Welcome to this week’s ALS Roundtable. We rounded our most eminent writers up to get their views on all things Sunderland…
With everything that’s going on with lockdown, not being able to go to the games and the streams being so sanitised are you struggling to get into following Sunderland this season? Or is football a welcome distraction.
GILES MOONEY: I think distraction is the right word. I personally feel like everything is on pause in the world, but I think we need to fight that and try and make life as normal as we can. If we don’t we’ll end up spending maybe two or three months waiting to find Bobby Ewing in the shower and hoping it’s all been a weird dream. Looking forward to a Tuesday evening or a Saturday afternoon is a massive distraction and gives my week a bit of structure. To be honest, it helps me remember what day it is! Also, credit where it’s due, I think Frankie and Danny are getting better every week too.
SOBS: With all this stuff going on regarding lockdown restrictions and the toll Covid is taking on the economy and population’s health, you’d think that a bit of Sunderland on the telly would be a welcome distraction, but in my case it’s anything but welcome – or a distraction, really. While I’m watching a lot more televised football that I did pre-lockdown, just to keep me interested, the Prem has VAR and the new handball and offside nonsense it brings, plus the seemingly choreographed antics when every foul is agony for the “victim”, and all of this makes those games seem less like real life and more like a scripted soap opera. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t want to miss any of our games, but it doesn’t really feel as if it’s us, if that makes any sense. I know that it’s us on the pitch, but there have been a few occasions when I hadn’t realised whether we home or away until I fired up the flat screen. I’m far from foul-mouthed by football standards, but I’d be a hypocrite to get upset at bad language, so it’s more than a bit weird when the commentary team apologises for whatever curse from one of the coaches just echoed around the SoL. I’m not struggling to get into following Sunderland on the telly, but it’s not following Sunderland in the flesh – I mean, I’ve yet to get wet or cold at a match this season. I’ve yet to disagree with Charlie in front about a player’s contribution, and I’ve yet to run to the front at an away match to berate an opponent, celebrate a goal with anything more than a punch of the living-room air, or enjoy any sort of build-up to a game. Any game now occupies less than two hours, when in real life a home game was a shade over eight and an away game anything from twelve to twenty-four. Watching Sunderland isn’t supposed to be a solitary activity, and WhatsApping your mates to see what they think of the game is no substitute for disagreeing with them in person. It’s not what we’re used to – it’s not a normal season, and, like Milton Nunez, it’s a pretty poor substitute.
DAN HUNTER: Football has been a welcome distraction for me especially with everything that’s been going on. Whilst I have missed being able to go to live games this season, I have still managed to get into following Sunderland. I usually watch the game on the iFollow stream which does mean putting up with the dull commentary. It’s not the same watching a game with no crowd whilst sat in your living room and there’s a few times this season where I think Sunderland would have benefited massively from having 30,000 supporters cheering them on. Hopefully it won’t be long before there are at least some fans let back into the ground.
Thoughts so far on Lee Johnson. He’s been here for a month now and taken charge of seven games.
GILES MOONEY: I think Lee Johnson has done well. First and perhaps most importantly, the players seem to be arriving at the ground optimistic and positive for what is going to happen. There seems to be a game plan and strategy which they’re trying to follow and he isn’t nervous about changing that strategy if the opposition calls for it. He’s been very unlucky with injuries and, of course, losing the entire squad for a few weeks threw everything out of the window. He clearly needs a player or two to help his preferred way of playing but, with them in, I still feel confident we can go on a run in what is a poor division this year. Of the seven games he’s had, I think the first game against Wigan shouldn’t be counted and, actually the Wimbledon game shouldn’t have happened, so then we’re looking at five games. Won three, drawn two. That’s not bad!
SOBS: Lee Johnson has now had a few games to find his feet and seems to be getting to grips with things here, but injuries and postponements have seriously interrupted his chance of building any momentum. He seems to have fitted in with our new Sporting Director and Head Coach set-up and appears full of enthusiastic ideas that are new to us. No doubt he, like the fans, would have much preferred better results, but he’s only been able to work with what we have. Whoever joins Carl Winchester in this transfer window will be a big part of Lee Johnson’s making the squad his own – there must be another SKP or Jamie Vardy out there somewhere.
