Recognising old friends
By Matt Rowson
It's funny that when you see someone regularly, you don't notice gradual changes. I don't mean dramatic stuff, someone sticking a metal bolt through their eyebrow, or chopping all their hair off (Gavin) for example. The slower, evolving stuff... perhaps the aging process, the development of wrinkles, the slight greying at the temples. As far as I'm concerned I look exactly the same as I did the day that I started work at the lab eight years ago, I've certainly done nothing more dramatic than cut my hair in the interim. Except that I saw a picture the other day, and there's a twenty-one year old looking back at me. Bloody hell.
So we'd all better brace ourselves before the weekend, because this isn't the same team, the same club that we were twice beaten by during the Premiership season. Our two previous games at the Stadium of Light were visits to a side on the up, a magnificent new stadium full to the rafters with fans lapping up a successful side. The hair stood up on the back of your neck as Prokofiev thundered the teams' arrival (the poaching of this anthem at Vicarage Road is as ineffective and inappropriate in its own way as the Vialli debacle in my humble opinion).
There's been no cataclysmic disintegration in the meantime, no turning up one Saturday and being shocked by everything falling apart. But none of us are going to recognise the side that finished seventh in the Premiership the year that we were relegated.
So what has happened? Well, one key factor has to be the retirement - and total failure to replace - the incomparable Niall Quinn. Sunderland's success in their first two seasons in the Premiership was based around a very sound and effective formula... industry in the middle of the park, good width, an outstanding target man and the perfect poacher. A formula, in fact, which might be familiar to Watford fans of a certain vintage. Thing is, one key cog begins to wear out, your attempts to substitute it founder on replacement pieces being either ineffective (Dichio, Laslandes, Mboma) or coming without a manual (Nuñez), and suddenly your machine starts to look creaky.
It's not as simple as that, of course. Sunderland fans... who, in all honesty, are better placed than me to comment... seem to be reasonably in consensus that whatever the lack of inspiration or cause for optimism introduced by the new management team, Peter Reid is still the man to blame. From the outside, this has often been cited as scant gratitude to a manager who brought an unprecedented two seasons on the edge of European places to Wearside... the often unwritten subtext is that for a crowd to turn so unanimously on a manager who brought such (relative) success, things must really have been going wrong.
The last team to sack Peter Reid, Manchester City, did so after a poor start to 1993-94 having finished 6th and 9th in the previous two campaigns. Five years later they were in Division Two... one can only hope that Sunderland don't go the same way but there's no debate on Sunderland messageboards regarding the dogfight at the bottom of the Premiership. An air of resignation prevails... it's the Black Cats plus two, it would appear.
The financial consequences for Sunderland could be significant in the much-discussed "current financial climate". The club's chief executive, in a candid but astonishingly naïve Q&A session on the club's Official Site, talks airily about the need to sell players should the worst happen... as if there's a queue of clubs waiting to sign relegated players on Premiership wages. Are you going to tell him or am I? The announcement of Ipswich's administration this week was greeted on a Sunderland messageboard with "Has it gone chilly in here all of a sudden?", not unreasonably.
Thomas Sorensen, hero of the Fourth Round replay penalty shoot-out will be in goal for Sunderland, the big Dane one of four senior keepers - this position being the upside of an unbalanced squad. Of the others, the Estonian Mart Poom has been out since shortly after his arrival from Derby but played in the reserve derby against Newcastle on Monday night. He will compete for a place on the bench with Austrian Jurgen Macho, who always seems to have the look of a man who knows that he's on a hiding to nothing. The fourth keeper, Thomas Myrhe, has been suffering from a thigh strain.
Sunderland's defence, once a solid bedrock of the side, has looked narrow and porous this season, with a susceptibility at corners and a tendency to concede late goals particular weaknesses. Both full-back positions are acknowledged as problems - another reason to hope that Jermaine recovers from his knock for the weekend. Stephen Wright, a £3million signing from Liverpool at the start of the season, has been having a shocking time of it, exposed defensively by an obsession with drifting out of position. "We'd be lucky to get £1million for him" opines one correspondent. He's not wrong. Darren Williams is the alternative - he was involved in Xavier Gravelaine's sending off at Vicarage Road in our last meeting.
