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BLIND, STUPID AND DESPERATE
 
99/00: Reports:

FA Carling Premiership, 10/8/99
Sunderland
versus
Watford
 
An easy three points
By Matt Rowson

Arcade games. Super Kick-Off, Virtua Striker... the suckers-up of every pound coin in my pocket every time I stop at a service station. The bane of my life, and of those stuck wandering around looking at maps of the country's Welcome Break locations whilst they wait.

Every now and again you come across a machine with a dodgy set of controls, knackered by the excesses of the likes of me after too many years of service. Left in action by unscrupulous service-station managers, only when your pound coin has been eaten do you discover that your joystick is knackered and your defenders can only run stiltedly in one direction.

I was reminded of this problem when watching Match of the Day on Saturday. Sunderland's first tentative step into the fast lane saw them flattened by the Chelsea express, and become the first victims of Alan Hansen's withering defensive analysis. On the face of it, their humiliation (which Peter Reid conceded could easily have been more emphatic) illuminated the much-publicised difference in class between the Premiership and the Nationwide League.

But quite honestly, it's not that simple. For starters, Chelsea are hardly your average Premiership side... they're pretty handy, as it goes, and plenty of Premiership sides will be cut to pieces by them this season. Secondly, as Graham Taylor pointed out after Watford's defeat on Saturday, cack defending is cack defending whichever division you're in. Sunderland wouldn't have run away with the First Division defending like that.

There have been significant changes in the Sunderland playing staff over the summer. Lee Clark wrote off his Sunderland career with an imbecilic wearing of an anti-Sunderland T-shirt whilst watching the Cup Final with Newcastle fans. He is now back in Division 1 with Fulham.

Michael Bridges and Allan Johnston were both ostracised from the squad by Peter Reid in retaliation to some fashionably outrageous pay demands. Bridges has left for Leeds; Johnston looks set to follow him out. This is a brave move by Reid, but he must hope that it won't backfire on him. The Sunderland midfield without Clark and Johnston (certainly without new signing Stefan Schwarz) looks pedestrian at best, and without Bridges the cover for Sunderland's front pair appears limited.

In goal will be Thomas Sorensen, the enormous Dane who made such an impression last season. Amongst the names suggested to be replacing his compatriot Peter Schmeichel at Old Trafford, Sorensen's Premiership debut was inglorious, as he unnecessarily gifted Chelsea an opening goal.

On the right side of defence is Chris Makin, a one-time member of the Olympique de Marseilles renaissance. On the left, England cap Michael Gray is a good attacking fullback, but his effectiveness appears to have been reduced by the removal of Johnston.

In the centre, Saturday saw Steve Bould partnered with Paul Butler. Bould, one of the three hundred and twenty six players "strongly linked" with the Hornets over the summer, looked horribly out of sorts on Saturday. Butler will not be the Hornets' favourite person having reacted to Gifton making an arse of him at Vicarage Road in January by putting him out of the game until later this year. Another option, who may well get a run-out on Tuesday following Saturday's experience, is German international Thomas Helmer.

In midfield, the most effective contribution on Saturday was from Nicky Summerbee on the right wing. An unpopular player at Maine Road, he has resurrected his career and established himself at the Stadium of Light. The centre of midfield, the long-serving Kevin Ball is in his testimonial season, whilst the unpleasant Alex Rae will surely be another to get stick from the travelling support. Schwarz's absence was much mourned at the weekend... it's not known whether he'll feature against the Hornets. A fashion-victim's Richard Johnson, German-born Swedish international Schwarz has experience in Italy and Spain. Another new arrival, Dane Carsten Fredgaard, is extremely quick, but hasn't impressed in his early appearances pre-season.

On the left on Saturday was youngster Chris Lumsden, but his impact was minimal and he was subbed at half-time after a "lightweight" first half showing. His replacement, ex-Everton man Gavin McCann, is a stronger option, but that place in the side seems ultimately destined for another ex-Evertonian, new signing John Oster.

Up front, Niall Quinn and Superkev form a very effective partnership, but Quinn will miss Johnston's supply from the left. Whether Daniele Dichio forms adequate cover seems doubtful.

Before the start of the season, this appeared to be the last opening away fixture we could have wanted. Sunderland will be keen to win their opening home fixture, and following January's game they are unlikely to underestimate the Hornets. Following the Chelsea game, Sunderland will be even more desperate to record a win... but if we can hold out for half an hour, or grab an early goal, Saturday's doubts will come flooding back.

Add to this the surprising comments on the "Ready To Go" messageboard lauding Tuesday as an easy three points for the home side, and Tuesday is suddenly less intimidating. Imagine the confusion of those bleating for Reid to spend some "serious money" if the Rokerites are beaten by a side costing 600,000....