When Ipswich beat us by a goal to nil back in August, almost everyone who sat in the away end at Portman Road agreed that it was our worst performance for quite sometime. The disappointing defeat, our second in the opening three games of the season, left us looking up at the majority of the Premiership from seventeenth position. New Years Day saw us put four past the Tractor Boys, our first four goal salvo at the SoL since the turn of the millennium. As 2000 slipped into 2001, we sat proudly in joint second place, with - dare I say it? - European football more than just a pie in the sky.
Everyone with SAFC at heart is well aware of the dreadful run of post-Christmas form that ensured European football eluded us last season, but it is with confidence that I predict that it will not happen again this season. Maybe it was because of the New Year and all that came with it, but there was a positive warmth amongst those at the Ipswich game, something that was born out by the fact that people were actually yelling out encouragement to Danny Dichio. Dichio repaid the fans faith with probably his best performance to date, capped with a goal. Lessons of getting behind players to be learned there, then.
These words will probably come back to haunt me and be rammed down my throat by everyone who knows and doesn’t know me, but I’m going to say them anyway while I’m on a roll: We will be in Europe next year. Hold on, don’t bombard me with abusive e-mails or call the men in white coats on my behalf just yet.
So it took until Bradford away for our Lads to produce the scintillating football we’d all love to see, but we have been grinding out results for a while and have been becoming hard to beat (except at Selhurst Park). Liverpool and Arsenal have both been held at their own place. We haven’t been beaten at home all season, and with the likes of Liverpool, Man Utd and the Scum due to visit over the next few weeks, long may it continue. OK, so maybe talk of the title is a season or two premature, but European qualification is well within our reach.
Unlike last season, when we suffered the kind of burn-out Ipswich should be wary of, after bursting on to the Premiership scene, I think we are just coming into our best form. The impact of top quality investment in the form of, Thome, Varga and Arca should not be under-rated, and added to the as-good-as-signings of McCann, Schwarz and Craddock we are a much better squad, though we remain short of depth out wide and up front. I’m not getting over confident, but I’ve been checking ferry times to Amsterdam and plane schedules to Milan, I’ve even bought a load of sun tan cream in readiness for a trip to Barcelona. S&C readers who wish to travel to Paris via Eurotunnel can book seats on the Channel Tunnel website at www.eurotunnel.com.
Much has changed from Ipswich to Ipswich. Kevin Phillips looks a new man after his slow start to the season and is finding much more dangerous positions now. Alex Rae has put together arguably his most consistent run in a Sunderland shirt and looks very effective alongside a resurgent Gavin McCann, while Don Hutchison has proved much more effective on the right than Kevin Kilbane, whose effort must nevertheless be praised. But more than these individual performances, there is a hunger about the team now, a togetherness and an understanding that makes us a pleasure to watch. We are a team in every sense of the word at the minute and long may it continue… all the way to Europe.