It was towards the end of last season that Lars Knutsen last appeared on these pages. I’ll let him bring you up to date with his thoughts and memories, some good, some bitter-sweet. All I’ll say is,
“Welcome back, Lars”
4-0 up at half-time vs. Crystal Palace! To be honest I cannot remember when that last happened in an away game for Sunderland. I was there in 2002 when we beat Cambridge United 7-0 at the Abbey Stadium in the League Cup, or whatever it was called that season, but we were only 2-0 up at half-time; the next 5 goals came in 29 second half minutes. I was also in the stands when we scored 5 goals in 29 minutes against Swindon in Div. 2 at Roker Park in April 1971, and even when we beat Derby 5-0 away in the Prem. directly after promotion in 1999, we were only 2-0 up at half-time, although a Phillips hat-trick made up for that minor disappointment. Momentous wins bring back good memories…
Whenever I update my erstwhile column about our beloved football club, I feel I have to lodge an excuse about why I have not written more often. This time, aside from moving house and country, I have had to deal with the death of a parent, my dear Sunderland-supporting mother. She was in her 98th year, but there is still a strange void. Aashild Johanna Knutsen did not become a true fan until age 81 when she accompanied a group of family members to a 1-1 stalemate vs. Arsenal at the SoL, where she saw fellow Scandinavian Stefan Schwarz score a screamer for us, Patrick Viera miss a penalty and Kanu score a “dog’s breakfast” goal, according to one commentator.
She was also there for Connor “Terminator” Wickham’s first club goal, against Aston Villa in a 2-2 draw. She lived in the area from 1950-2013, working at Sunderland General Hospital as a physiotherapist. She had treated many retired former players who had run up and down the steps by Roker pier too often in their youth, but had left supporting privileges to me until her first live game.
My mother would have a glass of sherry every time The Lads won, so was severely deprived of that particular form of liquid refreshment in the latter half of 2016. She shared a high regard with her son for what Big Sam had achieved against the odds by steering our team away from the quicksand at the bottom of the league in April, concurrently condemning our biggest rivals to the Championship. Allardyce did not look happy on Saturday, but to his credit he did have the wisdom to walk away from our Tyneside rivals all those years ago.
When Benitez was appointed as manager at Newc**tle, I messaged the 5Live Facebook page suggesting that he would not be the type for the incessant scrap for promotion from the Championship. That assumed that the Barcodes would be relegated, but although having been proved right in that prediction, they have surprised me with their decent away form at least and if Sunderland can keep up their “late escape” pattern of recent years, it may well be that we are guaranteed another easy six points in what would be our 11th consecutive season in the EPL. I still see it as the toughest league in the world, and I reckon that in May last year most fans felt that we would at least achieve mid-table obscurity in 2016-17.
We all know the feeling we had as supporters when Big Sam departed for England’s top job after an overlong courtship, leaving his replacement precious little time to reinforce the attack and other weakened areas of the team before the new season began. And we were maybe underwhelmed when Anichebe was part of the answer.
Despite the dross being served up by the team in that almost trademark 11 game winless run at the start of the season there have been some good moments since November, aside from last Saturday’s dominant performance. Each of the 3 home wins have been rousing, especially the 3-0 win over another relegation rival Hull, and probably our best performance was the 2-1 win over Leicester. We never seem to dominate territoriality, but goals are what count.
I was recently in Copenhagen and Jutland on business, but also had time to meet with an old Derby County-supporting friend, Andy Bowler. We were discussing our teams, but also how Leicester City could have been so comprehensively transformed into also-rans this season after their staggering achievements of 2015-16. He stressed the importance of psychology and the confidence that multiple wins brings to a whole team; this has been one of my recurring topics in this column and my nearly 3 seasons blogging on the Black Cats for ESPN.
The riposte to this is of course the feeling of running through ankle-deep cloying mud that a few defeats can bring, and anyone who has played any sport at a high level can relate to that. Sports psychology is the key to any winning streak and to quote the legendary Peter Reid “goals change games” as we saw on Saturday, and 4 goals certainly did. Two features of that game were particularly striking to me: the performance of Januzaj and the cohesion of the defence.
We need players with obvious skill such as Januzaj to get their heads right and hit form despite the club being in such a precarious position. The defence was superb in South London and rarely looked troubled despite the loss of van Aanholt. Selling him was just good business; buying a player for £1.5 M and moving him on for a reported £14 M would appeal to any Scotsman, as it clearly did for our likeable manager. Apparently, according to Sunderland’s leadership, this has not been happening enough in recently; our recruitment and ability to move players on for a profit has been fairly pitiful in the last few seasons.
In my humble opinion we also need some of our 6 players currently out with injury to come back and become like new signings. Top of that list for me are Cattermole and Kirchoff, who have both been sorely missed this year; midfielders who can protect the defence and add grit to the team are worth their weight in gold.
My readers will know that I am a fan of Catts for his attitude, which led Dick Advocaat to say
“One cannot buy what Lee Cattermole has got”
as he signed his last contract. We also need Anichebe back to hold the ball up for Defoe.
Hope springs eternal and given how tight it is at the bottom of the league a few wins could lift us rapidly up the table, although we still need to double our points tally. If you think we can’t do it, just re-watch Poyet’s Miracle