Another Sunderland AFC Season -Black Cats Rejoice!

I have to admit it, I wasn’t very keen on the hiring of Big Sam.  To be honest though, we have seen ourselves struggle to get a top notch manager that would come in to change the culture and mentality of the club.

Certainly Martin O’Neill led the Red and White Army through the rough battleground of the Premier League as best he could but for most fans it wasn’t enough.  At some point, the time had to come when someone bigger than life had to come along and take the reins.

The PDC saga left us all wondering what the hell we had just experienced.  (Do we really have to visit that bloody scene?)

I’m not going to say that Poyet leading the “Gus Bus” wasn’t a thrill ride that left us clinging to our seats with white knuckles.

We all thought Sunderland had built something when General Advocaat rolled into Wearside with a suit on ready to lead the troops onto the pitch.

However, as much as I love this club, I spent most of last season wondering just whether it was going to end exactly the way it began the season before.  Is it going to be the same damn pattern every year?  High hopes dashed against the rocks as the ship swirls into some murky undercurrent while the team tries to swim to shore?  Was the General going to lead us out of the relegation sweepstakes that we’d been so accustomed to for what seems like eternity?

Again we all ended up shattered.  Another manager leaves the revolving door that has been affixed to the Stadium of Light outside of the manager’s office.  In comes Big Sam to save the day like Danger Mouse, when he foiled Baron Greenback’s plans.  (Yeah I grew up watching it but I don’t like the remake).  Save the day he did – but we are stuck in this terrible spiral of relegation like a runaway tornado.  Four years and four relegation battles, each one feeling more and more destined.

Yes, I will give you the fact that every pre-season there is hope.  Everyone starts with a clean slate.  All points are wiped off the board.  The seats at the SOL get a fresh coat of paint, the grass is pristine and the game has that “welcome back” feel.  A couple of games in and the old guard sees the writing on the wall.  The hope goes out with last week’s trash.

On my trip to the Sunderland game in Toronto last year I learned a lot about what it’s been like to have been at Sunderland matches for years and years.  The same things that I feel but multiplied by seasons and seasons.  It’s not that we don’t love our team, because we do.  We love the Red and White stripes.  We love the Stadium.  We love the history.  We love the rivalry with our neighbors.  We love our mascots (at least some of us do!).  We love this team so much it gets in our blood.  That’s what it comes down to.

Lately however, these patterns have appeared.  We can see the signs.  “Danger.”  “Turn back.”  “Relegation ahead.”  Or we see stretches of terrible luck like someone broke every mirror in the North East.  The questions we always ask never get answered or the answers we never like.  We come with hope and leave with promises of a better year next season.  Do we wish for too much?  Do we wish for not enough?  At the end of the 2010-2011 season, we were all talking about Europe and pushing for a spot in continental play.  Five years later we are just hoping to keep a hold of a Premier League spot.  I suppose it’s true that football shows no mercy and fortunes fade.

Another season beckons us with open arms asking us to forget our reservations and celebrate the coming joy, drama and doubt.  Another season of Sunderland football, what more could we ask for?…I don’t know…maybe a new guy up front or….

Revolving Doors

It’s a great day when Sunderland wins and it’s an even better day when Sunderland manages to beat one of the top four names in the Premier League (Man U, Man City, Arsenal or Chelsea).

This past weekend they managed to do both when they beat Man U 2-1 under new boss Sam Allardyce.  Allardyce had been in charge since October of 2015, registering only 16 points for the club before being able to magically swing these points to the Black Cats.   Allardyce took over for former head man Dick Advocaat who had been on a one year contract but changed his mind on the deal and left the club holding the bag.

I don’t blame Advocaat for changing his mind, I know that he took a lot of the job to heart, the man cried when he saved the team from relegation. I’m sure his agreement to come back in the summer of 2015 saved the team from another disaster.  I can’t imagine the scramble they would have been in trying to procure someone at that stage to manage; trying to pick up the pieces and try to recruit players at the same time.  He was able to help secure some new blood into the side and give the squad some hope that going forward there would be less drama in the coming season.

I didn’t take the resignation of Dick Advocaat lightly, he was the second man to take the club to safety from the clutches of relegation however I know that at times coaching changes have to happen.  Anymore I’m afraid that Sunderland are going to have to change their name to the “Revolving Doors.”

Coaching changes occur at what seems like a frequent pace in Sunderland,  Steve Bruce left the club on November 30, 2011 and we’ve seen four managers since him, not to mention twice having caretakers in charge in the span. The door revolved from Steve Bruce to Martin O’Neill to Paolo “managing with a hand grenade” Di Canio to “the Gus Bus” Poyet on up to Sam Allardyce.

On the same day that Sunderland beat Man U, the Minnesota Wild of the NHL fired their manager Mike Yeo who had been in charge since the 2011-2012 season.  Yeo had lead the team to three consecutive playoff appearances during that span however the team spiraled out of control this year losing 13 of the last 14 games that he was in charge.  Throughout those years when Minnesota had issues they never fired him, they made a change in players and it seemed to “work” or the team would come together at the right time.

