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This Nation's Saving Grace - Sunderland Away Report


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Just what you need on a cold, cold winter's day - a proper game of English football, in a proper stadium, with proper fans, committed and skillful players with plenty of heart. Rip roaring stuff.

We'd set off for the stadium of light on a cold bright and beautiful morning, looking forward, as ever, not just to the match but also to the journey across the Pennines from our NorthWestern outposts, Bicks and myself.

As it happened neither let us down. The scenery was staggeringly beautiful in the morning's sunlight and still, sharp, air. Thick frost coating the hills, clamping itself around the exposed skeletons of trees and tightly cracking the water in a solid, immobile grip. Sheep wearing thick, shaggy woollen coats munched on crispy grass, crows circled looking for easy pickings from anything that might have succumbed to the bitter night.

In the car, the chat was about what to expect from the game. Thoughts about needing to win to maintain the challenge, a point not being a bad result, but a defeat would be a real downer.

Fishing out the "Football Real Ale Guide" we decided on the King's Arms, 15 minutes walk from the ground. Good choice, good guide. It was, it turned out, North East Pub of the Year last year. Lovely beer, good service, and packed with people and bonhomie. A part of the life of England that is just right.

A walk to the ground, picking up some warming scoff on the way, we headed to where the Paul McGrath song was coming from and settled into position.

The teams - well ours was unchanged, and for them Yorkie was in midfield. The fans - probably about 4000 or so short of full up, the ground held plenty of expectant Villans and Mackems, and the ref, Mr Steve Bennett.

Both teams started with intent in a fairly frantic first 10 minutes, the culmination of which was Sunderland scoring from a corner. The marking, such as it was, was appalling. Is it this zonal thing, or is the marking just "off". Either way Higginbottom, (the announcer said) headed in from 6 yards.

Rather than give Sunderland a big impetus, Villa it was who upped their game. We got well on top, without creating serious clear chances. As the game moved towards half time, the pressure seemed to paying off, as a number of half chances came Villa's way. Carew coming closest to scoring with a flick which the keeper, down the far end, seemed to finger tip onto the post, and back out into play.

Sunderland broke back, but like most of their attacks in normal play, their move broke down. From set pieces they were more of a threat, though not massively so. Maybe it was just be being worried about some of our defending, but with both sides having plenty of big lads to pile in to the boxes, there was always a threat when either side had a corner or free kick.

The second half started as the first had ended, with Villa again having the lions share of the play, but Sunderland dealing with it, mostly, and being a threat, to an extent, on the break, though I didn't feel they had the quality to really punish us. Kenwyn Jones was not as good, fortunately, as he's sometimes seemed on the telly, but he did give Zat and Martin Laursen some competition.

Our forwards also struggled to get free in the danger areas. Gabby's touch was just not quite right today, and he was not the danger he has been, but he worked well. Big John was better, but we tended, I felt, to play too much through him, rather than make chances for him to get on the end of.

In one early spell Gardener, who had been booked in the first half, was inches from heading in at the far post, in front of us, but just couldn't quite reach the ball with his dive. It was Craig who came off, to be replaced by wee Shaun. The funky Cold Maloney gave us what we needed, more movement and attacking threat. SUnderland now had two tricky wide men to deal with. With maybe 20 minutes left, only 5 or so after he's come on, Shaun made a run across field, was bundled into and over by a Sunderland defender, 20 yards from goal, fairly central. A really good scoring chance. He took the free kick himself and Ward in the Sunderland goal didn't stand an earthly. Right into the top corner. Sweet.

One plum from amongst the Villa fans ran onto the pitch, harmlessly, but the eejit was rightly carted off by the stewards. No need. It doesn't take many idiots to spoil our reputation, make life harder for fans traveling to games.

The game continued in its' end to end fashion, now with Sunderland coming more into it again. Some last ditch tackling and blocking was effective for Villa, but it wasn't particularly well organised defending at times. On occasions we let men get free in the box.

