Monsieur Salut, borrowing a bit from Churchill, writes: this is not the beginning of the end. In fact, it’s officially the end of the grand Wembley and
BustSafe series. If you were within an ace of sending your own, it will have to appear as a comment. Pete Sixsmith casts his magisterial eyes over the vast majority of Sunderland matches and it is right that his views should serve as the climax to Salut! Sunderland‘s run of end-of-season reviews. Many thanks to all who have contributed; I hope readers have found their efforts stimulating … read on to see why Sixer is grateful to a certain Southampton defender
“It was the best of times and it was the worst of times”.
That may be Dickens’s introduction to A Tale Of Two Cities (Manchester and Bradford perhaps?) but
it is also an apt summary of the season that is fading into the past quicker than a harmonica playing dog glimpsed in the rear view mirror as you speed down the motorway.
The best of times would consist of Wembley; moving out of the relegation zone at the end of the season; beating Our Friends from the North twice; winning at Old Trafford for the first time since Mr Kilminster was regularly bashing me over the head at school – and taking the smirk off “The Not Quite So Special One’s” face at Stamford Bridge.
The worst of times included losing the first game of the season to Fulham, winning only four home games all season, the fact that Europe bound Hull City (yes, I had to pinch myself as well) beat us three times and the ignominious defeat at Spurs which convinced me that relegation would follow as sure as night follows day and Ant follows Dec – preferably down a bottomless mine shaft.
That we stayed up is surely due to a decision made in September, when, after a dismal defeat at The Hawthorns, Ellis Short realised that he had made a catastrophic blunder not seen since an estate agent sold a Romanian family a house next to “that nice Mr Farage”.
The posturing clown known as Paolo Di Canio was sacked after a performance that showed as much backbone as a paraplegic jelly fish and where the vast majority of the away fans were sitting fuming on their coaches or in their cars while the head coach gave a Marcel Marceau like performance on the pitch.
The next day he was gone and players, officials and fans breathed a huge sigh of relief that this dismal episode in Sunderland AFC’s proud history was over, that the chaos that reigned at the club was no more and the players could at least put ketchup on their food now without being sent to drain the Pontine Marshes or get the trains to run on time.
That start to the season was awful. We lost to Fulham and Crystal Palace and claimed our only point at Southampton. That it could have been three may well have kept Di Canio in a job so a big, big thank you to Jose Fonte for heading an equaliser and contributing to his early sacking.
We had a difficult fixture list with a run of top teams (plus Newcastle United – was ever a suffix so inappropriate?) at home and things certainly did not get better. After seven games we had but a single point and, along with Crystal Palace, looked certs to go down.
Enter the ubiquitous Uruguayan, Gustave Poyet. It is well known that “other countries have history; Uruguay has football” and for a nation with a population of 3.5 million (about the same as the North East of England) it has produced some adroit and adept footballers.
Poyet was one of these. He scored a wonderful goal against us at Stamford Bridge in 1999 and had a very good career with Chelsea and Tottenham before going into coaching alongside all time Newcastle hero, Dennis Wise.
He did well at Brighton, left under a rather large cloud and ended up at Sunderland with what we hoped was sufficient time to at least beat the 19 point season.
The opener at Swansea was dismal but the first home game under Poyet saw the Mags seen off 2-1 and Fabio Borini write himself into Sunderland folk lore. He was my player of the season, because when the chips were down and the pressure was turned up to the top, Borini delivered. The only worthless goal he scored was in the final game against Swansea. Every other one set us on the way to a big win (Newcastle away), settled our nerves (West Brom at home) or got us through a major cup tie (Chelsea and Manchester United at home).
His penalty taking was on a par with that of Jim Baxter, Gary Rowell and John McPhail and he seemed to buy into the club and what it stood for; a symbol of proud working class solidarity in a football world that was becoming more and more a soulless, corporate experience.
We had our ups and downs, our swings and roundabouts, our roller coaster ride. There were times when we played like candy floss; looked attractive and tasty, but no substance behind it. There were other times when we resembled a soufflé that would rise and then collapse because the ingredients were not quite right.
But, when the chips were down, we were one in a million, a team that defied the twisted and, hopefully never repeated old saw that “a team that is bottom at Christmas usually gets relegated”.
Crikey, we were bottom at Easter and still stayed up. Phooey to the experts.
Poyet and his back room team made mistakes but they got so much more right than they got wrong. They kept us in touch until the window opened in January and then added a full back and a central defender who both played major parts in keeping us up.
They discarded some of the worst excesses of the O’Neill and Di Canio periods – no recall for Graham and N’Diaye, exits for Cabral (remember him? Had a great game in Hong Kong and that was it), Diakite and Vaughan, who was a Steve Bruce signing.
They got very good spells out of Johnson, Larsson, Wickham, Ki and Colback and consistently good ones out of Mannone, Brown and O’Shea.
They made Lee Cattermole look like a good Premier League player as he scored his first goal and accumulated “only” five yellow cards. We shall draw a discreet veil over the red at Hull.
Unfortunately, they could do nothing with Jozy Altidore, who is rapidly challenging Andy Kerr, Tom Ritchie and Brett Angell as the least effective Sunderland striker since the war. Good at getting penalties though!!
There were disappointments. Emanuelle Giaccherini was a cameo man, rarely playing a full game, but capable of some sublime movement when in the mood. His passes to Connor Wickham at Eastlands were the sign of a very good player and the goal he took against Cardiff was a reminder of what a very important one he could be.
Charis Mavrias, El Hadji Ba and Duncan Watmore showed signs of promise and could figure next season. David Moberg Karlsson will be away back to Denmark.
It looks like Poyet will be with us next season. He wants to keep Larsson and Colback but they may have had enough of the constant relegation battles that we seem to face. The smell of disappointment that perpetually permeates the dressing room and the stadium needs to be dispelled. We have had enough of it.
In August, I did a Fan’s Preview for The Observer. Amongst my pearls of wisdom were a prediction of a finish at 9th, some praise for Di Canio and De Fanti (remember him? A sad loss to the Italian porn film industry) for signing decent players like Giaccherini and Altidore instead of plundering the relegated clubs – although we may have got a more effective centre forward from any one of the three who did go down).
However, I did say that it was time for Connor Wickham to show us why we spent £8m on him two years previously.
He did, didn’t he?
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