Report by Matt Rowson
Every so often a fixture jumps out of the schedule which says "hey, come on, this would be REALLY stupid !". Last season it was Wrexham away midweek in freezing December.... this was also just such a game.
However, with a ticket purchased and a day-and-a-half booked off work, the decision was made. The journey up was relatively comfortable, and Bazelli, Felix and I arrived in Sunderland before five. The Stadium's white roof made it look like one of those repellent out-of-town shopping malls from a distance, but close up it is truly impressive. Molineux (henceforth Mos Eiseley) is a fine ground... this place is as smart, but twice the size !
A couple of friendly stewards pointed us towards the Wheatsheaf... a quick round of phone calls on Bazelli's mobile and within half an hour the place boasted a healthy Hornet contingent : Pete, Aidy, Simon Devon, and Rupe were amongst the party, with Rupe proudly displaying his lucky programme box, a trophy from Ashton Gate. And what a fine place !!! The Sunderland fans were plentiful and all in shirts, but we were basically welcomed, and made a lot of friends. Nobody seemed too keen to give us Superkev back, however. Pool games took place between the rival fans, and an Andy Capp lookalike tottered around informing us of his age, followed with "Just say 'you old c***'". Meanwhile, Rupe was telling anyone who would listen how his magic box was responsible for the holes in the net that City shot through on Saturday.
After a wander round Sunderland's superstore (which is as big as the Harlequin centre) we queued and entered the ground... a spacious bar area, huge loos (!) and a breathtaking arena, which filled quickly.
Those (and the inspired choice of Prokofiev's "Dance of the Knights" over the tannoy in the buildup) were the good bits. However, I was consistently reminded of an eye-opening evening I spent ten years ago at the Shea stadium in New York watching the Mets and the California Angels play baseball. You shouted when and what you were told to shout, you dutifully stood up for the Mexican Wave, and you ate popcorn. Sterile, emotionless crap, and about as close to fan culture as boiled cabbage.
At the Stadium of Light we had a tannoy deafening out any attempt at atmosphere before the game, and an excruciatingly awful singer before the match and at half time ("I wanna be a part of it... Sun-der-land"). The stewards patrolled like military police, and of course all goal celebrations (except our own, mercifully) were sunk beneath a barrage of "I Feel Good".
All this had quite an effect on the Sunderland support... noticeably, attempts at chanting were few and far between (although occasional and powerful surges of noise were common), and for most of the game the only consistent chorus came from the eight hundred Hornets out singing their thirty-six thousand hosts.
The other noticeable thing about the home fans was the transformation from friendly, welcoming individuals to a morass of bigoted arrogance, almost reminiscent of Old Trafford. As the game started, twice in the early stages first Mullin then Dichio crumbled pathetically in the box under challenge to shrieks from the home fans, only to be dismissed by the referee. The relief was undeniable, but you certainly felt that his resilience was being chipped away at, and so it was to prove later.
Watford, to our hosts' surprise, started far the stronger, and were the better side for about thirty minutes. Peter Kennedy, particularly strong in this early spell, broke in from the left and send a sizzling drive in hard and low, which was pushed round by Sorensen. Then we took the lead... Ngonge fed Smart who finished tidily into a gaping goalmouth. Cue silence around the stadium, bar one completely delirious corner. The next fifteen minutes were worth the whole lot... the trip, the money, everything. We sang, we danced, and Rupe held his box up in the air in exaltation.
Watford continued to press, with Ngonge and Smart having the same stretching effect on the surprisingly ropey Sunderland back line as they did on Bristol City on Saturday. Going forward, however, Sunderland were quite sublime, and some solid defending had been needed long before they got the breakthrough. Phillips released the excellent Johnston down the left and he cut inside before planting a superb curler inside the far corner. A great goal... and in Bazeleyesque fashion he was to spurn at least one good chance by attempting exactly the same trick later in the half.
The home side continued to press, but Watford were defending strongly before a decision that turned the game. Phillips tumbled over a clean challenge by Yates (prompting chants of "You're not so Super now") and from the resulting free kick, Summerbee drove hard and low through the wall and under the flailing Chamberlain. A bad wall, bad goalkeeping, but you couldn't help feeling hard done by... we didn't deserve to be behind, and the free kick shouldn't have been given (although to blame the ref was maybe harsh at this point... it would've have taken a strong man to resist the incessant Sunderland caterwauling).
Sunderland had the bit between their teeth now, and screamed forward, pulling our defence open with devastating use of their wide men. Just as we thought we'd made it to half time, Dichio flicked in a header at the far post to a cross from the left, leaving two defenders flailing and confused. 3-1 at half-time... hardly a fair reflection, but that's what happens when you take your chances.
With Hazan on for the disappointing Bazeley, we began to get some service from the right and again looked like causing the home defence some problems. Smart, in particular, was playing well, and nearly created a goal for himself when he ran onto a stray backpass and pushed the ball round Sorensen only to see his overhit push run out for a goal kick.
The Sunderland crowd, recovered from their early shock, began to compete with the Hornets now, and the referee had clearly given up any idea of a fair fight, with every decision going to the home side. Sunderland's killer fourth goal came with over twenty minutes remaining, apparently scored by Melville following another dubious free kick. The Watford defence, uncharacteristically, went ballistic at the decision to allow the goal, although from the opposite corner of the stadium it was hard to see why. Perhaps Peter Reid had sent his three subs, physio and tea lady on to hold down the Watford defenders... nothing would have surprised me by this point.
Sunderland took their foot off the pedal, and Watford threatened again, if only spasmodically. The one man still with the bloody mindedness to fight was the once again magnificent Johnson, dynamic for the ninety minutes. One sizzling twenty yarder hit the crossbar, whilst a set piece resulted in him piling a shot on goal from just outside the area, bringing a magnificent save from Sorensen.
It would be a cop-out to say the ref lost us the game (although he did spoil the second forty-five for me after what was a mighty game all round in the first half)... certainly Sunderland were the better side and deserved the points, but the less blinkered of their fans would acknowledge that they were flattered by the scoreline.
As we trudged out, still singing, and mentally preparing for the crawl out of Sunderland and long haul back down south in the drizzle, I noticed Rupe's box, abandoned and disconsolate, which summed up the afternoon. If Bristol City reminded us that Watford aren't actually that bad a side, this one was a reminder that we're not really that good either.
Not quite. Not yet.
The angel of the north
Report by Baz Barry
For the past week there has been a recurring and increasingly heated debate at Barry Acres about my sanity in driving for nine hours, over five hundred miles and taking time off work to see ninety minutes of football. 'Why not spend the time and money with your wife and children?' was the Social Secretary's main line of attack, closely followed by 'why risk life and limb on the dangerous British motorway system?'. I had flagged the day on the calendar more than a month ago but up until recently she thought Sunderland was "near Lincoln or Cardiff or somewhere" and "not next to bloody Scotland". Mind you, this is the woman who thought the Angel of the North is a metallic cow!
So it was somewhat alarming that the slumber queen should acknowledge my early morning return and genuinely enquire if I had a nice time. She was too soporific to take issue with my "Wonderful" reply.
What we are talking about here is a grand day out. More of the match later but these type of events need to be seen as a whole. A trundle up North catching up with the gossip, being shocked with Hoddle's appalling use of the spoken word during a Radio 5 interview (God help the players trying to understand what he's saying), playing some loud tunes, and sampling some cheap Northern beer. I wanted to pay homage to SuperKev, I wanted to see how we performed against the pre-season favourites, and I wanted to support The Boys at one of these new glory grounds. I wasn't disappointed on all accounts - well, two out of the three anyway.
The Stadium of Light is new, magnificent, impressive, stupendous, enormous. The statisticians will highlight the last time we played in front of that many fans, but it's exhilarating to be part of it. Surprisingly there was a lack of atmosphere, before and during the game. This is partly because their louder, more passionate fans don't seem to have a set area to congregate. Certainly a lot of the fans seem to stay in the concourse watching TV and supping their beers before taking their seats as the teams come out. More to point they had this over-amplification of an awful Karaoke singer for pre-match and half time entertainment. There was little space for the crowd to get going. But when the Roker Roar did get going it's deafening, frightening. They also used the PA after each goal ("I Feel Good" by James Brown) which counteracts any spontaneity. Before the game our little hero from Baldock collected some award. The whole crowd was as one in singing his praise and I was happy.
We agreed beforehand that our lot had to hold out for the first twenty minutes to have a chance. We didn't realise then that the first twenty would be the only time we really played before disappearing. Early on we countered them in every department. Robbo was about. Hyde and Johno were together again and looking good. Our goal came from a neat release from Johno to Ngonge down the inside left. A simple lay-off for Smart to coolly finish and we went mental. From then Page and Yates seemed to have trouble with the front two. Any fifty-fifty challenge seemed to go Sunderland's way. Our jumping wall charged down one free kick. They obviously saw this 'cos a second free kick went under the feet of the jumping wall and squirmed under Alec's late dive. That was their second goal just before half time. The earlier equaliser came from two of our players losing out to SuperKev in his own half who released Johnston who ran the length of our half without being closed down to finish with aplomb.
I'm convinced I saw the ref signal to the fourth official that there was no injury time way before they got the corner to get the third goal. A cross to the back post headed back for the slimy, cheating, diving Dichio to finish. Not very impressive defending which was repeated down the other end for the fourth goal but that time from another dubious free kick. It's rare to see that Hornet players have a go at the officials but they were clearly not happy about something after the fourth goal went in.
Their goalie made a super save to a second half deflected Johno effort but really he had little to do all game. Alec likewise, in terms of saves, but how ironic to have his worst game for the Horns in living memory, ever, at a club where he is fondly remembered.
And that was it as a game. We held them at bay and they weren't interested in any more music. All seem to agree the score flattered them. We performed well for a quarter of the game. Three of their goals came from poor defending at set pieces. Two of the decisions were debatable.
GT was quoted as saying he'll learn more from this game than the Bristol win (which I didn't see). He'll now know Johno is crucial to the team and, on this performance, he and Hyde can hold their own. Later on they seemed to persist in trying to create things through the packed middle which is frustratingly ineffective. Of others, Robbo started well and Palmer finished well. Smart looked bright early on but became increasingly static before being subbed. The Gift was ineffective. It was my first view of Ngonge and I reserve judgement even if he did get caught offside too often. Kennedy looked better. I worry for Hazan, he was off the pace for the forty-five minutes he was on, replacing an anonymous Bazeley. I suspect we missed Millen and bizarrely, Jason Lee. He used to help with defending at set pieces and, in retrospect, I'm sure our defending for two of their goals would have benefited from that sort of influence.
Their fans started to leave ten minutes before the end and the ground was two thirds empty at the end. Not surprising judging by the nightmare we endured in trying to get away afterwards. Bizarrely, we weren't downhearted on the way home. We were living off the buzz of the occasion and the few plusses of the performance.
On clambering into bed, Mrs B also muttered something about being sorry we lost. Extraordinary in itself because she's never looked up the result before my return. I confidently replied "It doesn't matter" because we'd worked out that Smart's goal kept us in fourth place, letting in four doesn't matter, and if Sunderland pip us to the post on goals scored than we'll know it will have been a good season.
And the Angel of the North? It's further up the A1 and will have to wait for Newcastle in the Cup (or the Premiership in three years time) to see it.
See also: The Executive Club Website, Sunderland Unofficial