San Marino or Sunderland? Edging closer to the drop

Seven full internationals started for Sunderland against Norwich City. Pete Sixsmithcould be forgiven for wondering whether it was San Marino they had all played for until the manager decided they weren’t quite up to it. This is not the place to come on if your spirits need lifting. It is, however, as incisive an analysis of what is wrong at Sunderland as you’ll find  …

Thank goodness that weekend is over. Work will seem a welcome release after sitting through two games that were as exciting as a plank warping contest at a paint drying convention.

Alloa Athletic and Brechin City didn’t matter much as John Penman and I traversed the back lanes of Fife and Clackmannanshire looking for a game. Brechin managed a single goal, the Wasps not one in a game that was of little significance.

 

Fast forward 22 hours and there I was at the Stadium of Light telling Katy Gornall and a Late Kick Off camera crew that I was confident that we would win, that a win would settle our nerves and that relegation was a worry rather than a fear.

That was at 12.45. When I spoke to her again at 3.30pm, the optimism had gone the same way as the fleeting Sunday morning sunshine and, as cold rain began to fall, a cold chill crept along my spine as I remembered past relegations that looked unlikely.

For make no mistake, we are down among the dead men, where the brave prosper and the weak go under. The Darwinian end of the Premier League is one we have flirted with in the past but have had sufficient quality and spirit to stay out of. This time, we appear to be lacking both.

This was a truly dreadful display where the players seemed to have little idea of how to win it and also little inclination to go that extra mile. Not one of them did anything to enhance his reputation and some did themselves more harm than good with sloppy, lazy performances that had the crowd gasping at the ineptitude of it all.

The goal we gave away was indicative of our slipshod approach to this vital game. A needless corner was given away. A routine defensive header was missed from the cross, allowing Kamara to flick the ball on. Hoolahan (all of 5ft 6ins) was unmarked in the box and headed home.

Training ground routine for Norwich, absolute shambles for us. Does anybody look around and say “Who’s got him?”

Does anyone in our defence take any responsibility for marking and picking up? Do we practise defending corners? Probably not, as we don’t appear to have anybody who can take an accurate one. Awful.

We were handed a lifeline a few minutes later when their keeper was sent off for handball outside the box. Looked a good call by Chris Foy to me but we hardly took advantage of it as Norwich just worked that bit harder to make up the one man deficiency.

And if that helping hand wasn’t enough, Bassong then gave away a penalty which Gardner converted with the kind of authority that was so missing in our general play.

The second half exposed all of our weaknesses. There was a complete lack of pace and creativity from our midfield. Vaughan and Larsson were dreadful, turning back all the time, misplacing passes and never once looking as if they could get the better of depleted opponents.

Sessegnon was back to his form of the autumn where he looked like the 234th best player in Benin, while Johnson had a few decent touches but crossing reminiscent of Brian Usher or Tony Cullen on a bad day. He was taken off again and must be beginning to see his international career (and Premier League one) going down the pan.

Up front Graham and Fletcher, who we hoped could be footballing equivalent of Morecambe and Wise or Fry and Laurie, were more like Mike and Bernie Winters, who once appeared at the Glasgow Empire, a notorious graveyard for London based “comics”. After Mike’s opening routine had had all the impact of a Seb Larsson corner, Bernie appeared on stage, prompting a Glaswegian, intoxicated by Bucky and filled up with Tunnock’s Snowballs to utter the immortal line “F****** hell, there’s two of the b*******”.” After today, I know how the inebriated Glaswegian felt.

Graham missed a good chance just before the end of the first half, while Fletcher did very little and was comfortably shackled by one Michael Turner.

The returning Turner looked positively world class compared with the three central defenders that we fielded. John O’Shea must surely be the worst passer of the ball to have played for Sir Alex Ferguson. For the umpteenth game he gave it away so regularly that we began to think he suffers from colour blindness and has a visual block about anything in red and white stripes.

Carlos Cuellar did ok and continued to show that he is very good at recovering from slips, errors and misplaced passes. Of course, we could ask why he makes those errors in the first place thereby obviating the need to recover so well.

And then there is Titus Bramble, who came on in the second half and summed up this half hearted, ragged, incoherent squad with a performance that contained both the sublime and the ridiculous. Two thundering tackles and a couple of strong headers were cancelled out by allowing Grant Holt almost to win it for City, and a series of aimlessly booted clearances that would have been better suited to Cockton Hill Rec and the Wear Valley Sunday League.

Where do we go now? The prospects are not good. The next four games are difficult verging on the impossible. Should that grim prediction prove to be correct, we will be in the bottom three and heading for a one way ticket to Palookaville.

The paucity of our squad is now being well and truly shown up. The poor buys that Steve Bruce made combined with the disappointing ones that O’Neill has brought to the club (only Fletcher and Rose of his signings were there at the end) leaves us with a squad that is a long way short of genuine Premier League quality.

We have eight games left to save the top-flight place that we won back six years ago. Southampton and Stoke should be winnable games. But the mood around the place is an unhappy one and the crowd have had enough of these turgid, tiresome tactics. I can’t see the Season Ticket Renewal staff getting much overtime this year.

And if we do stay up, what do we do next season? Does the owner stick with O’Neill or does he say “Thanks very much” and start yet another search for the visionary who will lead us back to the Promised Land?

I wish I knew.