Sunday, October 26, 2008

The end is nigh

Sunderland 2 - 1 Newcastle Utd

Mulling over yesterday's defeat by the Great Unwashed - which, in another season of humiliations, was very definitely a humiliation too far - I came to the only sensible conclusion: namely, that the world must be about to end. How else to explain a victory for the forces of evil over the forces of goodness (ASBO excepted, obviously)? It must feature in Nostradamus's predictions somewhere.

The Stadium of Shite was a suitably apocalyptic setting, living up to its name with a pitch festooned with rubbish. There were so many plastic bags swirling about I wondered whether they were trying to recreate the scene from 'American Beauty'. And the bags and assorted takeaway packaging weren't the only things littering the turf. No, you can add the various gifts generously lobbed from the stands at ASBO's head as he prepared to come on (presumably in recognition of his intellectual superiority); the two morons who confronted Shay Given as he picked Kieron Richardson's winner out of the back of our net (I thought they were supposed to be welcoming towards the Irish?); and the rabble who spilled out onto the pitch at full-time. The FA are currently investigating, but according to Roy Keane they should show some leniency. I'm inclined to agree with him - after all, how do they expect a bunch of brainless fuckwits to behave when their side notches a once-in-a-lifetime victory?

All of the unsavouriness aside, the fact remains that the Stigs of the Dump played well, while we didn't and deserved to lose. A very, very hard truth to swallow.

Following Monday's very encouraging draw with Man City, JFK understandably selected the same starting line-up, something only made possible by the FA's decision to rescind Habib Beye's red card. We made our customary sluggish start, though, finding ourselves 1-0 down after 20 minutes. Steed Malbranque, a player I'm insistent we should have tried to buy on several occasions, cut in from the right unchallenged and saw his skewed shot across the face of goal turned in by the outstretched foot of Djibril Cisse. Initial suspicions he was offside proved unfounded, though the fortuitous nature of the finish was still galling.

Nevertheless, we took falling behind as our cue to start performing, and had much the better of the half from that point on. A pair of shots were blocked in one frenzied attack and in another only a well-timed lunging interception by Anton Ferdinand prevented Shola Ameobi getting on the end of a dangerous low cross from the right by Obafemi Martins. The pressure told on the half-hour mark, Ameobi peeling away at the far post to nod in a Geremi free-kick from near the by-line which had initially appeared too high but turned out inch-perfect.

In the home fixture three seasons ago, Ameobi scored once and pressurised Stephen Caldwell into an own goal, and he was once again proving himself something of a bogeyman for the Mackems, giving their central defensive duo some real problems. Had we finally found a use for him? Well, probably not. He was poor in the second period, his only real contributions of note being to squander a great opportunity which would have given us the lead and, when time was running out, to shank a cross straight into the stands.

The second-half malaise that affected Ameobi affected everyone, and a game we could easily have gone on to win slipped away from us. Richardson came close to giving the Great Unwashed the lead on the volley, and then punished Nicky Butt's cynical trip on the edge of the area by smashing his free-kick into the top corner. It could have been worse had Kenwyne Jones (the Mackems' own Ameobi-shaped battering ram) not headed over or Cisse's 25-yard snapshot not rebounded off the foot of the post. All we could muster in reply was an injection of pace and trickery from the bench in the form of ASBO and the fit-again Gutierrez, but chances to salvage a point never came and that 28 year unbeaten record fell.

The root of our problem is clear: we keep giving sides a headstart that they really don't need. The opposition have struck first blood in each of our last eight matches in league and cup. What's more, we've conceded two goals in each of our last nine matches, Arsenal adding an extra one just for good measure. With stats like that, and a defensive performance like ours yesterday (where everything, even if it was positive, was last-ditch and desperate, particularly with respect to Fabricio Coloccini), we can't hope to win games. It's as simple as that. We're second bottom only by virtue of the fact that Spurs have contrived to be even more awful than us so far this season - and even they've now recorded a win thanks to the arrival of the fleshy-faced Churchill dog from Portsmouth.

West Brom are next up, and will travel up to Tyneside on the back of heavy defeats to Man Utd and Hull. We have to make sure the pattern continues. Anything less than a home win is unthinkable.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian


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