Our season so far…

Every year a team that the pundits insist is ‘too good to go down’ ends up scrapping for its life in a relegation dogfight. This year it could be us. Is this an overly-pessimistic view? Am I blowing a few poor results out of proportion? No, I don’t think so. Let’s examine the facts. We have emerged victorious from just ONE league match this season – Bolton at home in August. Only Spurs, the aforementioned Bolton and Derby have won as few as us and two of those have recently sacked their managers.

What has either saved us from sinking to rock bottom – or has prevented us from climbing up the table, depending on how you choose to view it – is the fact that we have drawn more games than any other team in the division. Six, including last weekend. As we all know, draws are very rarely the result of an equal game so what can we deduce from looking back at the matches that have ended on level terms?

Well, by my reckoning we threw away the chance of winning on three occasions – against Sunderland, Manchester City and Wigan – which cost us six points. However, we scraped draws against Spurs and Derby thus getting two points we didn’t deserve. The sixth match, which was the 0-0 against Chelsea, was a pretty fair result. That still means we should now be sitting with four extra points…and had we got them then we’d now be sitting pretty in 12th spot and just two points off the top 10. Not bad eh? If that was the case I’d probably be sitting here discussing the prospects of us bagging a European slot.

So why have we been dropping these points? Is it bad fortune? Poor defending? Off-target shooting? Woeful decisions by the referee/linesmen?

Well, it’s fair to say that Lady Luck has something of a tempestuous relationship with our Lawrie. While she obviously softened during the Liverpool match at the end of last season, in recent weeks she has turned her back on him completely. And judging by what happened in the dying minutes of Saturday’s match at the Stadium of Light, she is still sitting there in a huff. Diop’s perfectly good goal being disallowed at Reading last season and the linesman insisting David Healy’s shot hadn’t crossed the line against Boro (when TV replays clearly showed it was in by about a mile) are two prime examples of the luck not having gone our way…but then we ought to consider Smertin’s strike (which is now being classed as an own goal) that gave us the points against Bolton.

So what’s the conclusion? It’s a well worn fooballing cliche but luck/poor decisions do tend to even themselves out over the course of a season. In my opinion, therefore, the reasons we have been dropping points with almost manic enthusiasm are twofold: an inability to kill off a game and defensive mistakes. Does this sound familiar? Yep, that’s exactly what was going wrong for us last term and it eventually cost Coleman his job. The only difference being that, in comparison, we actually enjoyed a far better start to the 2006/07 season. So far this year we have played 11 matches and chalked up nine points (one win, four defeats and six draws). At the same point last season we already had 16 points on the board after four wins, four draws and three defeats.

Yes, I know it takes time to bed a new team down but we can’t keep reaching for that excuse because the season is almost three months old. Depressingly, we have also played ALL the teams below us in the table which means, in effect, that our toughest games are to come.

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Newspaper round-up: Sunderland v Fulham

To be honest I couldn’t bring myself to post anything yesterday. Despite gaining a point away, the manner in which we lost the chance to haul ourselves clear of the relegation dog fight was thoroughly depressing, yet weirdly predictable…Anyhow, here is how the main news outlets saw our match against the Black Cats…

Roy Keane has mellowed in management, insisted Martin Hardy in The People, but he still instills “the fear of God” into his players in the closing stages of a game they are losing. “Yet again, Sunderland dragged themselves from the jaws of defeat in the final minutes of a game to grab a point they barely deserved.”

Indeed, the first 45 minutes were “perhaps the most insipid seen under Keane”, agreed Simon Williams in The Guardian. “Fulham, though, did not capitalise fully and, although Simon Davies gave them the lead with a delicious curling free-kick after fooling goalkeeper Craig Gordon into thinking he was going to cross, they did not kill Sunderland off. David Healy had their best chance but the Northern Ireland international somehow managed to put a first-time shot wide of an unguarded net.”

