding player this season. He ran and ran and ran, urging the other players on and showing why he deserved his contract extension last year. However, all Larsson’s excellent running in midfield is to no avail if we have no creativity there – and we haven’t. His partnership with Cattermole (good to see him back) may well be crucial in keeping us in this league for another season of mediocrity, but the lack of players who can open up a defence is worrying.
Alvarez shows signs of being able to do it, but he is frustratingly ineffective, often running up blind alleys and wanting to beat a man twice or even thrice. Do we persevere with him and hope that he comes good? We don’t seem to have much else , as Giaccherini appears to have succumbed to an endless series of ankle injuries. Johnson equally tried to open up a resolute and physical Baggies defence but he too got nowhere. Pulis has his midfield and defence so well organised that they fill any space available and it needs a quick killer pass to get round them – but we don’t do that.
After match discussion centred around the officials, as it usually does. Unlike Mourinho, both Poyet and Pulis voiced their opinions on the incident that could have been the turning point. According to Pulis, “old ladies on the high street take more of a knock than that and stay on their feet”, a statement which won’t win him many friends in the old lady department. Poyet, like 40,000 Sunderland supporters, thought it was a red card as Lescott denied a clear goal scoring opportunity and he was the last man. Initially, Mike Jones didn’t give it, but his assistant flagged, we hoped for a penalty and expected Lescott to troop off. We got neither, one rightly, the other wrongly. If it was a foul, it had to be a red; yet another serious error by an official and one which may prove to be very expensive.
The assistant then got himself in the old ladies’ least favourite manager’s good books when he gave Adam Johnson offside as he slotted home Ricky Alvarez’s clever pass. Those who stayed up late to watch MOTD know that Mr Hatzidakis got it wrong. No gifts from this man with a Greek sounding name.
The rest of the game trundled on and the crowd retreated into their coats as a cold wind swept the stadium. A flock of seagulls (real ones, not the ridiculously coiffured 80’s pop group) swept and soared and could have nested in either penalty area, there was so little happening.
Not quite a stinker in the QPR class or a disaster in the Bradford mould, but another lost opportunity and it means that we need to take points from the next two away games at Old Trafford and the KC Stadium. To do that, we need to display some creativity and urgency to go with the undoubted effort and commitment that the players showed on Saturday. The crowd got behind them and showed that they wanted manager and players to succeed.
But, as I often remind students, wanting to do well and actually doing it are two completely different things. At the moment, we are struggling to get a worthwhile grade in our annual relegation exam. The fear is still there that we might fail it this year.
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Malcolm Dawson writes…..
Every cliché in the book was utilised in the run up to this game.
A must win, six pointer, real Cup Final of a game that we were promised would see the players give of their all. Well, unlike some callers to Radio Newcastle’s post match phone in, I’ve no doubt that they did give their all. The trouble as I see it is that their all just isn’t enough. Had this been a game where we weren’t trying to avoid the drop I might have enjoyed it. We played some decent stuff, showed we were better technically than the South London side but never really looked like getting more than a point from the game. As time wore on the familiar trepidation that we would concede late and finish with nothing returned. I have seen that happen too many times watching Sunderland for anything less than a 4-0 lead with 30 seconds remaining to instil me with the expectation of a victory. Peter Sixsmith has seen even more games than me and on a day when Radio 5’s preference for Rugby Union commentaries sent his blood pressure on an upward trend, the performance of Gus’s boys did little to alleviate the hypertension and on the day that Vladimir Putin ignored the wishes of the rest of the United Nations, he is looking back to pre-revolutionary Russia for a comparison with the club’s present plight.
ONE STEP FORWARDS, TWO STEPS BACK
As I am sure you all know, this was the title of a pamphlet written by V.I. Lenin for the Congress of the Social Democratic Labour Party, held in London in 1904. In it, he looked at the split between the Mensheviks (the majority) who wanted a democratic path to Socialism and the Bolsheviks (the minority and Lenin’s mates) who favoured a more revolutionary approach to establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat.
The great man said that it was often necessary to go through this process to arrive at the desired outcome. Whether he would have felt the same had he been a Sunderland supporter 110 years on is debatable.
Two weeks ago, we looked to have made an important step towards fending off relegation with a spirited and impressive performance against Manchester City. We had the richest club in the world, booting the ball out and feigning injury as they held on to their narrow lead. Pride swelled from the terraces as it was said that the club and players had reconnected with the support.
Two weeks on, that optimism lies in tatters like the hopes and dreams of those Bolsheviks all those years ago. A supine performance against a Hull City side whose limitations were shown up by 10 man City, was followed up by a display against a wretched Crystal Palace side that showed all the weaknesses that we have accumulated over the last three seasons. Gus Poyet has inherited a squad of players who are looking down the barrel of the relegation gun yet again. They got away with it last year because Wigan Athletic were distracted by their first FA Cup Final and the appointment of a new manager jolted them out of the torpor into which they had slid under Martin O’Neill.
