I was going to do one of those clever invite the opposition blogs. You know, chat to my Sunderland supporting mate about how he sees Arsenal, what his own side’s strengths and weaknesses are and generally give the P.A. readership, erudite and urbane as you all are, the chance to see the world through their eyes.
Problem is he’s a bit blinkered with hatred for us (doubtlessly born out of jealousy) and tends to answer even the most ambiguous questions with a long drawn out “Aye”. Only the subtlest alteration in stress or inflection gives you a clue to his thinking. Wouldn’t have read well so I scrapped that idea.
Unperturbed and determined to pursue some semblance of the plan I searched for a few Sunderland blogs online so I could quote extensively from the comments they attracted. Unfortunately the first one I came to had me screaming at the monitor after they talked about Per’s injury which lead to their goal the last time we played up there. They seemed to suggest he was somehow inept or bumbling not to have stopped whichever clodhopping Sunderland player it was that lurched passed him as he lay injured on the floor. I fought down the bile and ploughed on. The next site I came to had robbed my idea. Well, ok it’s a pretty well worn and old idea but I had thought of using it so that much was down to me. This Black Cats blog had interviewed a man who shall remain nameless but writes for a leading allegedly Arsenal supporting blog. He used the platform of today’s opponents supporters blog to display disloyalty, dishonesty, dishonour and generally bleat in the most abject way about how miserable he was that we lost to Birmingham in the widdley diddley cup final and how it wasn’t fair that nasty old Arsene wouldn’t change his ways having singularly failed to replace any of the hundred stars he’s sold in the last two weeks. You catch my drift. I was angrier than ever by now so shut down my search and just started to think about Arsenal versus Sunderland without any outside help thank you very much.
Sunderland to me is two memories. The first shared by many of my generation features a trilby hatted man with a flapping mac and red tights who looked like a nineteen fifties car mechanic and part time Butlins Redcoat in his best clothes on a day out, doing a funny hop skip and bouncy jump across the hallowed turf of Wembley. Bob Stokoe had just witnessed his fabulously coiffured and bewhiskered Sunderland team hand out an unlikely FA cup final defeat to an infamous Leeds United team who were in their pomp back in 1973. The nation cheered as the red and white striped journeymen who had come down to London as little more than sacrificial lambs bullied Leeds (not many did that) and kept them at bay, thanks in no small part to some truly incredible goal keeping from Jim Montgomery. The double save from Trevor Cherry’s header and Lorimer’s follow up shot was so ridiculously good that even as I watch the youtube video now, knowing what will happen, I’m still convinced it goes in. Brian Moore commentating for ITV at the time was equally bewildered, shouting “And a goal … NO.. my goodness I thought Lorimer had got that one”. I’ll draw a veil over the fact that Sunderland knocked us out of the FA Cup in the semis to deny us our rightful chance of revenge against a hated Leeds side who had somehow beaten us in the previous year’s final. It’s a measure of how much Leeds were despised in the early seventies that despite the indignity of being dumped out of the cup by second division opposition I still wanted them to go on and win the cup.
My other memory when I think of Sunderland, shared only by me and my immediate family, is being driven around Roker Park about a dozen times on our way to a bizarre holiday destination somewhere on the North East coast. Mum was wrestling with a Bartholomew’s road atlas and Dad was becoming increasingly exasperated as no matter how many different escape routes she plotted for us the magnetic force of Roker Park pulled us back into it’s orbit.
Of course Sunderland left their historic home back in 1997 exactly a hundred years after building it on what was originally farm land. Like Arsenal they built and moved into a new shiny stadium and despite the financial implications and inevitable stresses of a stadium move they stuck with the same manager and continued to play in an attractive, exciting style and remained firmly among the elite of European football, their beautiful pitch with it’s flawless playing surface being the envy of other less fortunate clubs.
Sunderland like many others who’ve built new stadia have struggled to find consistent success. Or even consistent top flight status. In fact the last time they achieved consistent success was between 1891 and 1895 when they won the league three times in four seasons. That 1973 triumph against Leeds was their last ever trophy.
Strangely though, as I was trawling the blogosphere to find Sunderland quotes for my abortive article and whenever I speak to my Sunderland supporting friend the mood was and is always positive. The passion and support and self belief are everywhere self evident. One blog had at least five of the current Sunderland first team better than their opposite numbers in our team. And it’s been forty years without a trophy. Seventy seven years since they won the league. Something to ponder the next time you have to read or listen to some whining anti Arsenal ‘fan’ bitching because Sky told him to about seven years, and trophy droughts.
Modern day Sunderland as far as we’re concerned means packed defences and a lack of ambition at our place and a deliberately ploughed pitch with knee high grass at their place. I feel embarrassed for those passionate loyal supporters having to stand up and shout for a side that showed such a craven lack of self belief and desire at the Emirates or for a club that along with Milan should hang their heads for deliberately creating an unplayable surface just to stop their visitors producing decent football. Having said that their fans have been known to stand and applaud some of our players on occasions so hats off to them for that. O’Neill as a manager has always been an annoying waspish presence on the touchline but he knows how to organise his teams and does have some good players. It’ll be vital Theo has a good game to keep their speedy left back penned in his own half, but if we show the same patience we employed against the Orcs and the bravura with which West Ham and Liverpool were put to the sword we have enough to beat them.
Of course as Per can testify, sometimes a deep hoof print in the wrong place at the wrong time can make a mockery of even the best laid plans.