Long-serving Michael Gray has been equally short of the popular vote at left back - and this a man who was an international fullback four years ago. He missed the weekend capitulation at Tottenham with 'flu, George McCartney standing in.
In the centre, Jody Craddock is one of few to come out of the season so far with any credit - he appears to have been dragging the defence along by its bootstraps. Emerson Thome, who has been in and out with knee problems for the last twelve months, seems to be the most popular vote to play alongside him, but rumours persist that Sunderland will owe Chelsea an extra £500k with a few more appearances - on top of an already £4m+ fee, which is seen as the only possible justification for Wilkinson's persistence with Phil Babb. Former Swedish international Joachim Bjorklund, another returning from injury, is a further option, as is on-loan Moroccan Talal El-Kakrkouri, although the Paris St.Germain player began Saturday's game in midfield.
The competitive Gavin McCann has been a fixture in the middle of the park, but he's struggling with a calf injury and could miss Saturday's game. This could open the door to a return for the ever-charming Jason McAteer, out for the past five months amidst speculation that his career could be over. No such joy for Claudio Reyna, the U.S. skipper's cruciate ligament injury looking ever more like the body blow to Sunderland's season.
Kevin Kilbane, the bane of the Sunderland support for about two hundred years, is eligible for a return following suspension. Sean Thornton has been reasonably impressive down the right of late, although Sunderland have recently been charged with an illegal approach for the player who moved from Tranmere in the summer. Julio Arca on the left is regularly cited as an oasis of creativity in Sunderland's otherwise barren midfield - his reluctance to track back is often overlooked as a result. Sunderland's dearth of creativity in the centre is a widely acknowledged problem which Howard Wilkinson is rumoured to be addressing, with predictable imagination, with the recruitment of his old mucker David Batty should he be released from his Leeds contract, as is rumoured.
Matt Piper, a £2.5m signing from Leicester, is returning to fitness to compete for a place on the right. Other midfield options include the homegrown Paul Thirlwell, Irishman Thomas Butler, flaky winger John Oster and the mysterious Argentinian Nicolas Medina. Stefan Schwarz is also still lurking around scaring small children, although his days on Wearside look to be numbered.
Up front, Superkev remains talismanic, largely adored, and still capable of seizing upon chances. They're not coming along as often however, and he cuts an increasingly forlorn-looking figure. In all honesty, he should probably have left a season or two ago - although Sunderland fans would never admit it. You shudder to think how many goals he might have scored playing for United or Arsenal.
Alongside him, Tore Andre Flo is returning from injury and is so far looking a fairly disinterested return on the reputed eight figure fee splashed out on him. Marcus Stewart, out with a thigh strain recently, looks heavier in the snatches of substitute appearances revealed on the Premiership than he did during his Good Season, a tatty beard adding to the image of someone who's not quite as on the ball as he once was. The blunt Scotland international Kevin Kyle is a more direct option, whilst Sunderland's two French strikers - the whiny "IwanttoplayforUnitednothingtoproveatthislevel" David Bellion and Lilian Laslandes, on loan at Bastia - are not the most popular players on Wearside.
I've got a big soft spot for Sunderland, as you may have sussed, and it's based on more than just the enduringly likeable Kevin Phillips. Encounters with supporters, both in pubs on Wearside and down here and, famously, on the way to celebrating the Division Two title in Trafalgar Square in 1998, have been magnificent. Most of all, this is a club with a huge but distinctly local fanbase. As close as you'll get to a "community" club amidst the plate-gold glitz of the Premiership. You don't find many Sunderland fans in Essex.
Many fans, apparently writing off the League season, are looking on the Cup as a chance to salvage some enjoyment from the season. I wouldn't write off Sunderland's chances so cheaply... there are other poor sides in the Premiership, and the possibility of Birmingham coming back down shouldn't be thrown away whilst it's still mathematically feasible. As with West Brom, you do feel that both clubs on Saturday could do with our hosts being left free to concentrate on the league.