The 2013-2014 campaign was a test of management’s faith in Yeo, as the rumors swirled many times that he would be let go but the team came together as the season wore on to make a playoff push.  In the 2014-2015 season they brought in goalie Devan Dubnyk prior to the trade deadline to try to fix a record of 18-19-5 and finished 46-28-8.  Yeo however could never find a way throughout those three playoff appearances to get past the Chicago Blackhawks, getting knocked out every year by them(2013 in the 1st round, 2014 in the 2nd, 2015 in the 2nd).  Superman always had his kryptonite, Yeo had the Blackhawks.

Both hockey and soccer are alike in that not only do you need consistency at the top with management and coaching but you need the players all throughout your squad to play at their best.  You need depth and quality throughout the team from the top lines to the fourth line in hockey and from the starting 11 to your bench in soccer.

Sunderland has seen it’s fair share of highs and lows over this span of coaching changes and you can’t say it’s all been on one side or the other: players or coaches.  What you can say is that when it comes to quality and consistency the play hasn’t always been there.  The defense might have an “out of it’s mind” game with the goaltending providing stellar saves, the midfielders and attackers can’t provide enough to threaten the other side or vice versa.  Plus there hasn’t always been enough sitting on the bench to provide firepower if an injury occurred or if the game was getting away from the team.  Players get out of form and the team has been forced to play them because there hasn’t been someone to step in and take over that was of similar quality.  In many ways that has been the result of poor signings, injuries and players not living up to their abilities.  However that happens with every team, it just seems that some luck would have been nice somewhere along the lines.

With Yeo’s Wild, they had issues scoring in the playoffs once they got there.  In 2015 against the Blackhawks, who would go on to win the Cup, they scored 7 goals through 4 games – that’s not going to win you many playoff series in the NHL unless you have Patrick Roy or Martin Brodeur in net (or maybe Jocelyn Thibault – hey no one really knows).    In 2014, they scored 13 goals through 6 games which was a bit more respectable, but they were facing the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks.  In 2013, they scored 7 goals through 5 games against the Blackhawks who go on to win the Cup.  Obviously if you can’t capitalize on your chances and if you don’t have all four lines rolling in the playoffs you aren’t going to last long which is what we see with the Wild.

I brought up NHL.com’s team stats section on 2/16/16 prior to the Wild’s game against Calgary to fully explore Minnesota’s problem and it seems pretty evident.  Goals for per game: 2.50 vs. Goals allowed per game 2.50.  The Wild currently have a record of 24-22-10 for a .5178 win percentage and that comes after they won 5-2 in their new coach, John Torchetti’s first game in charge.  If you can’t score more than you let in you aren’t going to win, plain and simple.  The power play currently ranks 23rd and the penalty kill ranks 25th; out of 30 teams it shows that the depth simply isn’t there.  You can only change systems and tactics so much but when your top scorer has 38 points through 56 games and doesn’t crack the top 50 scorers on NHL.com you know that your team needs scoring help.

It’s not a judgement of the scouting of the Wild or the organization so much as it is to say that maybe Yeo wasn’t the one who should have been let go.  It’s possible that this team has been full of smoke and mirrors for some time and now it is all shining through.  The players the team is leaning on are either too young to carry the team or are not capable and unfortunately clubs let the coach take the fall in this situation rather than admit their defeat.  It happens all the time and it will continue to happen as long as there are professional sports leagues.

Meanwhile in Sunderland someone is trying to figure out exactly where the revolving door should be put outside the stadium.

 

 

Captaining the S.S. Sunderland 

I read a headline that Sunderland’s managerial process was like a roulette table and it’s starting to spin up again.  The problem is I’m not sure who has their bets down.  I don’t know who is set to win if anyone because we’ve all put our chips on red and the wheel is coming up black.

I thought captain Dick had the S.S. Sunderland upright but now it seems we are sinking again.  One crew rows out and another rows in to try to bail out the ship, only it seems we just tread water for another season til another set of hands come along.  I can’t help but applaud the efforts of all those who kept the ship afloat.

So as the ship drifts on through the seas still taking on water without a captain to help bail it out, I look to find out why it is so difficult to keep from ever reachin port. I know we have this fancy looking hull, these deckhands that we continue to spend money on and it seems like there is an engineering and nautical structure in place.

However I only I know what I see from the outside, I’ve never boarded the ship with the captain or the deckhands or anyone else running it.  It is like watching a duck on a pond, it looks so effortless but in reality it’s legs are kicking wildly to move it.  I’m no expert on how the S.S. Sunderland works nor do I claim to be.  The only experts are those on the ship and those who are involved in running the ship.  We outsiders can criticize and yell and scream because that is our right to but that doesn’t make us experts.  Until we get into that engine room or the wheelhouse we have no idea what the problems truly are and we are merely speculating.

