No sooner had his side achieved one of the most remarkable feats in recent football history, Sir Alex Ferguson was immediately on the offensive.
Despite a late, late show to defeat Bayern Munich 2-1, the Glaswegian was far from happy with the early editions of the following days newspapers. The majority of them had seen fit to write post-mortems which detailed another English side’s failure to be successful in Europe, citing Ferguson’s side as tactically inferior to their German counterparts. The former Manchester United manager used this as a stick to beat the media with until he retired in 2013.
This reaction is perhaps testament to his desire to win at all costs and his motivational powers, but the journalists criticisms were entirely valid, regardless of the final score. Bayern Munich had been the vastly superior side and only a Roy of The Rovers style comeback prevented a defeat for United. Ultimately though, who cares? It is doubtful that United supporting families sit down and discuss the finer points of that final. Quite rightly, they will talk about the scenes of jubilation that greeted the winner, the improbable comeback against Juventus and the pivotal games that they won on their way to a generation defining treble.
This is because moments are what defines football, not the broader picture. Sure, coaches and managers are paid to sit and study the 90 minutes more objectively, but history only records winners and losers. What’s this got to do with Sunderland, like? I hear you cry. Actually, quite a lot. Barring a dramatic late escape act, this season is likely to be our most depressing of all time. Statistically, this is pretty much indisputable. We currently sit on 28 points, 20 points fewer than the total we amassed in the 1986-87 season when we were relegated to the third division for the first time in our history. So, unless we go almost unbeaten for the rest of the season, there is no way we will surpass that. It shouldn’t have been like this, however.
Even if our performances played out in the exact same manner throughout the season, we still should be comfortably midtable. If we had taken ownership of our situation, if the players had shown basic levels of competence at vital moments we would not be in danger of suffering successive relegations and the prospect of trips to Fleetwood and Accrington Stanley next season.
Of course, I don’t want to go too far down the butterfly effect route. On the opening day against Derby County, the ball sat up for James Vaughan on the edge of the area and in typical fashion he flashed his shot just wide of the mark. Had this effort diverted a few inches to the left, the ball would have nestled in the bottom corner, Grayson would have registered his first competitive home win at the first time of asking and the barren run at the Stadium of Light would have been considered a uniquely David Moyes failure. Who knows how the season would have panned out from that point onward?
I do not intend to follow this line of abstract argument, because as the saying goes, “if me Auntie had balls, she would be me Uncle.” I want to look at mistakes which directly led to goals rather than more pie in the sky schools of thought.
After a promising start to the season, our form took a dip with defeats to Leeds and Barnsley, but thus far we could not claim that any individual errors had overtly cost us anything. Against Sheffield United we endured a further set back where Ruiter was arguably beaten too easily, but it’s a stretch to say that it cost us the game, as Rodwell’s late consolation probably wouldn’t have occurred if the visitors were defending an advantage of just one goal. But it was the next game against Nottingham Forest where the self-imploding really kicked in. After controlling the game for large spells, Forest, who had long since settled for a point, capitalised on a stray Tyias Browning pass and former Sunderland man Daryl Murphy pounced to give the visitors all three points.
The following game at Hull, we were under the cosh, but looked to be seeing out a vital second win of the season, when the ball took a nick off Lamine Kone from a David Meyler toe-poke which wrong footed Ruiter and cost us two points. Whether you blame the keeper or defender is a moot point, but it cost us dearly.
The very next game against Cardiff, we had just about dragged ourselves back into the game through a Lynden Gooch penalty and didn’t look in too much danger of getting beat, until we shot ourselves in the foot and conceded a needless penalty as a result of shirt pulling from a corner, Cardiff converted, and we lost again. Fast forward a few weeks and we entertained QPR at home, Jason Steele allowed himself to be pinned on his goaline and The R’s went one-nil up, only a piece of individual quality from McGeady drew us level.
A week later, many lost patience with Simon Grayson after we surrendered a two-goal advantage to draw 3-3, again Steele was at fault for allowing a free kick from distance to beat him early in the second half. Another two points dropped. In a repeat of the QPR debacle, Jason Steele was again pinned on his line as Bristol City exploited their aerial superiority and took the lead through Bobby Reid. In what proved to Simon Grayson’s last game, we committed footballing suicide, first by allowing Sammy Ameobi to beat Ruiter at his near post from distance, but we rallied and led 2-1, before slack marking and an under-hit backpass from Didier NDong allowed Bolton to take the lead. Only a well struck, Paddy McNair effort salvaged a point late on. Then came possibly the most startling example of incompetence costing us points. On the day that Chris Coleman announced that he would be taking the Sunderland job, Robbin Ruiter made two howlers, to gift Millwall two goals. Sure, their ‘keeper was at fault for our two goals as well, but again if we had individually done our jobs, we would have won the game.
Just a week after our second win of the season, disaster struck again at home to Reading when Callum McManaman punched the ball into the net on the stroke of half time. Not only was the goal chalked off, but we went down to ten men, meaning we couldn’t cope with Reading’s passing game and lost 3-1. Worryingly, our sheer incompetence means that we haven’t even been in the majority of our recent matches to blame a particular incident on a defeat. The Middlesbrough game featured a couple of glaring individual errors including, Lee Camp’s indecision to give away a penalty and John O’Shea being turned far too easily for their third goal. A few days before that however exemplified the goalkeeping problems we’ve suffered all season. Lee Camp allowed the ball to slip through his gloves at The Mackron Stadium and despite an obvious handball from Zak Clough, the ‘keeper should have done better, and another three points were down the drain.
Even as recently as last Saturday, a win would have taken us to within a point of safety but any chance we had was gone with a moment of madness from Jason Steele and we lost yet again.
This set of circumstances doesn’t give Simon Grayson and Chris Coleman a pass, but it proves that much of our woes this season hasn’t been down to tactics and formations, but player mistakes at crucial moments. I’m not saying we’ve been unlucky, far from it. The occasional mistake is expected, but when its almost every week, it shows a lack of individual and collective responsibility for our failure this season.
From the list I’ve compiled, we have lost a staggering 18 points from what I would class as glaring individual mistakes. With the exception of Callum McManaman’s goal against Reading I have not factored in missed chances or took into account chaos theory and have tried to be as realistic as possible. As I said earlier I do not expect perfection from this side, but even if we had just been moderately incompetent and only lost 9 points due to stupidity, we would be sitting above Hull in the league table on 37 points.
We have been awful all season, but as highlighted above we could have been equally as awful, but just defended properly in vital moments we would probably be clear of the drop zone and planning for another season at Championship level instead of the impending doom we are facing.