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FA Carling Premiership, 27/11/99
The sort of thing I don't mind
By Matt Rowson

"The strongest man upon the earth is he who stands most alone."
- Henrik Ibsen

"People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like."
- Abraham Lincoln

"Shelving. It's the new football."
- Ian Grant

Ibsen was wrong, of course. Mark Williams is the strongest man upon the earth. A veritable oak bookcase amongst shelving units, for those of you who have, like the esteemed editor of BSaD, sought solace in DIY during the recent fortnight's break. Capably as Steve Palmer has performed at the back over the last couple of games it'll be good to have the big guy back. The Niall Quinn threat that Willo was so unlucky not to completely negate at the Stadium of Light in August is one that will need countering.

As for Sunderland... well, I wouldn't go as far as to say that they're the sort of thing I like, but they're certainly the sort of thing I don't mind, which in the steaming cesspool of the Premiership is tantamount to the same thing. Certainly the unconvincing "big club" posturing and double-edged scorn heaped upon "the Skunks" draw here last Saturday are more than balanced out by the welcome we've enjoyed in the Wheatsheaf by the Stadium of Light for the past two years. One certainly feels that this is still a football club dressed up as a big business rather than a draughty, soulless structure only vaguely resembling a football club.

Saturday's is a fascinating game for all sorts of reasons. On the one hand, Sunderland were promoted with us last season. We beat them in an awesome, thunderous game at the Vic in January, the fallout from which is still evident in the tentative "what if we lose?" comments on the Ready To Go Messageboard. For all their early success, Kevin Phillips hasn't scored in three games, and missed two sitters on Saturday, and without the suspended Bould and Makin, the defensive unit doesn't look nearly as tough. We also gave them a good game at their place at the start of the campaign.

On the other hand... Sunderland are fourth, five places and seven points ahead of Chelsea, our last esteemed victims at home. They haven't lost an away game in five since an extremely unfortunate reverse at Elland Road, and defeat or otherwise played extremely well against Liverpool on Saturday. We'll also be facing a packed Vicarage Road end for the first time that I can remember.

In goal, the enormous Thomas Sorensen who won his first full cap for Denmark during the week. His cover is former Forest keeper Andy Marriott.

In defence, covering the suspended Makin at right back will be England U21 cap Darren Williams. On the left England international Michael Gray, who is, er, better going forward than he is at defending. In the centre, Paul Butler, now an Irish international, who will probably regret the effect he has had on Gifton's 1999 by the end of the game. In the absence of the influential Bould and the unsettled, on-loan and injured Thomas Helmer, Jody Craddock is likely to feature. Craddock was a regular two seasons ago but has played little since, and is prone to lapses in concentration - most recently against Michael Owen on Saturday. Another option is Darren Holloway, another England U21 cap who this season spent three months out recovering from a broken jaw sustained outside a night-club.

In midfield Sunderland welcome back Swedish player-of-the-year Stefan Schwarz and the veteran Kevin Ball from suspension. Other options are the unpleasant Alex Rae, former Everton man Gavin McCann and the creative Eric Roy, a recent 200,000 capture from Marseilles. Sunderland are still really missing out down the left, where Alan Johnston still fails to see eye-to-eye with Reid and is currently on-loan and on the bench at Birmingham. John Oster is suspended, although on the evidence of his game against us earlier in the year this is no great loss. Nicky Summerbee on the right, however, is in fine form and had a good game on Saturday.

Then the famous striking partnership, who have claimed the lion's share of Sunderland's goals this season between them. If truth be told, Sunderland may regret their reliance on Phillips and Quinn. The proportion of goals they score is high (they will lose form eventually) and Sunderland lack cover in attacking positions, although young Irishman Michael Reddy has made a good start to his career in this country, scoring the equaliser against Middlesbrough at the Riverside. Daniele Dichio has a back injury.

The warm reception that Phillips has been enjoying from Watford fans both at home and away has been the topic of some debate of late. For me he played his heart out for us, left us gracefully and for understandable reasons, and has never betrayed us since. His behaviour on the field has been impeccable and admirable - qualities, in fact, worthy even of an England captain.

On the other hand, were Phillips to turn up on Saturday and spend the game bitching at the referee and moaning at his team-mates, topping it all off with a pathetic penalty-seeking dive - behaviour, in fact, quite unbecoming of an England captain - I would pass judgement accordingly. I can't help feeling that the money I spent on my season ticket gives me that right.

A huge game. Again. A must-win. Again.

Football. Better than shelving.