This time round, we can only hope that Hull City are distracted by the lure of that Wembley glory that we bathed in on March 2nd and that they are dragged kicking and screaming into the heart of the relegation scrap. Because that is the only way that I can see us getting out of the not inconsiderable mess that we are in now.
The Palace game was more of a mustn’t lose than a must win and we did achieve that, although they did come perilously close to nicking an undeserved winner at the end. On the other hand, did we ever come close to winning the game? The answer to that is an emphatic NO.
Granted, Borini hit the bar when he really should have scored and Speroni made a good save from Altidore. But other than that we barely created one clear cut chance and we completely failed to carve open a Palace defence that creaked at the start before they realised that if they stood their ground, the lack of creativity and imagination in a desperately poor Sunderland midfield would soon come to the fore and they could spend the rest of the afternoon happily defending long punts forward by our players. This lack of creativity and drive has been a serious problem for a while now. We do not have one player who can get hold of a game and direct it our way. Bruce, O’Neill, Di Canio and now Poyet have tried to get by with the strength of Gardener, Cattermole and Larsson and for those three, the Sunderland tank is now running on empty.
What else do we have? Bridcutt played deep and did reasonably well against the kind of side he should do reasonably well against. Colback missed this one, but he is, in the words of Doug Forrest, “yet another water carrier”. Ki opens well but fades too easily. Larsson and Gardener must both realise that their days at Sunderland are over. Their contribution to this game was, to put it mildly, poor. The Swede engineered a series of misplaced passes before he was hauled off to be replaced by Gardener whose first action was to be booked for an unnecessary foul. Both were signed from Birmingham City after their relegation and both have every chance of another one on their CVs.
The other major, major problem is where on earth do the goals come from? Borini and Johnson have been our most regular scorers but they are not prolific. In games against our relegation rivals, we have scored but a single goal at the Stadium of Light and, with the exception of Fulham, not many more away. Fletcher cuts a forlorn figure up front and looks as if he cannot wait to tell his agent to find him another club who want to go down. Words fail me when it comes to discussing Altidore. Quite the worst forward I have seen in a Sunderland shirt in the top flight – and I have sat and stood through Ian Wallace, Andy Gray and Paul Stewart.
I understand Poyet’s apparent sanguinity in his post-match interviews. There is little point in him criticising players for not being good enough, that is not their fault. They put plenty of effort in and never stopped looking for a breakthrough, even to the extent of Bardsley giving us one of his wonder dives towards the end. I would ask some questions of his tactics though. Both Palace full backs were booked early on for crude fouls on Borini and Johnson. Surely we should have continued to attack them. Borini running at Mariappa would have caused chaos but we allowed him to tuck in and pass his fouling duties on to the next player.
But he must be really worried about the fact that we cannot win games against sides that are down there scrapping with us. We go to Norwich next week to play a club whose fans are unhappy with their manager and who, in Ellander and van Wolfswinkel, have strikers who are as ineffective as ours. It could be a classic.
Palace were as poor a side as we were and their wretched goals for tally shows what they are – a team hanging on by fair means or foul. In Pulis they have a manager who may well keep them up but who seems to regard football as a branch of rugby union in that it is a game of attrition where skills with the ball are purely secondary.
Lenin realised that there was a long game to be played in 1904. By 1917, the Bolsheviks were in the ascendancy and had taken power in Russia. He always adhered to that philosophy of one step forward two steps back because he knew that the spurt would come sooner or later and that the socialist paradise that he envisaged would eventually be achieved.
Gus Poyet doesn’t have that time.
Two wins from the next three would put a different complexion on things but resurgence in South West London and the Black Country do little to help us. Time for us to stand on our own two feet and seize the commanding heights of the economy!!!
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Gareth Barker has been thinking about Mark Hughes’s appointment as replacement for the sacked Tony Pulis at Stoke City and this led him to reflect again on Sunderland’s dramatic change from Martin O’Neill to Paolo Di Canio. In his parallel Sunderland universe, Gareth sees another 1-1 draw. Both clubs, he argues, got it right …
As a matter of record, Salut! Sunderland notes with satisfaction that Stoke have lost their appeal against Robert Huth’s red card. He collects the standard three-match ban but avoids the extra match the FA disciplinary committee adds for “frivolous” appeals.
Salut! Sunderland has made no formal count, but reckons most – certainly many – Sunderland fans agree Robert Huth was unlucky to be sent off for his challenge on David Meyler.
Pete Sixsmith slogged back from Stoke, happiness at the well-won points a little offset by the rigours of seven hours on the road to get home. He reckons it was just after midnight, his text suggested just before; either way, it was beyond the call of duty or even love and his exemplary matchday assessment – a posting that would normally be held until Monday – deserves to go up immediately …
Martin O’Neill said, ahead of viewing replays, he thought it a nasty challenge. David Meyler has ample reason, after suffering serious injuries, to be anxious to avoid another.