Sunderland relief after victory over Fulham

Neutral? Not flaming likely. Pete Sixsmithmay have been in a part of Craven Cottage described as such but it is unlikely that many around him gained the impression he couldn’t really care less about the outcome … 

“Thank goodness for that”, was the collective thought (“goodness” possibly wasn’t the word they were thinking of – ed) as the many Sunderland fans trooped out of Craven Cottage into a chill autumn night. Three points and three goals meant the journey home was a relative pleasure, even if the train was dry and the hour of arrival late.

It rounded off a good day and nudged me as to why I go to away games. A train trip away is a comparative rarity nowadays and it was grand to sit back, read the papers and watch York, Doncaster, Newark etc glide by as the train took the strain, as a certain unmentionable Radio 1 DJ used to say.

We spent an enjoyable couple of hours in a rather disappointing White Horse at Parsons Green catching up with friends not seen for a while and drooling over the plates of pink beef being devoured by a large Spanish speaking family. This was followed by a brisk walk and taxi ride to Craven Cottage, where Monsieur Salut and I were in the Neutral Zone, where tickets were a fiver courtesy of a helpful Fulham season ticket holder (one of my daughter Nathalie’s football teammates, Carley, to whom thanks and commiserations – ed).

I find the concept of a neutral zone bizarre. I can’t imagine one at our ground or at Goodison or even at the Sports Direct, where the very words neutral are met with disdain.

As it was there was a mixture of Sunderland fans, Fulham irregulars and a variety of Japanese, American and Russian tourists who wanted to experience a Premier League game but who couldn’t or wouldn’t fork out to the touts at Spurs, Arsenal or Chelsea. We all gathered in the Putney End on temporary seats that have been there for longer than temporary.

The first half was worth approximately 10 per cent of the fiver.

We looked little better than we have all season until Hangeland decided to out-Cattermole Cattermole with a tackle that might have been legitimate back in the days of Dickie Rooks but is a sure red card in this more pampered and less brutal age.

As he trudged off the field (receiving a fraternal hand shake from our captain), we began to believe we could turn the corner, kick start the season and get the campaign back on the rails – all metaphorically speaking.

We had a couple of half chances as did Fulham, but a passing Pennsylvanian or a holidaying Honshuer would not have been particularly impressed by what he or she saw.

The second half was far better as MON’s instructions to squeeze and force them into errors were clearly followed as were his directions to run at them and take advantage of the ponderous Phillipe Senderos, a man so statuesque that he puts the iconic Michael Jackson memorial outside the ground to shame.

Adam Johnson, branded by me as potentially the biggest flop since Torre Andre Flo, is now beginning to make me eat my words – and I am delighted to be able to do so. It was his wonderful 60-yard pass to Fletcher that allowed the Scot to go on, control the ball with a lovely first touch and send it scudding into Schwarzer’s net.

The bleatings of a neutral behind who complained that we stood up as Fletcher moved into the box, meaning that he had not seen the goal, were met with snorts of derision from those of us who still believe that football is about passion and support – something that Craven Cottage, for all its charm and friendliness, clearly lacks.

To make for a more interesting afternoon for the Texan tourists and the Vladivostok visitors, we stood back and allowed Fulham to equalise, before Johnson’s excellent corner was met by a thumping header from Carlos Cuellar.

No dawdling this time and we brought the ball out of defence with pace and determination before Sess opened his account for the season with a spectacular strike, which the vacationing Virginians in the crowd would have loved – but not half as much as we did.

In the interests of entertaining those on jaunts from all points of the compass (and Horden), we gave Fulham opportunities to get back into the game and Mignolet made a pair of very good saves which must have finally eradicated the doubts that some still had about his abilities. He is a very good goalkeeper now and, if he continues to improve, will become an outstanding one.

It was not a particularly fluid performance, but our flair players built on their much improved showing of last week. Johnson was outstanding and looked comfortable in all that he did and although Sess is not quite as influential as he was, we all hope that the goal sparks him off again.

We have good players. Mignolet, Cattermole, Johnson, Sessegnon and Fletcher would be worth a place in any Premier League side. The central defenders are steady and Danny Rose, when he stops giving the ball away, has the makings of a decent full back.

A few pints in Mabels Tavern was followed by a voyage of discovery into the very impressive new Kings Cross, a vast improvement on the old one and its passable impersonation of a terminal in Belarus or Moldova. A large police presence was there to stop anyone smuggling a can or bottle aboard and we pulled out on time. Despite one travelling  companion’s attempt to flood the table with coffee, it was an uneventful trip.

I have suffered for it today, having foolishly not booked a day off as had a couple of pals. But I was able to wear my traditional white shirt and SAFC tie for only the second time this season; I hope to be wearing it a lot more as the season progresses.