VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE: Sunderland need to sex it up

Gus Poyet
Gus Poyet
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YOU can tackle some of those jobs you’ve been putting off.

You can read an improving book. You can take a bit of exercise. You can watch the 272nd series of I’m A Nonentity Get Me On The Telly. You may even take the desperate measure of watching England.

But you will have failed to plug the void left by your football club’s blank weekend.

None of the alternative activities suggested above would be on the itinerary of any right thinking person, so we shall talk about Sunderland instead.

Every Premier League club has now played 11 games; almost a third of the season (an hour into the next but one game is exactly a third if you want to annoy people in the pub with uninteresting facts).

Every club is in the position they deserve to be, as they will be at the end of the campaign. Southampton, Liverpool and West Ham are unlikely to finish where they are now, but their current respective points totals are what they merit.

By contrast, Sunderland have also earned no more or fewer points than they deserve; 12 so far. But they may well finish in exactly their current position of 14th, the same placing as last season.

They have only lost three, but only won two. Win lose or draw, all the results were fair enough, with roughly equal quantities of good and bad fortune along the way. Only one of Sunderland’s 11 results has caused the casual observer to give them a second glance (but let’s not dwell on it).

Ho-hum. Hum-ho. Not great overall, but not terrible either. It’s all beginning to look a bit.... Martin O’Neill-ish.

Two years ago we wrote: “Bolder, more attacking team selection and tactics are required and not just for the sake of entertainment itself. Pragmatists would advocate even drearier football if it would propel Sunderland up the league – it’s just that it wouldn’t.”

O’Neill plodded on with simply making Sunderland difficult to beat and you know the rest.

In his 55 league games at the club, 4-0 defeats at West Brom and Everton were as bad as it got. But O’Neill’s over-caution backfired. In football there is nothing more dangerous than playing safe. It cost O’Neill his job and almost relegated the club.

Under Gus Poyet Sunderland have, generally, been difficult to beat and the football has not been as unexciting as under O’Neill, but it has lacked a certain spark of late.

The deficit of flair has not been helped by injuries to Emanuele Giaccherini, Ricky Álvarez and Patrick van Aanholt, while more is expected to come from Adam Johnson and Jack Rodwell.

But it might be worth pushing Sebastian Larsson a little further up the field, urging the team as a whole and Will Buckley in particular to provide more for Steven Fletcher, making more adventurous substitutions, playing Abba songs in the dressing room or drinking Double Maxim at half-time.

Admittedly we have no genuine faith in those last two suggestions, but a more adventurous approach – without being kamikaze – must be worth a try.

The game at Leicester City on Saturday is not expected to be easy. They may be third from bottom, but their laugh-a-minute manager Nigel Pearson has them well organised and only Manchester United have put more than two goals past them this season – in a 5-3 win for Leicester.

But Sunderland should be going for a win at whatever Leicester’s stadium is called. Playing for a win but only getting a draw there would be fine. Playing for a draw, home or away, against a side destined to struggle, is not acceptable; regardless of the actual result.

No one is under any illusions, but Sunderland have a squad capable of better than 14th.

The effort is there. Let’s just try and be a little sexier.

SUNDERLAND were fined £20,000 this week.

According to the FA: “The club failed to ensure its players conducted themselves in an orderly fashion.” This followed a bit of referee crowding when Everton were awarded a penalty on November 8.

I have to say that most people in the stadium at the time of the incident, your columnist included, genuinely felt that it was not a penalty. The players’ sense of injustice was probably real.

We were all proved wrong by television replays. It was a penalty and should have been a red card. The players were not merely indulging in gamesmanship – but they were mistaken.

How the FA decides what does or does not constitute “an orderly fashion” is – like much of what they do – somewhat arbitrary and unexplained. They have always been maladroit at explaining. Perhaps they could persuade top referee John Terry to shed some light on the matter.

We may also wonder how some clubs have been absolved from this orderly fashion malarkey. But don’t let it be said that Sunderland have been singled out.

Aston Villa, Tottenham and QPR have also been given £20,000 fines for similar offences recently. Southampton, Norwich, Cardiff, Arsenal, Hull, Swansea and even Chelsea have had the same in recent Premier League seasons.

Newcastle have had three goes since August 2011 with a total of £90,000 in fines. This does not include the glorious solo career of their brow-happy manager.

Sunderland’s players should not therefore feel picked on. What they should do is wind their necks in. The £20,000 might not sting much, but a load of avoidable yellow cards might.

According to the FA’s largely useless Respect campaign: “Only the captain can openly ask for clarification of a referee’s decision” (although this is not backed by the laws of the game as laid down by FIFA).

So keep your mouths closed chaps. All those dull clichés that were drummed into you by repetition when you were a lad were true.The referee never changes his mind.

ENGLAND’S never to be remembered win over Slovakia on Saturday was followed by the usual barrage of criticism for failing to win loads-nil.

Chris Waddle, Terry Butcher, Danny Mills and hordes of other blabberers who have either been terrible managers or have never dared to try it, were keen to point out to Roy Hodgson the error of his ways.

Irate England fans were also keen to overreact on phone-ins and social media. In case you missed the post-mortem, it was as follows.

Terrible to watch. Persisting with this. Diamond formation. No wonder no one goes to Wembley. Three Lions. Bobby Moore. Getting results. Got great young players. Club versus country. Invented the game. Hodgson the wrong man. Hodgson the right man. Grass roots coaching. 1966.

Or to put it another way, the debate was exactly the same as the one after the games against Estonia, San Marino, Switzerland, Norway and any country that is obviously not going to win a tournament.

Why do people become so agitated on the subject of England and how they play?

What will happen is this. England will qualify easily and then do nothing of any note when they play in France in Euro 2016. The die is cast.

They can appoint whoever they like as manager, play any formation they choose, shuffle the line-up, change the shirts (then charge £90 for them) and play home games in any stadium – the outcome will be the same. Repeat, they will qualify easily and then do nothing of any note when they play in France in Euro 2016.

The England players are too good for matters to be worse than this, but not good enough make things better.

Mother Nature has not bestowed any Englishman with the skills of a Ronaldo, Messi, Robben, Ribéry, Suárez or Xavi and no one is going to do it for her. Get over it. England are so-so and there is very little that can be done about it.

We could try recognising that decent English players are not “excellent,” and that very good players are still some distance from “world class.” But that’s about it.

The main thing to remember is that, as always, it’s only England.

NEVERTHELESS there are still people out there who actually care about the national team. They even want to attend games. So the FA have recently come out with some new initiatives to annoy them.

Until September, England fans attending a home game were given one loyalty point, or “cap” for attending home games, with two caps for an away game.

The system was not perfect. England fans living round the corner from Wembley were given the same advantages for attending home games as those who had travelled from, say, Sunderland. But no one seemed to mind.

Ever sensitive that they might be accused of producing a sensible idea, the scheme was reversed; two caps for a home game, one for an away game, even if that away game is in Kazakhstan or Armenia.

The FA’s defence for this was: “Our focus is on making Wembley a home for England which means well-engaged, well-rewarded loyal fans fully supporting the emerging young talent that we have in the England team.”

What this vague prattle means is that they are desperate to persuade people to fill a stadium that they have squandered hundreds of millions of pounds on. If supporters willing to travel thousands of miles to follow the team are unhappy with the new scheme – screw ‘em.

But for aggravating fans, the way in which the ticketing for England fans at last night’s game at Celtic Park was bordering on genius.

By Monday, the FA had sold 5,077 tickets to England supporters. Despite these fans paying £5.45 for delivery (second class stamps being a bit pricey these days), they were forced to go to a theatre two miles from the stadium on Monday 4pm-8pm, or Tuesday 10am-5pm to collect their tickets.

What joy must the staff at the Old Fruit Market concert hall must have felt when they were told what they would be doing this week.

Monday was the more sensible option to collect tickets, for those who could afford the extra day off work, another night in a hotel and who could change travel arrangements at short notice.

Alternatively, those who could not arrive earlier could queue up at a shed outside the stadium in the two hours before kick-off. As opposed to allowing customers to spend their time in Glasgow in the manner of their choosing, everyone had to collect their own ticket. No one could pick one up on someone else’s behalf. The scheme was announced weeks after the tickets had been paid for.

A few thousand England fans all milling around the same part of Glasgow, on the day their team plays Scotland. What could possibly go wrong?

Perhaps Sunderland and Newcastle should copy the idea for this season’s derby matches. It would do much to resolve that perennial problem of police boredom.

This was contempt for the customer that Ryanair could only dream of.

It is hoped that FIFA’s claim in their report that the FA “broke bidding rules” when making England’s application to stage the 2018 World Cup is untrue (and let’s face it, there’s a fair to middling chance of a memory lapse at FIFA).

England bagged two out of 22 votes for their bid – one of them their own. It would be nice to think that the FA could at least pull off a spot of corruption if they had really made the effort.