Truly though, I feel bad for the players at the club.  Once again, it’s another change in philosophy and another change in who is calling the shots.  I can’t imagine if every year my supervisor was changed at the drop of a hat like this and I had thousands of people judging and watching my every move.  Yeah I know I’m part of it too but I try to be a bit compassionate and at least put myself there and not be too harsh and cut some slack.  These are my Lads and your Lads and we all want to see the S.S. Sunderland make it to port without sinking.  I don’t know who will captain her, but I do know I’ll be supporting her…Ha’way the Lads!

Holding Put For A Win

Back in the 80’s Bonnie Tyler was holding out for a hero, at this point I’m just holding out for a Sunderland win, because I’m not sure when it’s gonna happen. 

I realize that before the end of the past transfer window Ellis Short dumped more money into the club in an attempt to reignite the fortunes of the Lads and fuel the team to jump off to victory.  So far so terrible.  But as we’ve seen lately, such has been the case in previous seasons as well, these terrible starts that lead to relegation battles at the end with skin of our teeth survival stories.  Hopping on the Gus Bus and fighting for survival with management by hand grenades or even following Dick to the promised land.  This has been our legacy for many years.  I mean, this is what I’ve come to understand.  

Unfortunately, instead of being able to put some money in new blood to prepare for the future we’ve had to use it to win now.  We are paying for it again this year, but it might have caught up with us in a way that I don’t know if we can pull back from.  With the years advancing on John O’Shea’s frame, we can’t rely on him to be the rock that he has been for years.  That being said, Kaboul and Coates can’t pick up that mantle and do what he does.  Putting both of them together back there doesn’t work either.  If years ago we would have been able to invest in a central defender to be his successor then this would not be a problem.  With the issues of trying to play men out wide that aren’t able to shut down their men on the wings, you have to have someone strong in the middle and Sunderland doesn’t have that.  One of the other things that I question is the use of the lone striker.  I am not sure that it’s working.  With what Dick has, they aren’t keeping the ball and the team is being stretched and losing position, turning the ball over and fighting too hard to keep it out of their own net.  I think it’s been too hard to keep possession and we’ve seen so many changes because players aren’t suited for the tactics he wants to run but he won’t change up or try to work something for what he has.  Play two guys up top.  Play Defoe in the central part of the park and let him distribute, we’ve barely seen him play as that attacking midfielder/creative forward that can get others involved.  He still has the ability to do that.  I think also he could play behind Borini who could be the central forward, why not try it?  What is there to lose?  At this point we have to find something on offense to gain an advantage because the typical isn’t doing it. Shake it up.  Once it starts rolling it is going to keep rolling.

There’s a spark there somewhere, it just has to be found.  I’m not one of those people that is going to tell you I’m questioning why I’m a fan.  I don’t question it.  I know we are going through some bad luck.  It seems to happen.  But I’ll be here and holding out for that win.

Jozy 2.0?

I hesitate to write this, for a multitude of reasons, and I’m certain by the time you’re done reading you’ll understand why. I’m on the fence when it comes to 22 year old DeAndre Yedlin, not that I don’t think that he’s talented, but because I believe Jurgen Klinsmann’s hands on him will no doubt cause trouble.
Yedlin came to my attention during “our Jozy World Cup,” when all my Sunderland mates made Jozy trend on Twitter during the United States run in the World Cup. While multitudes of Americans jammed open air parks and stadiums to watch the games on jumbo screens I sat in my chair and hoped to see Klinsmann fall on his face while Tweeting about Jozy. Bad me I know.
My history with Klinsmann’s running of the American National Team is long and jaded. I’ve long believed that the two men before him put into place something that he has taken credit for. Now he’s just running blind.
Without Tim Howard, the last World Cup would have been a complete disaster. His record number of saves in a World Cup game, just proved to me that Klinsmann had no idea of what he was doing. Leaving Landon Donovan at home also further proved that point. But hey, I’m just a writer, he’s the guy that gets paid millions to put together a team to go out there and play. I guess someone believes more in him than me.
As for that World Cup, he put DeAndre into the Portugal game in the 72nd minute and Yedlin’s pace was on display. In fact nine minutes in he set up what looked like former Tottenham and Fulham man Clint Dempsey’s winner in the 81st minute. But Varela would find an equalizer in the waning minutes of extra time ending the denying the United States’ hope of qualifying for the next round at that time.
Yedlin would come on again against Germany and play with athleticism and quickness from his fullback spot. He would also come in against Belguim in the round of 16. All of these appearances attracted the eyes of scouts who had not seen him playing in the MLS. Suddenly Premier League teams were jumping to sign him to a contract.
He made a debut for Tottenham on April 11, 2015 against Villa but it really remains to be seen what will happen in the first team for DeAndre. He’s far from polished and it’s certain that he will need time to settle in. What I can imagine is that Advocaat will put him on one wing and van Aanholt on the other wing and push the ball down the sides. Since both are pretty good on moving it forward not as good on the defensive side, he will rely on the central defenders and players like Toivonen, Catts, Rodwell and M’Vila to pressure the opposition and win the ball back so it can be pushed down the wide areas. Maybe he links up with Fab on the right side and they go down that wing, it could be a deadly partnership, flipping in crosses to Fletch.
It’s interesting because I hadn’t heard DeAndre’s name for a while, since his transfer to Tottenham and he seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle. He was big on the scene after the World Cup but it seems that Advocaat’s scouts dug deep on this one if he truly is looking for someone to play wide and play quick and force the action on the wings.
He’s still an enigma as far as the Prem and could be a Jozy 2.0 as for what Sunderland is getting. Although Jozy had already had one stint in the Prem where he didn’t prove it, I thought he would make it better. I guess his game has been suited better for the MLS where he’s scored 10 goals in 19 games played.
Prepare yourselves Mackems…the American invasion 2.0 is beginning again, “forcing themselves to be Sunderland” fans again. Don’t get me started. I’ll never make fans this way but I don’t much care. They’re still pissed over the Jozy experiment. If you can’t make it you can’t make it. It happens. I suppose we’re all supposed to agree it was because he was left all alone on his own and never got service but now in the MLS he gets all the service he needs and it’s not because he was out of his depth? Huh. I suppose I’ll grab my kicks and go line up for the Cats then I can say that I never got service when I fail to even get the ball because I’m completely out of my depth and when my shot doesn’t even get the keeper to move it will be because I never got service. Funny.
You can’t make people happy. You never will. All I know is I love this team. I’m going to support this team. I am going into the DeAndre deal with an open mind like I did the Jozy deal. But don’t ask me to always play nice, you can’t just jump on the bandwagon and then jump off when someone “doesn’t get service.”

