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04/05: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 12/02/05, 3.00pm
Our survey said...
By Matt Rowson

A real problem being a statistician is that it quickly becomes impossible to take anything based on surveys, research or estimation on face value. That part of the brain just doesn't switch off. This is particularly aggravating when I find myself, when in polite company, alone in swearing at a shoddy news report. You can't just stop at saying "that was bollocks", but nobody with half a personality will genuinely want to know the reasons why. Marginally less irritating whilst sitting in the grumbling, scowling statistician's corner in a public address at work communicating the findings of the company-wide survey of staff satisfaction, the analysis of which appears to have been performed by a chimpanzee with a pair of dice and an abacus. And a lazy but no doubt expensive chimpanzee at that.

Not so long ago, The Observer ran a fairly light-hearted article covering the worst football stadia in the country, as nominated and described by the fans themselves. This review was a very qualitative piece, and made no grand claims about the rigour of the research... which had, in any event, relied on no more than writing to their large pool of website contacts, of which BSaD is one, asking for suggestions and anecdotes and juggling with what came back. Not that an absence of evidence prevented the piece being jumped on by all and sundry, the BBC included, and being reported as a credible "survey of supporters". No, they just sent an email. But why let the facts get in the way of a good story.

More recently, Luton was quite entertainingly voted as the worst place to live in the country. Except it wasn't, not really. Rather, it came top of a list based on an at-best vague and unspecified set of criteria devised with the sole intention of marketing toilet book "Crap Towns 2", a imaginatively titled follow-up to 2003's "Crap Towns". So Luton was - at best - elected to the top of a fairly woolly list of indisputably rubbish places that weren't featured in the first such set of fifty a year earlier. Not, again, that this stopped the papers grabbing it and running with it. The fact that Luton clearly is rubbish, footballing loyalties aside, is irrelevant. As is the fact that Hull, which "won" the prize in the first book, is also completely shit as I can testify having spent last night there and driven back after a meeting today, perhaps not coincidentally taking an hour less to return than I did to get there.

Anyway. Sunderland. And rest assured, no shoddy research or half-baked assertions here...

This could prove quite a pivotal game for both sides; if Gillingham was very much the first game of the rest of the season and the win, however fortuitous, priceless for that, the fixture list - with added help from the FA Cup-driven postponement of the home game with Forest - now sees us with three consecutive away trips to Sunderland, Ipswich and Wolves. Nice. A poor run through these three and the following two games, Cov and Forest at home, won't seem nearly as appealing, particularly if the latest managers to hop off the Midlands merry-go-round have sorted stuff out by then. Get a half-decent haul out of the next three games, however, and everything will be very positive indeed.

Sunderland, meanwhile, have in a fairly low-key way edged themselves to the top of the bumbling inconsistent morass of clubs that lie in Ipswich and Wigan's wake as they themselves do a half-arsed and unconvincing job of running away with promotion.

The "Black Cats" (which still doesn't sound right, so I'm abandoning that forthwith) have five of their next seven at home, with Crewe in twelfth their highest-placed opponents in that spell as the Division Two stands. This is followed by a much trickier run of games in April. For them as us, the significance of the game is in its potential as a tone-setter for what follows.

Our hosts may have problems in goal; Mart Poom hasn't played since Sunderland visited the Vic in October due to a knee injury and isn't quite ready for a return. Meanwhile Thomas Myhre missed Norway's win in Malta with a shoulder complaint; he's expected to play, and in any event may just have been watching Hollywood Wives with the also "injured" Ryan Giggs, but eighteen year-old Ben Alnwick is nonetheless touted as a possible debutant on their official site.

At the back Stephen Wright, a scorer in this game last season, holds off the challenge of former Manchester United youngster Mark Lynch at right back with George McCartney on the left. In the centre, the first-choice pairing of Gary Breen and Stephen Caldwell hasn't been universally convincing, but are regarded highly enough by their manager to have been brought straight back into the side after injury for last Friday's draw at Wolves. New Welsh cap Danny Collins and former Dumbarton stopper Neill Collins both stepped down, one of the pair is likely to make the bench on Saturday.

In midfield, numbers are limited by injuries to Liam Lawrence (ankle), Colin Healy (broken leg) and winger Matt Piper (permanently injured), whilst John Oster has been forcibly removed and signed for Burnley. This leaves Carl Robinson and Jeff Whitley to form a tough but, again, not universally trusted central pairing; Robinson picked up a knock with Wales but is expected to be okay. Dean Whitehead, who seems to have impressed greatly since his summer move from Oxford, has been moved out to a not-quite-natural right-sided position. Julio Arca, now one of the longest-serving members of the first team, plays on the left but is reputed to have a tendency to fizzle out a bit at this time of the season. Sean "Tubby" Thornton started the Wolves game on the bench.

Up front, Stephen Elliott continues to win plaudits and made the Irish squad this week; he has twelve this season, including Sunderland's goal at the Vic in October. He should be partnered by Marcus Stewart, who has scored in the last two home games having not previously registered at the Stadium of Light since mid-August. Kevin Kyle is still out with a hip injury, so twenty year-old Chris Brown, prolific on loan at Doncaster last season, and Michael Bridges, who scored his first senior goal in four-and-a-half largely injured years at Stoke (of all places) in November, are the cover.

Sunderland away is always a good trip, but we've yet to get a league point here. Saturday would be a fine day to correct this statistic.