Even so, it was the home side’s supporters whose belief was being “stretched for the first time under Keane” by the interval, wrote George Caulkin in The Times, as without the likes of Dwight Yorke, Paul McShane and Carlos Edwards, they lacked quality. “By contrast, Fulham looked classy and confident,” he noted. “As their supporters crowed: ‘We’re winning away, we’re winning away. How s*** must you be? We’re winning away’.”

The Black Cats’ plight seemingly deepened when right-back Greg Halford was sent off for his second bookable foul 20 minutes from time – but it was the visitors who crumbled, according to The Sun, which claimed: “The most amazing thing about this clash of possible relegation candidates was the way the Cottagers once again capsized after going ahead.”

And the man who supplied the killer blow was Sunderland’s £6m hitman Kenwyne Jones, wrote Brian Mcnally in the Sunday Mirror. “A third home defeat of the campaign against a moderate Fulham outfit was very much on the cards until Jones managed to plant a bullet header past Antti Niemi from Grant Leadbitter’s searching cross.”

The result means Fulham have drawn six of their 11 Premier League games this season, reflected The Guardian’s Simon Williams, yet it could have been even worse for the away side. “The substitute, Anthony Stokes, should have won the game for Sunderland in stoppage time but a dreadful first touch allowed Niemi to narrow the angle and save with his legs.”

However, the way the match ended left Fulham manager, Lawrie Sanchez, admitting that his “overwhelming emotion” was sadness, according to the Independent on Sunday’s Simon Rushworth, who quoted him as saying: ‘It depresses me. Our failure to win games is getting to be a bit of a problem scenario that we need to sort out.’

Sunderland v Fulham: A reaction

When I watched Paul Merson on Sky’s Gillette Soccer Saturday breathlessly describe how David Healy had missed a totally open goal I knew the writing was on the wall. Not even when Simon Davies put us 1-0 up with a free kick did I think we’d be able to hang on; nor when the Black Cats went down to 10 men. Sure enough, in the dying minutes we allowed them back into the game and a late Kenwyne Jones header stole Sunderland a share of the spoils. Unbelievable.

Until I see the ‘highlights’ tonight I obviously can’t comment on the specifics of the match, but suffice to say that once again we threw away points. The defence was always a weak spot under Coleman – much to our annoyance considering where he spent his career playing – but things appear to have deteriorated under Sanchez. What is wrong with them? Why can’t we shut up shop like other teams? Who is at fault? Is it the full-backs? The midfielders?

Wherever the problem lies it’s up to Sanchez to sort it out. If he is unable to do so then he needs to make way for someone who does so that we don’t end up hurtling towards the Championship. Birmingham’s win means we have now slipped to 14th and makes next week’s home match against Reading even more significant.

Here, if you can bear it, is an early match report from the BBC.

Collins John scores!

It’s 3.20pm on Saturday and news has reached me that Collins John has put Leicester 1-0 up at home to Barnsley. Good stuff eh? Hopefully he’ll return from his three month loan in the Midlands rejuvenated and start banging in the goals for the first team…

Preview: Sunderland v Fulham

Facing Roy Keane on a football pitch must have been one of the scariest prospects imaginable. But how will coming up against his team compare? Well, our boys will find out later today when they travel to the Stadium of Light to take on Premier League ‘new boys’ Sunderland.

On paper it certainly doesn’t seem a great match for a neutral to watch. The home side have lost their last three games while we haven’t won away on the road in 21 matches. Yes, that’s right, 21 matches! Unbelievable isn’t it?

The only potential postive (and I’m really clutching at straws here) is that our last victory away from the Cottage came in this neck of the woods when we beat Newcastle – but even that was soured by the injury sustained to Jimmy Bullard.

Sunderland currently lie three places below us at 16th in the league but have exactly the same number of points: eight. They have two wins so far, both coming at home, scoring 11 goals and conceding 19.