Black Cats, Big Wallets and Borini

I woke this morning to the sight of a new alert on my phone: “Breaking – Sunderland have completed the move of Fabio Borini for a reported 8 million fee.” Say what? Fab is back? You don’t say? His famous goal celebration is back? The man who led the charge to Wembley is back? Nah. I don’t believe you. But there it is on SAFC.com. He’s holding the ball in the official picture.
We’ve had a rough couple of weeks opening up in the Prem. A couple of supporters have called for more heads than Marie Antoinette, you’d think there was a guillotine stationed outside the Stadium of Light. Ellis Short, Dick Advocaat and nearly every player, manager, trainer and club official that could be found was lining up to be chopped after the first two games. But you don’t get dropped down to the Championship after the first two games.

In fact the calls were so bad that Short decided to come out and re-iterate his position as owner in the club’s matchday program. For a man who doesn’t speak much to the media or give many interviews, this was a pretty amazing feat. I have said before though, Short does love this club and he does engage with fans and there’s no doubt in my mind that he’s not in this club to take, he’s in this club to make it better.
We’ve also seen that Advocaat is trying to piece together a line up that can score goals and defend. After successive defeats to Leicester and Norwich where the team gave up 4 goals and 3 goals respectively, he dug in deep to try to find the right combination to stop the bleeding. You know the old saying about keeping your head while everyone around them is losing theirs? Apparently in this case it meant trying to stay away from the fans with the SOL guillotine.

Coming back from those two defeats we’ve seen the Cats play better defensively although, I still re-iterate that those damn corners are a problem. I don’t know what it is or why it is, but those corners are going to be the downfall. It keeps coming back to haunt the team seemingly in every game.
As for what is happening with the management and the club, I think the transfer market is taking it’s time to open up but I think the club is doing it the right way. Jermain Lens has taken a couple of games to settle in and get used to the team but I think he’s going to be a good player for the club.

Yann M’Vila has been quite the player as well and his free kick against Aston Villa was a hell of a goal. I’ve liked his intensity and his ability to work his butt off.

Ola Toivonen was brought in right before the Villa game but in the second half of that game he came in and made a couple of key plays and those led to the tying goal. If he continues I think he’ll be a good loan signee as well.

We are just starting to see what Younes Kaboul can do with John O’Shea, and I’m liking their partnership.

I think Sebastian Coates needs some more time to develop, I don’t think he’s ready to become a full-fledged leader of the back four, I think O’Shea and Kaboul are the best options at the moment, but as a sub and an injury fill in, Coates is a handy replacement.

Now the signing of Borini will bring some much-needed added firepower as well, he can play down the wings and in the middle to give Defoe some service.

I find it really interesting that anyone could question the club’s desire or ambition to stay in the Prem or to move forward. If anything I think Ellis has no doubt put a huge stamp on this club by opening up his wallet and dropping cash on this team.

The club has also put in place many new projects to try to attract new players as well. The development of the Academy of Light, the improvements made there, state the ambition of the club and the improvements around the Stadium of Light show that the club is serious about putting forth its Premier League journey and attracting players. There’s no doubt the club is serious, and it’s time to get serious about supporting them.

Stay Calm and Take A Damn Breath Already

I didn’t get to view the Leicester City game, however I was able to catch the Norwich game at the weekend.  Norwich is making their way back in the Prem after a season in the Championship this past year. Sunderland was coming off their 4-2 defeat at Leicester in an effort where they were already down 3-0 before the end of 30 minutes.  Head man Dick Advocaat named the following starting XI and subs:

Sunderland: Costel Pantilimon, Billy Jones, Younes Kaboul, Seb Coates, van Aanholt, Cattermole, Larsson, M’Vila, Defoe, Lens, Fletcher.