Right on the death, Sunderland had the ball in the net, but the ref was giving a free kick for a foul as the ball was nodded in. No goal.

It would have been extremely harsh had we lost. On the other hand, though we had a lot of the play, we didn't make so many chances to deserve the win, really.

What to make of it all, then? Well, as an alternative to trudging round the shops as a prelude to the ever increasingly commercialised "Christmas Experience" it won hands down. It was a decent game, like I said at the start in a proper footballing place. The countryside, the pubs and the beer, the football, players and fans alike, are all part of this nation's saving grace. The ref was alright, better than Riley, anyway.

Some marks

Scott Carson - Sound. 6

Olly - decent game again. 7

Zat - 5. He doesn't always get it right, sometimes getting caught out of position, but today he recovered every time.

Martin Laursen - 6. He's not playing quite as well as he was early on in the season, but he was fine.

Freddie Bouma. Very good again from our left back. Had some shots, too, passed the ball better. 7.5

Craig Gardener. 5 - Committed and hard working. (Wee Shaun -7.5. Excellent appearance from Shaun, and a lovely goal)

NRC - 6 - some good break up work, helping out where and when needed, a decent game from Nigel, but still the pasing needs to improve.

GB - 6.5. Spent a lot of time further forward, when we were on top. By his high standards he is capable of more, perhaps.

Ashley Young - 7.5 - Again a good game from Ash. Frequently fouled, he just gets up and gets on with it. Lively and a threat.

Gabby - 6 - worked hard, ran hard, but not that much of a threat today.

Big John - 7. He's a big old unit. His hold up play was good, he made the defenders work hard and battle, and almost scored.

Lowest temperature on the way back - (minus) 5. Brrrr.

A final thought on the team - I think, despite our solidity away from home, we need at some point to make the transition to be more of a threat, creatively. GB and Ashley are more effective with either or both of Stan Petrov and Shaun Maloney also on the pitch. It gives the opposition more to struggle with, they get pulled around and out of position more. Add in Gabby's pace and JC's presence and the mix is right, but often we're a bit too one dimensional and predictable, still.

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..As it happened neither let us down. The scenery was staggeringly beautiful in the morning's sunlight and still, sharp, air. Thick frost coating the hills, clamping itself around the exposed skeletons of trees and tightly cracking the water in a solid, immobile grip. Sheep wearing thick, shaggy woollen coats munched on crispy grass, crows circled looking for easy pickings from anything that might have succumbed to the bitter night. ...

Bloody hell - Blandy and Bicks wondered lonely as a cloud :-)

Good reading Pete - thanks for the update

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Great stuff. I always look forward to your matchday experience reports. Often it's the whole build up to a match that is better than the game itself, particulalry if you get a perfect winter's day like you so brilliantly described. I look forward to your next submission.

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Cracking write up. The goal should have stood :(

With a couple of top quality buys you will be top 4 next season. You have the makings of a class team!!! Pace all over the pitch and a massive physical presence. Good luck lads hope you break into the top 4 monopoly. 8)

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What a beautifully poetical report! I would, however, have preferred a more climactic ending – something along the lines of:

"… night’s sombre mantle slowly shrouding the Stadium of Light as the last seconds ticked away, when suddenly the chill December air was pierced by a thousand cries of “YEEEESSSS!!!” as the ball hurtled from Barry’s boot into the frosty netting, showering the rejoicing Villa faithful with a myriad hoary white specks glinting magically in the floodlights.”

Or something like that. Still, I suppose you can’t just make it up if it didn’t happen.

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Great stuff.

Do you and Bicks drink the same beer or do you check out different ones for sampling? I thought it was a good match, myself. All the chumps over here were laughing because we drew "Sunderland", but I just shrugged me shoulders and admitted I was actually pleased with a point. Not before the match, mind, but after watching it I have to admit it was just that--good game. Even though I think we had more chances the storyline was told in the score and the draw was fair to me. Bright match, exciting even.

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