I saw Sunderland lose 1-0 at home to the Arsenal on Sunday. The last time I saw the equivalent was at the start of the 1957-58 season when Len Shackleton (left)
played his last game for Sunderland in another 1-0 defeat by the Arsenal. I hold a signed copy of the first edition of his autbiography "Clown Prince of Soccer" with its famous chapter entitled "The Average Director's Knowledge Of Football" which he left blank. The cover of the book shown here is from a similarly titled biography of Shackleton by Colin Malam.
All Roads Lead To The Modern Roker Park
With nothing at stake, Sunderland had their largest home crowd of the season for its final game on Sunday against the Arsenal. The turnout of 47,802 was only 553 short of the record for the Stadium of Light. It is a pity the Arsenal hadn't sold all its quota of tickets.
The Sunderland supporters had turned up to celebrate the fact that their team had already established their survival in the Premiership. It was great for them to go to a game where they did not need to bite their fingernails. The only downside was that we lost 1-0, but then they always were "lucky Arsenal".
My son, Stephen and I were also making our first and only visit of the season. He travelled up via a direct train from Kings Cross, whilst I was obliged to change at both Doncaster and Newcastle for the shorter journey from Sheffield.
Remarkably, as I made my way along the platform Stephen's train arrived on the next line. I was now very much on home territory as I once worked as a railway clerk at Sunderland station. It was when standing outside the parcels office that I first caught a glimpse of Ann, whom I went on the marry.
First Stop, The Pub
Stephen (who is Steve to everyone but his parents) and I next walked a short distance along Fawcett Street to Yates' for meals and a shared taste in Guinness. Unfortunately, the forecast of sunshine and warm weather hadn't taken account of the mist rolling in from the North Sea. I was a fool for not anticipating this as I lived just down the coast at Easington Colliey for a quarter of a century. Mists were standard there, whilst the sun shone brightly a short distance inland at Easington Village.
Luckily I had a Sunderland scarf and cap in my bag and the protection these provided were more than adequate.
Mackem The Most Of It
After watching some of the Watford-Hull play off on the big screen, we undertook a classical walk. Back down Fawcett Street (I pretended that the town planners had not mucked it up in the 1970s), past where the late and great Len Shackleton ran a modest tobacconist when he packed up football (see above)and then onto the Wear Bridge. Crossing the bridge is still magic. It had to be crossed in the old days to get to Sunderland's former ground at Roker Park. Nowadays it is packed with Mackem's in Red and White striped shirts crossing the the River Wear. It is this which gives Sunderland its name as it is the land which is cut asunder by the river.
It was then off to the Stadium of Light which is just on the other bank, passing the end of the street where Ann once worked for what is now the huge firm of Edward Thompson. Yet she was its first ever full-time secretarial worker.
Into The Light
After a quick pint at the ground, Stephen and I made our way to near the back of the main stand, almost directly overlooking the half-way line. We had a great view. It was,however, somewhat disconcerting when wisps of cloud and seagulls floated past below us. Yet it all added to the atmosphere for "this is Sunderland, this is Sunderland".
At half time we discovered a supporter behind us from Chesterfield whom we had last met at Old Trafford when Sunderland typically lost to Millwall in an FA Cup Semi-Final.
All I will say about the game is that Sunderland played their reserve goalkeeper and dropped Kieran Richardson for bad time-keeping. I suppose that Keane wanted to see if he needed to keep Marton Fulop as cover for keeper Craig Gordon. Along with Jonny Evans the on-loan central defender whom the whole of Sunderland are desperate should be signed from Manchester United, Fulop was a man of the match. A full report for Sunderland fans is given here.
Time To Reflect
When the game was over I dashed as fast as my walking stick would take me for the Metro to start my journey home via Newcastle, where the Arsenal fans would speculate on what a local Derby with the Geordie's must be like. Like nothing on earth!
I left Stephen heading for the Club shop as he had time to spare before returning home, non-stop to Kings Cross. Luckily for me, I had a copy of the fine fanzine "A Love Supreme" to read on the Newcastle to Doncaster leg of my return home. I particularly enjoyed the "Review of the Season", then a well assessed section on who should stay at the club and who should go, plus a piece stressing the need to find a top line and authoritative club captain - a Keane on the park. I hope that the Keane on the touch-line takes these items to heart.
Keen On Keane
I then moved on to study the 80 page Sunderland programme and was soon into calculating. In the first half of the season we gained only 14 points from 19 games. The equivalent in the second half of the season gave us 25 points. The first half of the season spelt early relegation. The second half of the season spelt solid mid-table. A main difference was the arrivals of Phil Bardsley, Andy Reid and on-loan Jonny Evans.
There is another astonishing statistic. We lost all ten games against the top five teams in the League, scoring only 3 goals against them and conceding 25. Only Derby County equalled this miserable record. But it means that against the remaining 14 teams we held our own - winning 11, drawing 6 and losing 11; with 33 goals in our favour and 34 against.
Our problem against the top teams is that we have invariably played against them with a loan striker, hence our only goals in these games have been one in a 7-1 drubbing by Everton and two in a unique second half revival at the Arsenal when we lost 3-2. Perhaps there is a further tactical lesson here for Keane.
But we dare not complain too much in case he takes the huff and leaves us. For he has filled the ground again with an average Premiership crowd of 43,344 (the 4th highest) compared to 33,904 (10th) in our previous Premiership season of 2005-6. Although some of us see facilitator Neil Quinn as the quiet power behind the throne - as they say "Quinness Is Good For You".
Roll on next season's pilgrimage.