Subs: Mannone, Bridcutt, Rodwell, Matthews, O’Shea, Graham, Watmore.

The contest didn’t start too badly, but Sunderland didn’t look like they were ground shaking.  Before 30 minutes they were down 1-0 thanks to a goal by Russell Martin who was the beneficiary of a lucky bounce off himself and Pants after Robbie Brady took a long shot.

Eight minutes before half they went down 2-0 and you could sense that it was going to be a game that we weren’t going to come back from.  Nothing seemed right anywhere on the pitch for Sunderland no matter how hard they tried, it obviously wasn’t meant to be on the day.  Although two minutes before the end youngster Duncan Watmore fired home a consolation for the home side that only meant Sunderland lost 3-1, Nathan Redmond scored in the 57th to put it way out of reach.

Some Sunderland fans were heard to sing “are you watching, Ellis Short?”  I can only imagine based upon what I know of Ellis, he’s been watching since he took over the club.  He was there over the summer when the club took the North American tour.  He’s been there when the club was battling relegation.  He’s been there fueling the club with whatever he can.

After the match, Twitter blew up with Black Cat fans asking for Ellis to sell or pony up more funds.  Black Cat fans already believe that we are going down.  Apparently no club has ever come back from losing the first two games of the season.

I’m not going to question Ellis Short’s commitment to Sunderland because he’s done nothing but support the club year in and year out.  Ellis has made sweeping changes and made things better for the club.  I believe he’s tried to put people in the right place and he’s done what he could for the club.  He’s dished out more money for players and coaches.  He doesn’t play on the field, he doesn’t coach the team, he doesn’t organize the team  he just handles putting the people in places to do their jobs.

Some have questioned the players’ desire to play but I dispute that theory.  I didn’t see anyone refusing to play.  it’s an easy thing to run that theory out there as a way to excuse a loss.  “oh the players didn’t want to try,” yeah sure.  I’m sure they just got up this morning and said “well I don’t want to play cause this is my job and i’m going to half ass it.”  I just don’t buy it.

I do believe that we are seeing some growing pains under Advocaat.  van Aanhalt has struggled in his position at left back, Coates hasn’t commanded the central defensive back position like he should, Cattermole has been outworked in a majority of situations and Larsson can’t hit a free kick to save us.

We’ve relied on some new boys to help us find footing, Kaboul, Lens, M”vila and O’Shea and Brown have found their way out of the back.  The sale of Wickham makes sure that the club is going to rely on Lens (who is finding his way in the Prem) and Fletcher and Defoe.  Defoe spent half a season on Wearside and Fletcher struggled last season.  We needed Danny Graham to help score the goals to keep us up, who knew that would be the case?

As for the rest, we’re getting run off the pitch and not controlling the pitch or the ball.  Toronto did the same thing.  We got lucky against Toronto to score the winning goals, but they controlled most of the play.  Passes couldn’t be strung together, runs weren’t found, and corners couldn’t be defended.  Hey it’s Toronto all over again. Robbie Brady’s shot came off a poorly defended corner.  It’s gonna happen and it’s gonna keep happening.  Something has to change with that.  I got mocked for my observation of Pants and his agility but he made a marvelous save when he dove to his left.

I’m thinking it’s time to give Watmore a bit of a run out again, and it’s time to change the flow of the ball, it can’t keep going down the left.  van Aanholt isn’t keeping it and he’s not able to find the pass so switch it up, keep him back, play some defense and move it through the middle.  Use Catts more and M’vila to press forward to the strikers.  Let’s rethink it and move forward.

I’ve had enough of the Short out and the players don’t care nonsense, and for the love, we’re not relegated already.  Take a damn breath and stay calm.

I’m Sunderland How ‘Bout You?

It’s been a week since the Toronto game and I still find it hard to believe I was able to get the chance to go. I look back at the opportunity and I feel really lucky that I could be there with the other Sunderland supporters and cheer the Lads on as they fought their way back to win at BMO Field. There were things that made it absolutely great and things that I’ll never forget. I have memories that I’ll carry with me for life and a team that I’ll carry with me til I die

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I look back at the blog post I wrote afterward though with a bit of intrigue and I am proud that I wrote it. I can’t believe how much traffic it got and how far around the world went. I know I’ve seen that it’s gotten well over 1500 views at this point and I’m amazed at the responses to it that have been left. I know that in various parts of this world I have people who I’ve never met that will stand beside me and drink a beer and cheer for the Cats.
 We’ve got something special as Sunderland fans and I think it was brought up in the Sunderland message boards somewhere. We are what we are. We may not compete for the league title every year we may not be in the champions league and we don’t sign the Rooneys or Ronaldos.

 What we do have is loyalty and never wavering passion for our club and that badge. I’m proud to wear that badge. I’m proud to wear that kit. I’m proud to say I’m a Sunderland fan. 

