As far as festive football goes, Sunderland haven’t always been the best to say the least but there has been a few Christmas crackers over the years from that 1-0 Boxing Day victory at Goodison Park under Gus Poyet thanks to Ki’s penalty to the game against the Mags just days before Christmas saw a last minute 1-0 win at St James’ Park. There has also been a few New Year treats like the one which I’ve selected as my festive favourite.
That game came on New Year’s Day in 2011 at the Stadium of Light when Steve Bruce’s Sunderland hosted Steve Kean’s Blackburn Rovers, the Scotsman had recently taken over the Lancashire club from future SAFC gaffer Sam Allardyce who was dismissed following a defeat to local rivals Bolton. Sunderland went into the game on the back of two consecutive defeats, firstly on Boxing Day at Old Trafford where The Lads fell to a 2-0 deficit before being beaten by the same margin by newly promoted Blackpool on home turf thanks to a DJ Campbell brace!
However, we bounced back on January 1st with a convincing 3-0 thrashing of Blackburn, not a bad present for Steve Bruce who had celebrated his 50th birthday the day before! There were a couple of familiar faces returning to Wearside for the clash, El-Hadji Diouf started out wide for Rovers and then striker Benjani Mwaruwari, who’d been on short term loan the previous season, was brought on just after the break, replacing Grant Hanley.
As New Year tradition goes in the Thornton household, the whole family, of four generations, all make an effort to go to the match and New Year’s Day of 2011 was no different, we were all pretty up for it and filled with positivity, something which doesn’t come natural to a SAFC as I’m sure most will agree! That season had been full of ups and downs already and the aforementioned defeats just after Christmas had followed on from a well fought 1-0 win against Bolton which saw the return of keeper Craig Gordon who made his save of the season to deny Zat Knight from close range.
We kicked the day off in usual fashion, a meal out in the town to celebrate the New Year, and to cure some folks’ hangovers! Then we done what thousands of Sunderland fans wish they could be doing now, making that infamous walk over the bridge to the Stadium. I remember it was absolutely freezing that day, even more than usual but there was a bit of a buzz in the air, I’m not sure why but it maybe had something to do with the decent form of SAFC, especially on home turf for the last 18 months under since Steve Bruce took the hot seat. At that pointy it really looked like we could be going somewhere, if we could make some solid improvements defensively we were pretty much sorted up front with Darren Bent and Asamoah Gyan firing on all cylinders and Jordan Henderson in the heart of midfield.
That confidence at home wasn’t misplaced either; Bruce had done his best to make the SoL a fortress, a tough place for away teams to come to, since taking over in the Summer of 2009, Bruce had never lost two games back to back at home.
We went through the turnstiles and up the vast staircase to the Premier Concourse where all of our season tickets were at, at the time before grabbing a cup of Bovril pre match, something which was always a permanent fixture no matter what time of year. Taking our seats just before the game there was just enough time to read the best parts of the matchday programme, namely the columns written by Rob Mason and Doug Weatherall – features which I’m sure many people dearly miss.
SAFC lined up in a traditional 4-4-2 formation, a successful set up for the period under Steve Bruce which took us up to this point, Craig Gordon was between the sticks but wasn’t really tested all afternoon, Titus Bramble and Anton Ferdinand in the centre of defence with Phil Bardsley and Kieran Richardson as the two full backs. Academy graduates Jordan Henderson and David Meyler made up the heart of the midfield whilst fans favourite Steed Malbranque played on the left and Ahmed Elmohamady on the right. Danny Welbeck was Darren Bent’s strike partner for the day, a real dilemma for Bruce who had three very capable and prolific front men.
The Lads got off to a flying start, loanee Danny Welbeck, who had quickly affirmed himself as a fans favourite on Wearside, opened the scoring from just inside the area just 10 minutes in, all be it with the help of a deflection which wrong footed keeper Mark Bunn, from Blackburn skipper Ryan Nelson. Elmohamady had made the run down the right and his cross was partially cleared by Nelson but Welbeck didn’t need asking twice to fire his shot away.
Darren Bent would grab his tenth of the season shortly later; this would turn out to be his final goal in red and white before he submitted a transfer request later that month after interest from Aston Villa. He glanced home Ahmed Elmohamady's cross, beating Grant Hanley to flick home the Egyptian’s sweeping cross. The start for Bruce’s men was pleasing to say the least after a frustrating game which saw SAFC have an incredible 34 shots, 16 of which were on target but were unable to find a way past Richard Kingson.
Elmo continued to cause problems for Steve Kean’s men and looked like a real talent, something which we didn’t always see from the winger come full back but that spell in particular he was more than impressive. He really wowed us that day and was becoming a favourite in the Thornton household, as well as in the city! Every time he pressed forward, there was a chance something could happen; we were almost half expecting a goal or at least a challenge for the opposition goalie. The service he had provided by half time was no wonder we had 34 attempts at goal just days earlier!
One of the most memorable moments of the day was when former SAFC loanee and resident trouble maker, El-Hadji Diouf missed an absolute sitter from close range, blazing a volley over the bar from a free kick whipped in by the dead ball specialist Morten Gamst Pedersen. This was met with an unmistakable jeer from the home support, a noise in football reserved for former players completely ballsing up a chance, even in the usually quiet Premier Concourse!
Sunderland continued to dominate but failed to add a third, Welbeck had beaten keeper Mark Bunn but the visitors were saved by the woodwork. Then Kieran Richardson, a firm favourite of both my Grandad and I, found Bent who failed to net from close range despite it looking harder to miss than score. Jordan Henderson clipped the crossbar from just outside the area after some good work from substitute Bolo Zenden on the left hand side.
That third goal did come just seconds from the end of regulation time, youngster and academy product, Henderson charged up the field on the counter attack to play in sub Asamoah Gyan who had Blackburn’s retreating defence beaten. The Ghanaian front man then curled it around the last man as well as the Rovers goalkeeper to register Sunderland’s third of the game, it was of course celebrated with his trademark dance by the corner flag, however, for the sake of his own pride, Zenden didn’t join in as he had done weeks earlier when Gyan added a third against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge!
However, we weren’t finished there, two of my personal favourite players of the time, Bolo Zenden and Phil Bardsley combined in search of a fourth to round the day off but it wasn’t to be as the right back’s effort scraped just inches wide.
The full time whistle sounded, a relief for what was left of the travelling supporters but it was a start of a new year in the fashion we hoped to go on for us, Bruce dedicated the win to Big Sam, who had been what most people judged as being unfairly dismissed earlier in December by the now infamous Venky family who owned Blackburn and are now often attributed, by fans, to the Lancashire side’s fall from grace.
All in all, that game signalled for us of what things were to come, the usual family get together round my grandparents’ house was even better than usual thanks to the win for SAFC over a festive period which isn’t usually a favourable time for The Lads, or at least it wasn’t up until then! Of course the following New Year’s Day saw Ji’s unforgettable last minute winner against Man City which was equally as delightful but that Blackburn game was special because it was four generations of Sunderland fans together celebrating of what was to come. Unfortunately, we would lose Darren Bent just a fortnight later but would still go onto a top half finish, the following season wasn’t met with such fruits and Steve Bruce was dismissed after a 2-1 defeat at home to Wigan shortly before the hectic Christmas schedule begun.
There’s my favourite festive football game so all that is left for me to do is wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, when hopefully SAFC will be back in action and we may see a similar result shortly!