Today we go into the match without the suspended Konchesky, while Hameur Bouazza is out with a shoulder injury – a bit of a weakness it seems. Most of the rest are fit, including a rejuvenated Antti Niemi whose awe-inspiring display last weekend helped push us up to 13th in the table.

Bizarrely I actually fancy us to get something out of today’s game. However, while a point would be okay, a win could really kickstart a turnaround in fortunes for the team. The confidence boost that three points away from home provides would be very welcome.

Interview: Sunderland fans

We caught up with three Sunderland fans for a quick Q&A session ahead of this weekend’s match at the Stadium of Light. Our grateful thanks to author Jeff Scott (JS) at http://www.methanolpress.com/; Jim Higginson (J) of the Black Cats of America and Judith Hood of the Sunderland AFC Supporters’ Association (JH) for their time.

Q. How does it feel to be back in the Premier League? Are you here to stay this time?
Jeff Scott. I think you’re supposed to aspire to Prem football but, to be honest, I prefer the Championship as grounds you visit are more ‘real’, the kick off times are more ‘normal’ and the likelihood of a good result is higher. I really hope we are here to stay but history suggests otherwise.
Jim Higginson. Great
Judith Hood. It is the only place to be.

Q. What’s your honest appraisal of Roy Keane? The positives and any negatives?
JS. I must admit I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the professionalism of his approach. He’s been there, done it and got the t shirt so that has to be good but the downside is he’s not the finished article so he’s still learning. Realistically, if he was we wouldn’t have him.
J. He’s doing a good job
JH. Postives: He has rejuvenated the club. Negatives: Timing-wise he didn’t come at a good time and as a result very few premiership players were available so we had to settle for second best.

Q. Who have been your best and worst performers this season?
JS. Nyron Nosworthy has the odd moment but has continued his revelatory form.
Grant Leadbitter has also stepped up to the plate Greg Halford has a long throw but has yet to impress
J. Pass.
JH. Best performer: Kenwyne Jones. Worst: No comment

Q. Are there any areas where you would like to see an improvement?
JS. We need to score goals to stay up, defending better would help and a skilful midfield would be useful.
J. Goals.
JH. A good midfielder who can put his foot on the ball.

Q. What position do you think you’ll be in at the end of the season?
JS. 17th.
J. 16th or 17th.
JH. Hopefully sixth off bottom.

Q. Who do you think will be relegated?
JS. Derby, Bolton, Wigan.
J. Derby, Wigan, Fulham (Sorry, its early yet!)
JH. Derby, Bolton, Wigan.

Q. What’s your view of Fulham this season so far?
JS. Better than under Chris Coleman but still not setting the world alight. I expect you to stay up without really drawing attention to yourselves.
J. Patchy.
JH. I haven’t seen enough of them to comment. Honestly.

Q. Are there any of our players you are particularly wary of?
JS. That combative player you got from West Ham (thankfully sent off this
weekend) & Kamara
J. No
JH. –

Q. Which of your players should we fear the most this weekend?
JS. K. Jones
J. ?
JH. –

Q. Finally, what do you predict will be the result?
JS. 2-1 or 4-0
J. 3-1 Sunderland
JH. –

Morning all

How are we feeling? Anxious? Upbeat? Confident? Miserable? I think it’s fair to say most of us have experienced the full set of emotions over the past few days. When I posted my match report I was feeling particularly down so how about now? Well, to be honest, not much different.

There is even the news that Keller could be out for four months with a bicep injury so thank goodness Niemi has rediscovered his form…let’s just hope that it doesn’t go missing again over the coming weeks otherwise we really will be in trouble.

I still believe this team has the potential to be very, very good. We’ve got some talented lads out there (some not so gifted, but hey) but it’s up to Lawrie to mould them into a decent side. We’re two months into the season now and they still aren’t anywhere near reaching their potential.

Due to work commitments I won’t be able to post for the next couple of days but will be back on Friday with a preview of the Sunderland match and the usual interviews with fans. Three points against the Black Cats and everything will look so much better. COYW!