 Some will say “yeah but we are going to be fighting relegation again” or “see we are only mid-table.” When are we happy? When is it that we won’t tell other fans who are optimistic that they are just going to end up miserable? That “it’s going to be a long year?” Why? Because there’s going to be ups and downs? Who are we ?

 The spoiled of the bunch that expect everything handed to us? I’d hate to think you honestly go to a game and expect it always to be roses and champagne. If that’s what you expect I’m sure you can pick up a Chelsea shirt quite freely. Being a fan isn’t easy it isn’t meant to be. I don’t harbor any illusions and I don’t hold anything back. 

 I just get tired of people telling me how bad it is. How bad is it? We have a team we love that loves us, the owner loves the team, he loves the fans, the stadium is wonderful and we have hope. It’s not like we are playing in League One. Can we stop whining and start enjoying? Hold the flags and the scarves. Sing loud and proud. Show some damn support. I’m Sunderland how bout you?

Na Na Na Na Jermain Defoe

To say that I was excited to hear that Sunderland was playing in Toronto would be quite the understatement. To know that my Lads were now so close that I could finally reach out and see them within a fairly manageable drive was exciting news. For some people 400 miles might be too far to drive in one night after work across international lines.  But not this guy, I’d cross international lines.
I’ve been know to drive the east coast on a couple tanks of gas and all the caffeine I can handle, so the state of New York and Lake Ontario wasn’t getting in between me and the Black Cats. Plus I was finally going to meet someone from the U.K. I’d talked to over the years for breakfast on the morning of the game so I was bound and determined to make it all the way there on the day before the game, which I did just before midnight (Google Maps lies!).
My daughter was going to go with me, seeing as how she’s a Black Cat in training and my wife had to work. When we set off I had grand intentions that maybe somehow I’d end up making her into a bigger Black Cat fan, maybe even during the game she’d learn to love them even more from being there. Seeing as how it would be both our first live matches, I knew my love would only be cemented by the atmosphere of being around singing Sunderland supporters. I had no idea what she’d come away with.
The morning of the game we met my mate for breakfast and I got to ask him all kinds of Sunderland questions. “Did the trees grow up?” “What is Sunderland like?”. And on and on. I’m sure it was tiresome but I was dying to find out more. He had to return to work and my daughter and i were off to the hockey hall of fame but not before he told me that he would bet that Jozy was “nailed on to score against us.”
As game time approached I got more and more excited, it was set to begin at 7 so we arrived at 5:30 to walk around. I couldn’t believe the number of Red and White kits that met me. They seemed to be everywhere. We walked all over and I was quite sad there was no one selling scarves or anything Sunderland related. Hopes dashed. Toronto F.C.’s field seemed ok from the outside but I wasn’t sure how close to the field we’d get for 30 bucks a ticket. (Keep in perspective Chelsea tickets at Red Bull Arena were well over 100 dollars for crap seats).
Once inside we found our seats and looked out at the field but also found the standing room section where other Cats were gathering. Cats from all over the world. The kits people wore were amazing, they had the Black Cats on the sleeve (which were absolutely fantastic) and there were cool t-shirts. On more than one occasion I told myself that these are the people I relate with.  I’d never seen anything like it.

I knew it wouldn’t be too long after we got through the gates that the players would come out.  It wasn’t more than maybe five or ten minutes later that they did.  Vito and Jordan Pickford led the way and we applauded the keepers as they ran toward us to take warmups.  Underneath the away fans’ section is a standing room area where you can see the goal area from what seems like only feet away, so for me it was a magical experience.  I was mesmerized.  There were my heroes warming up.  Next thing I knew here comes this giant of a fellow running from the tunnel.

“Pants.”  Someone yelled behind me.  It’s Costel.  I had seen him on television but seeing him in person, I realized the man was huge.  He lumbered down the field but he was so agile.  Watching him take crosses, he seemed so fluid.  He didn’t move like I would imagine someone his size would.  He was perfectly suited to be a keeper.  Vito and Jordan took shots at net and Jordan missed one that hit a Toronto F.C. seat attendant right below us.  The guy had his body turned away from the field and had no idea when he got stung by a Pickford drive.  The entire Sunderland contingent had a chuckle as he tossed the ball back to the field.

A couple of fellows to the right of me were talking about the outfield players warming up and I noticed that Giach was out there to the right side with what might be the subs.  The starting 11 seemed to be warming up on the left.

“Who’s that fellow,” he asked me pointing to the left.

“I think that’s Fletcher, he got quite the tan.”

“Where are you from?  You’re not from England.”

“New York.”

“New York,” he stammered, “Why do you like Sunderland.”

That was the magical question I got asked from everyone I met.  “Why Sunderland?”  Why Sunderland indeed.  It’s hard to put into words the passion and intensity for a club that you fell for.  How do you explain it when it feels like you’ve known this club all your life.  How do you explain it when it feels like this club is all you know.  When this club plays and it’s the only thing that matters for that 90 minutes?  Is it about the passion that they show on the field?  Like Lee Cattermole?  When my mate asked me who my favorite player was I said it was Catts but it’s hard to pick one.

