Sunday, 29 January 2012

No More Excuses - Let's Mackem Weep!

On Wednesday, Colin Young of the Daily Mail popped up with a sentimental piece about how Julio Arca's slightly unfortunate sending off had forced him to miss a game he'd been looking forward to for weeks. It's not often I truly sympathise with our own tippy-tappy Argentine Land Crab, but this article genuinely made me feel sorry for him. Then came Thursday and Harry Pearson's typically smart column on our now traditional post Christmas slump, before Friday offered Tony Mowbray's thoughts on what I'd already known for a while - how the loss of Nicky Bailey had affected both the balance and confidence of the entire squad.

Maybe promotion and cup success, a la 1997/98, is just not meant to be, you know? Injuries and a thin squad have bitten us just like in 1996/97, 1998/99, 2004/05... countless seasons, actually. But just when it seemed like I was on the verge of joining the Boro Pity Party again, I remembered something that I had written last May:

"Key players – including Redcar Rock David Wheater – forced to leave because of low funds, the same low funds that seriously limited Mogga’s activity in the transfer market. The low attendances at the Riverside getting no higher. Discovering new star men, like Bates, Bailey, Lita, Emnes and McDonald, and then losing them to injury or suspension not long after they really find their form. The concession of very late goals in matches Boro played well enough to win, like Doncaster away, Leeds away, Preston at home and Forest at home.

But Mogga did not let any of this get him or the team down. Rather than dwell on what could have been excuses for relegation if we were to go down, his team kept plugging away. And slowly but surely, the tide began to turn. Before long we were becoming the muggers instead of the mugged."

These are the words that I hope the team have kept in mind before today. To be honest, I've gotten sick of typing the words Nicky and Bailey again and again in my blog. We hammered Cardiff - automatic-promotion chasing Cardiff! - at their place towards the end of last season without Bailey or Matthew Bates in the squad. This game, and a certain other game from more than a decade ago, have given me renewed hope for today's match.

I've no doubt that the majority of pundits and armchair fans were forecasting a massive or easy win for Cardiff last season, or for Liverpool against us in the League Cup in 1998. After all, we had nothing to play for; Cardiff had automatic promotion at stake. Liverpool were near the top of the Premiership; our promotion campaign in the second tier was faltering (just like it is today) and we'd been outclassed by Arsenal just days before.

Yet I'll always remember how surprised I was to hear the Cardiff result, and how impressed I was by our performance against Liverpool. True, we deservedly lost 2-1 on the night, but the whole team, especially the defence, excelled. We really took the game to them in the first half an hour too, at times passing them off the park during that period. It all culminated in Craig Hignett's superb defence splitting pass for Paul Merson's unforgettable goal.

I'm not expecting similar miracles today. After all, Sunderland have picked up 16 points from their last eight games in the league. Martin O'Neill is performing his own kind of revolution up there, transforming the Black Cats into a well-organised side who last week offered "a masterclass in clinical finishing", according to Ron Clarke of The Sunday Times. That's enough to make any Boro fan wonder what might have been if O'Neill, and not Southgate, had taken the Boro job following Steve McClaren's departure. (If what I heard at the time was true, would it really have been too much of a stretch to allow him to bring his own backroom staff?) 

Today's game brings local appeal on both sides of the Irish Sea. O'Neill and Sunderland winger James McClean are both Derry men, like me. (Well, sort of - O'Neill was born in Kilrea, in County Londonderry) It'll also be a case of old friends reunited - Bates and Lee Cattermole, both members of our FA Youth Cup winning side in 2004. I've always been in two minds about Catts - he repeatedly got into trouble in the town while he was with us, so a move was probably best. But seeing what the two Steves, McClaren and Bruce, have gotten out of him, let alone O'Neill, makes me rue the fact that he could never really fulfil his potential with us. I partly put it down to Southgate's misuse of him (mostly on the bench, or on the right) and failure to keep him on a leash. Although I guess it was such a terrier-like attitude that brought him to everyone's attention during those dark days in the middle of 2005/06. And no one will forget his season-transforming tears during that Villa game. It's such commitment to the cause that really epitomises the new Sunderland.

Do we have a chance against them? Remarkably, yes we do. Being the underdogs in both the Cardiff and Liverpool games helped us immensely, and I've a sneaking feeling it might do so again today. The key, for me, will be to try and mug them rather than letting them mug us, as has happened so often in the past. The late sickeners for Liam Miller (2007), Daryl Murphy (2008) and Michael Chopra (2008 again), to name but a few, still leave a very bad taste in the mouth, especially after we dominated two of those three games.

What we need is someone to pull a rabbit out of the hat, like Emerson did in 1997. Hence, in my opinion, the starting line-up today should be a 4-3-2-1:

Steele/Coyne; McMahon, Bates, McManus, Bennett; Robson, Williams, Haroun; Halliday, Emnes; Jutkiewicz.

What better time for Rolls Rhys to show that he can haul us back into games again, like he did against Leicester last year? What chance Andy Halliday - don't laugh - to do another Ipswich? Both him and Marvellous Marvin (okay, I know he's out of form, but what other choice do we have?) can provide a creative outlet either side of the Juke, who really will be desperate to prove a point today. And, if things go wrong, we can always call on the services of Scott McDonald or Malaury Martin. Every player in this starting XI, barring the 'keepers, has shown themselves to be capable of scoring an important goal. That's what could make today so interesting.

The downsides, of course, are numerous. Neither Joe Bennett nor Marvin Emnes are playing anywhere near like we know they can play. The balance of the team, as Mogga said, has been upset. We haven't been really tested against top class opposition for a long time. It's quite possible we could suffer even more crucial injuries today, which we really don't need. (Who could forget 2007, when the Black Cats hacked Mido, Tuncay and Arca out of action in the same match?) And with Reading's win yesterday knocking us down into 5th in the league, it's likely our minds might be on other things.

But we've got nothing to lose whatsoever. And I'm really looking forward to it.

Let's Mackem weep!

No comments: