It’s the big one: Norwich v Sunderland. Dan Brigham talks to Sunderland fan and writer Rory Fallow about miserable wedding photos, Allardyce, three holding midfielders, Peter Reid, Maradona and how the match will go
Dan: Hi Rory. I'm going to take you back to March 22nd, 2014. A 30-yard megabastard volley from Alex Tettey helps Norwich to a 2-0 win over Sunderland at Carrow Road. Norwich are seven points clear of the bottom three with seven games remaining, Sunderland are three points from safety with nine games remaining.
I walked away that day thinking we were safe, yet Norwich didn't win again all season and went down, while Sunderland went on one of their ridicu-runs to safety. Does what happened that day, and the events that followed, give you hope that whatever happens this Saturday, not all hope is lost?
Rory: I was at my cousin’s wedding that day, which had a free bar, so I kind of missed out on all the misery from that game. The goals were going in when the photos were being taken, so there's a few miserable faces in there.
It would be a bit different this time around though. We surely can’t keep pulling off miraculous escapes like this. If we lose on Saturday we'll probably have to go unbeaten between now and the end of the season, which is home games against Chelsea, Arsenal and Everton with away games at Watford and Stoke. Perhaps we'd be able to afford one slip up and we would be playing against teams with not much left to play for, but we'd also need Norwich to go on a horrific run. There would be too many ifs and buts if we lose so I think a loss on Saturday would cement the bottom three.
It's really annoying, because we have the makings of a decent side. In January we brought some good players in and peddled some of the deadwood. After fluking survival with a couple of poor squads, it would be typical for us to go down with a half-decent one and watch it get dismantled.
Dan: Interesting you say you've got a half-decent side now. Sam Allardyce appears to have been doing his best to cover himself for relegation by repeatedly suggesting it would be a miracle if he kept you up, with the implication being it would be the players' fault not his. But he's had plenty of time to turn your season around, and he's so far failed to take you out of the bottom three.
I don't mind Allardyce, but I would find it amusing if he did get a relegation on his CV just to watch him try and explain his way out of that one. But I think he's a good manager, and his football isn't on the Tony Pulis level of total Hellishness. But the media have portrayed him as a far greater success than he has been. How has he viewed by Sunderland fans? Even if you go down, would you like him to stay?
(I've just read that he chose to join Sunderland rather than Norwich during his playing career, which I didn't know. So there goes any sympathy for him I might have add. Definite turncoat gobshite).
Rory: It's interesting blaming players, because a lot of the time he's been right. In one of his early games we got beaten 6-2 away to Everton, despite coming from 2-0 down to level things up. Allardyce said after the game that he couldn't believe the players kept pushing forward after pulling level and that we should have sat back to try and protect the point and a few players stated in the press that that was indeed the case.
Now though, it's the opposite. Against Newcastle we had them on the ropes and should have kept going at them to try and kill them off. I was at the game and Allardyce was visibly going ape shit about how deep we were sitting and he was encouraging the players to get forward. So there does seem to be a psychological issue with us holding onto leads but maybe he should be keeping some of those thoughts private and not stating them so openly in the press.
His football has been pretty decent, especially since January. I actually enjoy watching us at the minute, even though things aren't going our way. We have a lot of shots on goal and create a lot of chances, but, as I said, we just can't seem to see games out and get over the line.
Because of a decent window and with the football looking decent, there's a feeling that had Allardyce came in during the summer then we wouldn't be in the mess we're in now. In general, he's viewed quite favourably and I'd like him to stay even if we went down. We need some consistency and I'm confident that Sam would know what to do to get us back up; look at what he did with West Ham for example!
Given how many clubs he had as a player (including the excellently named Tampa Bay Rowdies) perhaps the turncoat accusation is a fair one. Definite gobshite too, no arguments there. But I see that as a positive.
Dan: From a neutral perspective, I can't quite work Sunderland out recently. You've played three holding midfielders, right? Jan Kirchhoff, Lee Cattermole and Yann M'Vila, yet your draw with West Brom was your first clean sheet in 17 games. Which is very un-Allardyce like. Yet, as you say, you've been creating quite a few chances.
Is Allardyce struggling to find the right balance between defence and attack, and how did you react when he said he's more concerned about not losing at Norwich than actually winning the game? That's the kind of statement that saw him hounded out of West Ham...
Rory: To be honest, those three are our best midfielders. We aren't exactly blessed with a lot of talent in that area and playing those three allows our full-backs Patrick van Aanholt and DeAndre Yedlin to get forward and support the wingers. It's pretty important that our full-backs do get forward too as they're quite a threat, especially van Aanholt who's got quite a few goals and assists this season and he's gone through quite a turnaround after an awful start to the season. I'm sure you remember how dreadful he was when we met back in August!
The clean sheets thing was baffling, especially since Lamine Koné came in as the defence had generally looked solid but we'd give away a variety of daft goals which led to Sam saying that we need to score at least two goals if we want to win a game. Kirchhoff, M'Vila and Cattermole all like to push forward and Kirchhoff and M'Vila have an eye for a pass (especially Kirchhoff, who often tries to feed the wingers or full-backs when they push on). It's Cattermole who looks unnatural when he's asked to play higher up: he's an excellent holding midfielder but he isn't a box-to-box man.
Jack Rodwell has filled in as well but was dropped for the West Brom game, despite a half-decent run of form that saw him getting into some good scoring positions. Missing that sitter against Leicester won't have done Rodwell any favours though. Some fans (me included) wouldn't mind seeing Seb Larsson being given a chance. Larsson picked up an injury in mid-December and even though he's been back in contention for a month now, Allardyce hasn't even given him a substitute appearance. With Larsson you get the same work rate as Cattermole and he'd look more comfortable playing a little higher up the pitch, as he can pick out a pass and is more likely to get a goal. I doubt Allardyce will differ from the trio of Kirchhoff, M'Vila and Cattermole though.
I can see why he's said that Saturday's game is a ‘must not lose.’ If we lose, it's pretty much all over for us and while a draw isn't ideal we'd still be in with a shout if we got a draw at Carrow Road. First and foremost, we do have to make sure we don't lose the game and I suppose Sam doesn't want to put the pressure on the players by building the game up too much; they'll be well aware of how important it is anyway. After throwing away so many points from winning positions lately, we really need a win here and I'm sure Allardyce knows that.
Dan: Allardyce seems a good fit at Sunderland, much more so than when he was at Newcastle or West Ham – two teams with fan-bases who feel it is their birthright to expect amazing football.
If he keeps you up, do you think he'll be the manager who finally gets you established as a top-half Premier league side? This is your ninth consecutive season in the Prem, and your highest position is 10th in that time (it still baffles me how Peter Reid – PETER REID! – led you to two 7th-place finishes in 2000 and 2001). Is this underachieving, or do you think that's the natural existence of a club the size of Sunderland?
Rory: Yea he's without a doubt more of a fit for us than he is for the Mags and for West Ham, although a few Newcastle fans would probably take him back now given that Rafa looks like he'll be gone come the summer.
Going off his work in January and the fact we're playing some half-decent footall, I feel confident that he'd be able to keep us out of a relegation battle next season. If we could have a good pre-season and finish around 13th, having not been looking over our shoulders too much, that would be huge progress for us given our last few campaigns.
Peter Reid at Sunderland is a perfect example of the right manager at the right time. During his time on Wearside he brought in Niall Quinn, Kevin Phillips, Nicky Summerbee, Alan Johnston and inherited the likes of Michael Gray and Kevin Ball, and we romped our way to winning The Championship with 105 points in 1999. It was a strong, together squad whose style of play was devastatingly effective. A bit like Leicester are now, except we had awful second halves of the season under Reid and could never cement a top-six finish.
We had a new stadium, the top scorer in Europe and it looked like we were establishing ourselves. Then it all went downhill as Quinny retired and Reid, who didn't know how to move on our playing style, struggled to find a replacement. A host of terrible transfers led to a disastrous 19-points relegation season, which Reid was sacked just a couple of months into. His time at Sunderland though, for the most part, was magic and it was certainly our best period over the last 25-30 years. The fact that he didn't do much after leaving us does show how of his time he was, but he's still a legend after saving us from a potential relegation into the third tier and steering us to the brink of Europe.
Dan: If Peter Reid had taken you into the top five and turned you into an established Premier League side, I reckon he'd be remembered mostly for that. As it is, he's still the fella who could barely be arsed to track Maradona when he scored his extraordinary goal against England at the ’86 World Cup.
Back to the present day, a final few questions... How squeaky is your bum ahead of the game? What's your score prediction, and who's getting relegated?
Rory: Reid’s remembered for that and for getting pissed in every hotel bar in the country.
The collective hoops on Wearside are getting pretty tense right now. The feeling is that a defeat at Carrow Road will have us done for. People were fairly upbeat going into the Leicester game because even though we hadn't won in a while, we weren't losing and a spine of competence was emerging in the team. Time is running out now though, we need results and not just decent performances.
I have to predict a win for us. A defeat is unthinkable and a draw won't do us many favours either. A lot of supporters feel that a game where we keep a clean sheet and put away a few chances is just around the corner. I'm not going to go that far but I'll stick my neck out somewhat and say we'll win 2-0. Fabio Borini has been unlucky recently (summed up by hitting the ball off his own face against Leicester) and is due a goal, whilst Jermain Defoe has nine goals on the road from 13 games. A goal from Borini in the first half and Defoe to seal it in the second. I hope. Sorry!
In terms of who is going down, Aston Villa are on the brink of being mathematically down so I'll get the obvious out of the way. Newcastle don't look like beating anyone at the minute and can't defend to save their Premier League lives; a defeat to Swansea on Saturday will have most Mags accepting the Championship. Then 18th will all depend on what happens on Saturday. A win for yourselves will have me planning trips to Rotherham and Brentford but I'll be confident of pulling off another escape if we come away from Carrow Road with three points.
Dan: You’ve turned me round to liking Allardyce a little more, although I noticed you couldn’t quite bring yourself to say you were playing decent football, and stumped for half-decent each time!
This is such a ridiculously important game that it’ll come down to who can keep their heads best for 90 minutes. If we don’t concede early I think we’re confident enough at home to win this. I’m going 2-1, although the result may well come down to whether or not Timm Klose is fit, and that’s currently looking pretty good for you guys…