“Why Sunderland,” I replied, “because the passion.  Because they are Sunderland.  I don’t know how to explain it more than that.”

“Aye,” he said, “like Cattermole.  I like him.  He plays with heart.”

“You can’t teach that.”

“That’s right.”

We stood there and talked about things.  We watched them warm up.  He told me he was at Old Trafford last season when we took three points from the Red Devils.  He has a framed picture on his wall with his scarf he purchased from the match hanging around it.  He was from the area and interestingly enough knew one of the linesman from the game.

“Joe,” he yelled.

The linesman turned and gave him a thumbs up as he ran through a warm up.

We watched Fletcher, Johno and Defoe take shots from just outside the box.  I marveled at the pace on the shots.  But Vito and Pickford took them in style.  Some saved, some not, but they were diving and jumping and punching.

Finally the clock counted down and in the Lads ran to get on their green away kits for the match.  To be fair, I asked if the green was as bad as it looked in the pictures.  I was told it wasn’t and I’m going to say it grew on me as the match went on.  I don’t think it’s as bad as the pictures look.  Maybe if they play in a forest they’ll be trouble.

My daughter and I took our seats in row three of the far left hand section of the visitor’s area.  We watched the Toronto F.C. people tell some Sunderland fans they had to hang a giant Sunderland flag at the top of the visitor’s area.  I didn’t realize it until I saw pictures later but there were Sunderland flags everywhere there.  When we sat down in our seats, we met a father and son from southwest England and unfortunately I can’t remember where.  But they couldn’t have been nicer.  The first thing the father asked when we sat down was whether we were from Sunderland.

“New York,” I said.

“New York?  Why Sunderland?”

Again I repeated my take on why I chose the Cats.  He told me had been to the Sunderland – Bristol Rovers Worthington Cup match back in 2000.  The two couldn’t have been nicer.  We chatted during the match, they said they were going to Niagara Falls the next day before heading back to England.

The anthems were sung and the starting line-ups were announced but there was no Jozy:

Sunderland: Pantilimon, Jones , van Aanholt, O’Shea (c) , Brown, Larsson, Cattermole, Rodwell , Johnson, Defoe, Fletcher .

Toronto: Bendik , Morrow , Perquis , Zavaleta , Jackson, Lovitz , Cheyrou , Warner , Delgado, Giovinco , Findley

I want to tell you that I can remember everything that happened during the first half.  But I remember Toronto fans barely made noise.  Meanwhile Sunderland fans were singing their hearts out and sang along:

“My garden shed is bigger than this,
My garden shed is bigger than this.”

One of my favorites:

“Sunderland til I die.”

Of course:

“Ha’way the Lads.”

A brilliant one:

“Na na na na Jermain Defoe”

We are Sunderland of course we are going to out sing you.  We out sang them and we were loud and we were proud.

The first 2o minutes or so we seemed to be on the back foot as Toronto came pouring toward where the away fans were sitting.  I think at some point a comment was made that maybe the team was jet lagged and someone in front of us made a sarcastic remarked about being jet lagged.

“Jet lagged from what?  Sacramento?”

But if you thought about it, they had been on the road from July 12 or so, crossed over to California, then crossed back to Toronto and they were working on training the whole time.  Plus Toronto was in mid season form while Sunderland was barely two games into pre-season.  I don’t think it’s fair to criticize. My mate from England seemed rather jet lagged, so I could see how it could be true.

I know Seb got himself a yellow when he got in a tussle with one of the Toronto players, I can’t remember who.  They were grabbing each other’s shirts.  In fact the Toronto player was shown a yellow as well.  I was glad to see us showing fight and not giving in.  Johno tried this really ambitious shot in the first half that almost caught their keeper napping, on the replay it looked like the keeper had no idea it was coming until the end.  It would have been a marvelous goal.  We kinda were even in the first half even though Toronto practically made a hockey line change about the half way mark and subbed in half a team.  I never saw that before.  We did well at stringing together some passes and playing some down the wings.  Fletcher missed just wide on a header, Patrick made a brilliant tackle right in front of me and Pants made a couple good saves especially on a few corners.

A fan in front of me threw off Jonathan Osario who was taking a corner in front of us.

“OSARIO,” he yelled, “OSARIO!”

Osario looked up in the stands before whipping in this terrible ball that was headed out.

The second half meant Sunderland was attacking toward us so we got to see Fletcher and Defoe running at us and Johno crossing into the box.  But not too long after it started, Matthews couldn’t clear the box and Toronto put one past Pants.  1-0.  Ok.  Ok.  It’s not what I expected but let’s get it going.

The Lads showed fight.  A couple of fans behind me wondered if Catts would get a card.  He sure did.  He tugged and pulled and a Toronto player helped by diving.  The Canadian judge came over from the Pan Am games next door and gave him an 8 and the ref gave Catts a yellow.  We kept fighting back and somehow we worked the ball to Defoe at the top of the box who worked the magic to get it past Bono (I thought he was in U2 not a goalie).  There it was.  Defoe came back to haunt them.  I expected it was time for Jozy to show up.  But nothing.

