It is been a tough season for anyone needing to watch the high blood pressure. But after fighting like tigers to grab a thoroughly deserved victory against Boro, we are safe at last. The relief and joy yesterday’s result brought to Salut! Sunderland‘s corner of the Arabian desert may well have been felt and heard on Wearside.
So let us salute a team – indeed a squad – that has risen above technical imperfection to play, for the most part, with passion and guts and produce, time after time, victories and draws out of thin air as seconds tick away.
13 Sunderland 36 9 3 6 23 20 2 3 13 13 36 -20 39
14 Wigan 36 8 5 5 21 15 1 5 12 11 34 -17 37
15 Middlesbrough 36 5 5 7 17 22 3 7 9 16 30 -19 36
16 Bolton 36 6 5 7 21 18 2 4 12 12 35 -20 33
17 Reading 36 8 2 8 19 24 1 4 13 18 41 -28 33
18 Birmingham 36 5 8 5 26 22 2 3 13 16 37 -17 32
19 Fulham 36 4 5 9 20 31 2 7 9 15 29 -25 30
20 Derby 35 1 5 11 10 33 0 3 15 7 43 -59 11
Pete Sixsmith’s detailed report is keenly awaited. More accustomed to the common man’s experience of football, he attended yesterday’s game in style. This was his report for today’s Observer newspaper (he also marked the team and his ratings appear as a footnote*):
“I’ve just popped out of the directors’ lounge and Quinny is absolutely bouncing. A great game, a fantastic finale and we’re safe. When Boro came back to 2-2 it looked as though they might pinch it, so the fans really got behind the team as if to say ‘we’re not going to lose this one’. Jones was phenomenal – he ran the Boro defence ragged and even though he got a cut on his head and was in some pain, he just kept going. Chopra got another goal and Richardson had a good game in midfield. The manager got a bit of stick after last weeks defeat at Newcastle, yet he picked the right side today, with a footballing midfield, and the team’s never say die attitude is down to him – not fear but respect.”
In the end, it was again the unsung artisans of the team that secured a victory just when it was needed: Danny Higginbotham’s headed equaliser immediately after Boro’s potentially demoralising early lead, Michael Chopra’s cracking goal just before half time and Daryl Murphy’s injury time winner.
We did it without the defensive strength of Jonny Evans and Phil Bardsley … and despite the terrifying presence of Steve Bennett as referee.
Salut! Sunderland has avoided pinning blame for the team’s shortcomings on bad decisions by match officials. But it is not even open to doubt that these have cost us several points this season, and Bennett’s last visit to the Stadium of Light produced the worst of them – the spectacularly wrong denial of Kenwyne Jones’s last second “goal” against Aston Villa.
Roy Keane has complained that SAFC have had more rotten luck with such decisions than any Premier League side this season. He has apparently received apologies for two of them, the most recent being Mike Riley’s crass award of a penalty to Man City a couple of weeks ago.
These are result-changing calls. Two more points against Villa, at least one versus Man City, two more at Derby, one at Reading………the list goes on, and these are just the decisions that are beyond serious debate. There was Howard Webb’s astonishing incompetence in allowing the Villa keeper to stay on the field after blatantly handling outside the box (though we did go on to win, so points were not lost in consequence). Disgraceful refereeing also disadvantaged us at Chelsea, Blackburn, Liverpool and elsewhere.
On only one occasion that I have seen or been made aware of, a missed Sunderland foul in the build-up to a goal that gave us a draw at Birmingham, have we gained from any bad decision in our favour. Things have not “evened themselves out over the season”.
Up until midway through stoppage time yesterday, the process seemed, if anything, to be continuing.
Overall, despite some intemperate criticism at the BBC 606 site, Bennett did not have a bad game, as it happens. At least, not by his standards. The bookings were more or less right (though Whitehead was surely no more deserving of a yellow card for time-wasting than the Boro forward who got away with firing home at 1-1 despite a clear offside whistle). He showed genuine concern and common sense when Kenwyne Jones suffered his awful head injury.
Arguably he favoured Boro with the 50-50 decisions and missed a penalty for us (albeit a Man City type of penalty) when a defender seemed to catch Jones as he went one-on-one with with his namesake in the Boro goal. The Boro equaliser for 2-2 looked offside to me – or at the very least the borderline decision that would certainly have gone our way had the gains and losses really been balancing themselves out – but that was the linesman’s call.
Salut! Sunderland, trying its best to be objective, does NOT believe there is any conspiracy, related to Keane’s well-known clashes with officials as a player, or any ingrained dislike of Sunderland. We have just been desperately unlucky.
So in the euphoria of survival (that’s often as good as it gets for a Sunderland fan; remember the ecstasy we felt once, under Peter Reid, at being mathematically safe by or just after Christmas?) ) we will restrict ourselves to sharing two feelings:
1 gratitude that Steve Bennett did not find another reason, when the ball bounced down over the Boro line for our winner, for ruling it out
2 hope that the imbalance is carried over to next season and rectified in our favour then. Making us safe by Christmas again.
* Sixer’s Ratings: Gordon 7, Whitehead 7, Nosworthy 5, Higginbotham 7, Collins 7, Edwards 6, Leadbitter 5, Richardson 8, Miller 7, Reid 7, Chopra 7, Murphy n/a, Jones 9