Nearly a year and a half ago, some of us stood at the bar of the London-bound train after watching Sunderland trounced 3-0 by Man City at the Stadium of Light. To make things worse, we were sodden after a ferocious downpour. One or two London-based City fans were saying how much affinity they felt with Sunderland. All changed next day: the Abu Dhabi takeover was announced. Martin Haworth*, a City fan in Mackem territory, reviews the progress since then …
Salut! Sunderland (posing the question before Spurs 3 City 0!): So Man City are finally asserting themselves a little. Is a top four finish now certain in your view?
No it isn’t. For my money it would be nice to be able to qualify for the Europa League without gaining entry via the Fair Play qualification – which is how we got in on the last two occasions. I think the talk of the Champions League is mainly media frenzy. There is no-one I know who talks about it. For me, as long as there is progress, then that’s fine. It seems the owners also seem to have a patient attitude, which is good. I know that the end of last season, the form wasn’t good, and people were speculating whether Mark Hughes would keep his job, and I’m glad he has. Too often the club has suffered as a result of short-term actions. To qualify would be fine by me, and we’re still in the League Cup, so a bit of silverware would be a real bonus. Any progress on the last couple of seasons would be good.
A bit like the older generation and the moment John Kennedy was assassinated, do you remember where you were when you heard of the Abu Dhabi takeover?
I was sat at work when news came through, and only confirmed on transfer deadline day. I was initially scepitcal about the “richest club in the world” tag, as it is one thing to have a backer with money, it’s quite something else to get it off them. We’d been promised great things before, namely the previous administration under Thaksin Shinawatra, but that had all but dried up. I wasn’t too wild about him being there anyway, and I think it put a lot of neutrals off City. Then when the madness started the same evening, when the club appeared to be after both Berbatov and Robinho. That really was an evening to remember, sitting at the keyboard repeatedly hammering the F5 button waiting for the news of who we had signed. I wasn’t bothered about Berbatov, but the best part of the Robinho signing was that it stuck two fingers up at Chelsea. I know he didn’t want to go to City, but just to see Chelsea’s nose put out of joint for once was worth it. I was still a little bitter about their attitude when they prized Shaun Wright-Phillips away to go and sit on their bench. The statements of one or two from the club in unsettling him were unpleasant. I fear we fell into the same trap this summer with Joleon Lescott. I don’t want us to become the vile monster that has to resort to those sort of tactics. Let’s be honest, outside of Chelsea supporters, I don’t think there’s much love for them. I don’t want City to go down that route. By the same token, in the early days of the Abu Dhabi take-over, I cringed every time Sulaiman Al Fahim opened his mouth, saying they were going to buy Ronaldo, Torres, etc, etc. Interestingly he was dispensed with soon after, with the owners saying “we don’t do business like that”. Interestingly when he pitched up at Portsmouth in his attempted takeover, I had to laugh at his “Pompey till I die” attitude, and sat in the stand wearing the club shirt. Can’t think who it reminds me of? Also our Chief Exec needs to learn a little humility at times, given is comments following the failed bid to land Kaka in January.
After years of underachievement in the shadows of illustrious neighbours, did you instantly decide this would enable you to compete?
No. The money is only one part of it. It can be just as difficult to sign players when you have money as when you haven’t. The price immediately gets hiked up, and while the club may be able to afford it, it doesn’t make it attractive to players. Kaka eventually moved for a lot less than what City were offering. I think if they can get into Europe, even in the Europa, then it may attract one or two of the A-listers. The difficulty is getting the first few. I was pleased with Adebayor, Santa Cruz and Tevez, but there are areas that still need attention before we are to think about challenging. If we had any other keeper than Shay Given, we’d be lower mid-table. They have got to start playing as a team more. I still feel at times that they play as individuals, but it is definitely getting better. I think that one or two teams are looking over their shoulders, but it’s not just us. Tottenham and Aston Villa are making a real push, and with Liverpool imploding, the race for the top four will be a bit more interesting this season.
And what is your assessment of what has been done so far? Is Mark Hughes still the man for the task ahead?
I do think he is the man. He has a quiet, determined air about him, without being flamboyant. He had to put up with a lot during the closing stages of the previous regime, and he stuck by us. Surely we should do the same with him. I still see it even now as a “work in progress”, and there are going to be slip-ups along the way, which I’ve no doubt be treated as catastrophes by the media. I like him, even if he is a former Red. If we were to change – then who? Another short term “gun for hire”? The owners have always maintained that they are in it for the long-haul, and I think they will have patience with him. He does have to deal with some enormous egos mind, which will test the resolve of the best man manager.
Man City fans were telling me after you trounced us 3-0 at the SoL just before the takeover announcement that they regarded us as similar clubs in many ways. How do you regard Sunderland, and what’s a man in the North East doing supporting a Manchester club anyway?
There are similarities, as being seen as a “second” team in the region, irrespective of their league positions. We also both seem to gain affection of neutrals as their “other” teams. I think it’s mainly because there is nothing brash or offensive about either club. They tend not to rub people up the wrong way. We’ve also both had a fair amount of yo-yo-ing out of the top flight, even down to the third tier.
Sunderland does have a place in my life, as it’s where I came to study. I was born in Manchester, and lived my formative years is South Lancashire, at one point I used to live near former Sunderland player Wayne Entwistle. After Sunderland, I’ve moved around a few times, mainly in the North East. Married a girl from South Shields who is a Sunderland supporter, and who as a teenager was doe-eyed over Bob Lee. I’ve been to Roker Park and the Stadium of Light on a number of occasions, both to see City play, and as a neutral. If people ask me what’s the most exciting game you’ve ever seen, I usually plump for one I saw at Roker Park. It was the play-off game against Gillingham. I know it wasn’t the result you wanted, but as a neutral, they game had everything. One other game sticks in my mind was the final game of the 81-82 season, and it was my first visit to Roker Park. It was early May, and a warm sunny day, as we left in our shirt-sleeves from Lancashire. No so, when we arrived at Sunderland. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as cold in my life and spent a good proportion of the game huddled inside one of the stands to get out of the bracing wind. Sunderland needed to win to avoid relegation, so it was the usual fraught affair, although for City it was a meaningless game, they played as if they were already on the beach. Sunderland seemed to breathe a sigh of relief when they finally took the lead, and seemed to be coasting to a 1-0 win. The ground was pretty noisy, and with the clock running down, City’s Clive Wilson suddenly found himself free in the penalty box, with the ball at his feet, with only the goalkeeper, who I think was Chris Turner, to beat. The ground fell absolutely silent. This had proved to be one of the few chances City had that day for them to score, and scupper Sunderland’s survival hopes. Every City fan there knew that Wilson was no striker, and true to form struck such a weak shot that you would have thought had money on Sunderland saying up. The cheer that broke the silence was the loudest of the afternoon, and City resigned themselves to a 1-0 defeat, and Sunderland stayed up.
Peter Reid, Dennis Tueart, Niall Quinn, Tony Towers, Tony Coton … the list of people connected to both clubs would be very long. Any special memories of any of them?
My favourite by a long way, was Dave Watson. A tremendous player, and until I’ve just looked it up, I was surprised that he was 29 before he joined City and made his First Division debut. An absolute tower in defence, he was a huge miss when he left in Malcolm Allison’s clear out four years later. In his time the club were the “nearly men” and arguably his time at the club should have returned more than just a League Cup winners medal. Peter Barnes was also a victim of the same clearout as Watson, he could be a very frustrating player at times, but on his day, he was brilliant to watch. He only just creeps into this section for his sole appearance for Sunderland in 1989. Barry Siddall also was decent for us during the mid-80s at a time when the club was in transition (yet again!). I really wasn’t sure initially about the signing of Niall Quinn. I thought that £800,000 was a lot for someone who wasn’t Arsenal’s first choice striker. He certainly came into his own at City, and his approachable personality made him a big favourite at the club, in the same way as he later became at Sunderland. He wasn’t the world’s greatest striker, but he had an honesty in his play, was a trier, and even went in goal in the days before sub goalkeepers, saving a Dean Saunders penalty. I was fortunate enough to meet him at a function at the Stadium of Light a few years ago, and he is just as friendly, charming and personable as commonly thought.
Name the this season’s top four in order. And the bottom three.
Man Utd, Chelsea, Arsenal, and maybe Tottenham in the top four. Bottom three Portsmouth, Wolves and Hull. I think that Bolton will get out of trouble, and I’d like Zola to be successful at West Ham. Wolves and Portsmouth I don’t think will be a big miss.
If City were not in your top four, why not. If SAFC were in neither, where will we end up?
I’d like to think 5th or 6th, we haven’t been picking up the points we should have been doing. Draws at Wigan and Birmingham and at home to Hull and Burnley isn’t the form of someone who is going to finish top four. Still, at the time of writing, it is only one defeat all season, and that in the umpteenth minute of additional time at Old Trafford. Too often, games there in the past have only been able to be viewed looking through your fingers, so I suppose it’s progress. Sunderland I think will finish at the higher end of mid-table. A bit like City, they seem to have difficulty in winning the games that they should do, and perform better against the better teams. They do seem to have a good team ethic, and I’ve always hoped that City would to sign Malbranque, a very classy player. I was very impressed by Nosworthy in the game between the two in Manchester the season before last, he was absolutely outstanding.
Tell me what you really think about Man United.
This might surprise you. I’m pretty ambivalent. When I was younger, and they were on roughly the same terms, then yes, I did loathe them. We used to laugh at their failed attempts to win the title, no doubt how hard they tried and spent far more money than those who did win it. Then City went into decline and to be honest, they weren’t on our radar. They didn’t really inspire any negative feelings in me. I even cheered when they won the Champions League in 1999. You would have to have been pretty hard hearted not to have. That was how I felt about them until a couple of years ago. Then on a visit to Manchester, on a free day, I took in the stadium tour at Old Trafford. I could ignore the mild jibes from the guide about City’s problems, but what really got my goat, was a banner that is just off to the right of the players entrance. It will now say 33 years, and refers to the length of time it has been since City last won a trophy. At that point, any admiration for what the club has achieved, evaporated. It is one thing for some mindless low-life to constantly jibe at the opposition, but something else for the club to allow something like that to be displayed in their ground. Is it any different to what Adebayor did against Arsenal this year? As we all know, United and their behaviour are above reproach. What’s happening at City now certainly seems to have rattled a few cages in M16. Ferguson’s grumbling about the Tevez transfer, “noisy neighbours” and the insistence that they see Liverpool as their derby rivals, shows they are wary of what’s going on across the City. Best of all was the putting up of a giant poster showing Carlos Tevez in blue with the legend “Welcome to Manchester” turned Taggart purple. I’ve got a photo of the poster on my desktop PC. We are just getting on with our job of running a team. Maybe they should too – or are they secretly worried?
The Eduardo question: you need three points for the Premier title. It’s the last second of the last game and Tevez goes down in the area. Alone in the stadium, the referee doesn’t spot that it was a blatant dive. You score, win and the championship is City’s. Take it gladly, take it guiltily or feel so ashamed you almost wish you’d only drawn?
Thought long and hard about this one. I think I’d go for the option to feel ashamed and wish we’d drawn. The record books would show that the title had been won, but if it is won in such a manner, that is also what people would remember it by. They would ignore the good work of the previous nine months. It’s not unlike how people remember how Leeds United lost the Division One title in 1971. The one incident of the Jeff Astle “offside” goal was the standout moment of the entire season. So I’ll opt for the honest option, and say we should have drawn. Then again, this is the club that got a lot of success in the 1970s on the back of Francis Lee having a balance problem whenever he got into the penalty area.
Should the names of Ngog, Henry and plenty of A N Others be added to that question?
It’s Drogba that get’s me, although he doesn’t do it as often as he used to. The man is built like an ox and yet he still collapses like a four stone weakling if as much as breathed on.
Club vs country. Who wins for you and why?
Club every time. I’ve never had an interest in the national side. There is too much hype about the team, and they consistently underachieve. We have one of the best leagues in the world, but never seem to do better than “plucky losers”. We seem to come unstuck against any teams with tactical nous. It may be different under the new management, but I fear that once again the won’t succeed in South Africa as they haven’t got a decent goalkeeper.
Tell us one good thing the football authorities should do to make the game better
Stop buggering about with the rules every season, and take out any element of interpretation of the rules. All this “active/passive” rubbish and “intent” only breeds confusion, and makes the impossible job of a referee even harder. It would help if some of the players knew the rules as well. I’d also scrap the offside rule entirely. I don’t think it would change the game that radically, and it might mean more man-to-man marking, but it would remove the doubt element. Never, ever bring in goal-line technology. As it is not guaranteed to work in every case, then it shouldn’t be produced. For cost reasons it could not be introduced at all levels of the game, and for that reason alone it is wrong. You would effectively be getting the game played at different levels to different rules. On a personal level, I’d make it a qualification of purchasing a season ticket of a Premier League club, that they also had to attend at least a couple of games at a local non-league club each season. The difference to those clubs would be amazing, and a few might begin to see what they have been missing.
And will you be at the match? What will be the score?
I won’t, as I do a lot of work for the Northern League, so I’ll be at a Northern League match, which at the moment, will be Ryton v Tow Law. Both myself and my wife will be there, so there will be one eye on the TV in the clubhouse looking for any score updates. As for the score, the chances are that the result will depend on which of us pays for a takeaway that evening, so I’ve got to say a City win, with my wife paying for the meal. City are strong at home, but they have been drawing too many. A close win, something like 1-0 or 2-1.
* Martin Haworth on Martin Haworth:
I was born in Manchester, and raised in Bury, Lancashire. My choice of football club was determined like a lot of things when you were young, completely irrationally. My best friend was a City fan, and we always used to do everything together, had the same toys, interests, I started to support City. When he hit his teens, he defected to United, but I stayed loyal. I may not have trophies, but I do have standards! A lot of my school friends were either United, Leeds or Burnley fans, there weren’t many City. My first wage packet was spent on a season ticket for the Kippax Stand in 1978, and cost a whopping £16. In the 70s and 80s City was just about my whole life then. All the money I earned went on watching the Blues. I know to some they are seen as a comedy club, but good or bad, there is always something interesting happening. We’ve had promotions and relegations and been to some new grounds and faced new opponents. I’ve been into Europe following them, and had a few trips to Wembley, including the Full Members Cup! I ended up in the North East, initially at college in Sunderland, and then work. I work in IT in Newcastle, and live in Morpeth, where I believe our goalkeeper still lives. I watch over 120 games a season, mainly now at non-league level, and going around the grounds of the region I bump into some amazing characters and real football people, like your own Peter Sixmith, and it was also through this route that I knew Dave Lish, whom many of you will remember. They are people with a real passion for the game, whose love of it goes further than just their choice of team. City as a club are now light years away from the club I first started to watch in the 1970s, and I just hope that however successful they become, they never lose their endearing appeal.