We went ahead not too long later on a Defoe tap in after he took a pass from Fletcher as they had a 2-1 with the Toronto goalie Bono.  We sang some more.  With minutes to go we watched Toronto fans streaming for the exits as we sang.

We stuck around til the end and the Lads came over and applauded us.  All of them came over and we applauded them.  We made sure to let them know we appreciated them.

No Jozy. I heard that he was nailed on to score, I won my friends house in a bet.

Pants looked good. Not enough movement on wings. Happy with Catts, Defoe, Van Aanholt and even Brown. Fletcher was ok, he had a nice assist during a stoppage of play.  During the second half there was a stoppage down by the goal area and he kicked the ball and I yelled “nice pass,” he gave me a thumbs up.  We do however need work on our corner defense, they came awfully close multiple times and I was certain they were going to score.  Pants’ big foot stopped one goal from going in, you could hear it bounce off his shoe from up in the seats.

They say football is a uniting factor across many different nations, languages, backgrounds or religions.  I have been to professional sports before and I’ve never experienced anything like meeting Sunderland fans.  I was introduced to the family.  I was welcomed.  It didn’t matter that I was American.  There were Canadians, English, Australians and people from all over.  Football united us.  I know what it’s like to be a part of something bigger than just being a fan, I know what it’s like to a part of the Sunderland family. It’s a way of life.  I don’t know how to compare it to anything else.  I can’t compare it to anything else.  Sports in America is nothing like it.  There is nothing that compares to it.  This is magical.  It’s passion.  It’s a way of life, it’s something you have, it’s something that’s in your blood that you don’t give up.  You either have it or you don’t and once you get it it doesn’t leave.  You ask me why I’m Sunderland, I just am, I’m Sunderland til I die.  I’m Sunderland and I’m passionate about it.  I’m in the Red and White Army and proud of it.  This was my first game but I promise you it won’t be my last.  For all of you who were there, thank you…thank you for introducing me to the Sunderland family.

Only sight of Jozy:

The view of the 6:

The field from the standing room section:

 

Vito and Pickford:

Toronto and Sunderland…our Red and White army visible in the stands:

 

Escape Is At Hand…?

When I hear about Sunderland and the drop I’m reminded of one of Canada’s treasures The Tragically Hip and their song “Escape Is At Hand For The Traveling Man.”  Not so much because of the subject of the song but because it makes me think “could it be possible for another year this team is finding another way to escape from what is certain to be a relegation sentence?”

Surely by now you know that it is a dog fight for the last relegation spot, QPR and Burnley have most certainly punched their tickets back to the Championship baring some sort of all out miracle and all that is left is the scrap between a handful of teams for the 18th place in the table.  Sunderland currently sit on 33 points after what I would call a miracle 2-1 victory over Southampton this past weekend at the Stadium of Light.

Who is above Sunderland?  Leicester have 34, Hull City have 34, Newcastle have 35 and so too do Aston Villa.  There are so many moving parts here it’s unbelievable.

So where do they go from here?  With four matches left they play Everton (11th), Leicester (17), Arsenal (3) and Chelsea (1) to round out the year.  It’s gonna take at least a win over Leicester to seal the spot in the Prem for another season but it’s most certainly not going to be easy.  

Leicester still have Southampton and QPR to play as well so they still have a chance to stay up if they can scrap some points from QPR and Southampton and Sunderland don’t.

Fortunately Hull City play Arsenal, Burnley, Tottenham and Man U, so it’s very possible with a win and a draw Sunderland could leap Hull if Hull lose all of their games.

Newcastle have West Brom, QPR and West Ham which seems like a much more manageable task.  If I were betting I’d expect to see them get points from these encounters.

Finally there’s Aston Villa who also have some work to do in their set of fixtures against West Ham, Southampton, Burnley and Arsenal.  

It’s very possible if Sunderland can keep up the pressure they can keep the momentum going, however it’s been a struggle to keep it flowing at times.  Whether it’s been through injuries or poor form or suspensions they’ve not managed to keep a good thing going.  I wait for the day when you see it stay together.

I thought for sure after the great escape of last season that they’d all learned their lesson, from the top to the bottom, but it doesn’t seem like it changed a whole hell of a lot.  One big revolving door that seems to be sitting over top of the spinning blade that is the drop zone ready to cut the team to bits.  Any second they could drop and all the hopes and dreams of fans everywhere would be sliced to pieces.  Sounds dramatic but it does feel that way.  Every year the same routine, it gets to feeling like we’re just relegation candidates from the get go.  When does that change?  No matter how much talk is done it doesn’t show on the field, isn’t time to change?  Cut out some of the problems?  Make some drastic changes?  Maybe there’s some reasons for the problems and we are serious late even now to be talking about it.

Is escape at hand?  I don’t know, but we will find out soon, either way it’s time to do some slicing.