DAN HUNTER: I’d still say it’s too early to make a judgement on him considering how the Covid outbreak has affected our fixtures and the squad. Johnson’s first game was horrific against Wigan and I don’t think he should have been in the dugout for the game as it was too soon after his appointment. That being said the game against Lincoln was fantastic and showed what Johnson’s style of attacking football can achieve. It felt like the result could have been a turning point however the Coronavirus outbreak swiftly put a halt to that. The draw against Wimbledon can be excused as we had eight first team players unavailable. However, I don’t think we were good enough in the game against Northampton. I know it was our first game back and Northampton defended deeply but if we want to be in the top six or even top two come the end of the season we need to be able to break down teams such as Northampton and beat them. The game against Hull was marginally better and to not lose against a side in the promotion race was a welcome boost. From what I’ve seen so far, Johnson’s style of football looks good and I think once he knows his best team the results and performances will improve. Having said that the next month is huge for Lee Johnson, with two games a week we need to start picking up points and heading back into the play offs.
Is the EFL/Pizza Trophy worth bothering with considering the main aim is trying to haul ourselves up the league and we already have games to catch up on plus the possibility of other fixtures being postponed if Covid strikes again.
GILES MOONEY: A lot of players need minutes, Willis and, shortly, O’Nien will benefit from game time and the pizza cup offers that. Others are looking for a bit of form or even the chance to prove what they’ve got. I know many disagree with me, but I still feel that Grigg and Graham are the types of players who just need to hit one in off their shoulder or shin and it’ll start to happen for them. Cup matches give you that opportunity.
SOBS: As far as the Pizza Cup goes, we might as well give it our best shot. There’s still a fair chance that the season will either be abandoned or drag on way into the summer – and either way, there’ll be more postponements and therefore free weekends, so why not use those gaps to get stuck into the Stuffed Crust Special and build some momentum. Mind, it has to be said that with no fans in attendance, it’s a perfect opportunity for SAFC to do something really SAFC and win it when we can’t be there. The season’s already a mess, and I don’t think another potential three games will make a whole lot of difference to that.
DAN HUNTER: I don’t think there’s any harm in a Cup run. So far this season its’ allowed us to give some of the fringe players a run out with the chance of breaking into the first team. The first half against Port Vale the other night was some of the best football we’ve played all season. Elliot Embleton looked quality and could be the answer to our creativity problems, and a goal for Aidan O’Brien would have been a welcome boost as well. The fixture list does look extremely cramped and further progression in the cup will clog that even more but I can see the EFL extending the season by a few weeks. And let’s face it who doesn’t want to be called the Papa John’s Trophy champions?!
Hopefully there’s light at the end of the tunnel with the takeover nearing completion. Will you be glad to see the back of Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven?
GILES MOONEY: As I said in my article the other day, I think we all need to feel we’ve started again, and start looking forwards not backwards - the players, the club staff, the fans, everyone. The sooner that can start the better. If the Louis Dreyfus era is everything I hope it will be, I wouldn’t be surprised if people remember Trafalgar Square and new seats more than podcasts and the Prodigy.
SOBS: The takeover needs to happen sharpish. It’s been in the hands of the EFL for more than three weeks now, and they need to get it either approved or knocked back so that we can be 100% sure of where we stand. I know that all the noises from KLD are the sort we want to hear, the lad’s plans sound great for us, and there would appear to be no reason for the deal not to be approved – but we’re Sunderland, and nothing would surprise me less than it all falling apart at the seams. I hope and pray that it doesn’t, as we desperately need a change of ownership. All of the goodwill and feelgood that arrived in the summer of 2018 is a flurry of handshakes, shared beers, and blue suede shoes has evaporated and we - the fans, the players, and the club in general - need another wave of positivity to surf along. Stewart and Methven might still have their shares, but the proportion that KLD will own means that what he say goes, which means we’ll not be seeing much of them – apart from on the telly when they can get to games as directors while we stay warm and dry in our front rooms.
DAN HUNTER: Yes! The sooner those chancers are out of the club the better. They bought the club in 2018 in the hope of an immediate Championship return so that they could sell the club on for a profit and it went badly wrong because Sunderland did a Sunderland. Their aim was to bring fans back to the club and bring back the feel-good atmosphere but all they have achieved is create anger and resentment amongst fans. Let’s hope the deal is completed soon and Kyril Louis-Dreyfus can start spending his £2bn inheritance.