Sunderland have a great record in London this season, with that total dismemberment of the then in-form Chelsea, as well as draws at Spurs and Fulham. What are their chances on Saturday at the Emirates? If they can emulate Birmingham's storming performance from last weekend, they are good. The Gunners' Midlands adversaries in the League Cup Final were fearless, passionate and deserved their last gasp win at Wembley. I am pleased to say I was there the last two times Sunderland won at Arsenal. On Guy Fawkes’ Night 1983, I took a very special person to the game, and Sunderland scored twice through Ian Atkins and Colin West. There were only 26,000 at Highbury, the Red and White Army were standing and the second goal went in just after half-time. Beer sloshed everywhere as the assembled Mackems celebrated! How things have changed now when watching top-flight football!
I saw the Lads again in the League Cup at Highbury in November 2002. That was in the unhappy season just after Peter Reid was sacked and that miserable Yorkshireman Howard Wilkinson - see below - somehow talked himself into the Black Cats’ manager’s job, after he had been approached for “advice” by the then chairman Bob Murray. But the team that night were sensational, 0-2 down at half time to a young Gunners team, and they turned it round, pounding the hosts in the second half to win 3-2, with goals from Marcus Stewart (2) and Kevin Kyle. That was a rare highlight in a season when an almost Newc**stlesque turnover of 3 managers in a year saw the Black Cats gain just 19 points, with a meagre 21 goals scored in 38 games. Barren years like that lead te fans to enjoy the team currently being in 8th spot in the best league in the world.
In both those wins against the Gunners, Sunderland played fearless, compact football, a bit like the performance at Stamford Bridge in November. That is the approach we need tomorrow, despite the current bad run. Tomorrow's teams are injury-hit, Sunderland have Onuoha as a doubt, the rest of the injury list comprises Campbell, Gordon, Meyler & Turner (all knee), Cattermole (back), Welbeck (hamstring) and Zenden (calf). Welbeck has a chance of being on the bench to boost The Lads, and Jack Colback may also feature. Arsenal will be without Fabianski (shoulder), Fabregas (hamstring), Frimpong, Song & Van Persie (all knee), Vermaelen (Achilles) and Walcott (ankle).
So how will this game pan out? Anything can happen, but for me it will all hinge on how the Sunderland defence play. I’m not going to predict the result, but if we are drawing at half-time I expect at least a point from the match, given the number of tough games Arsenal have played reecently. The Black Cats need to put in a good shift to improve their fragile confidence after 4 defeats, but when they played at Spurs and Chelsea in November, they were also a bit fragile. Keeping a clean sheet in the first half at White Hart Lane drove the team on towards those later successes.
So my advice to Steve Bruce is to start cagey, but be all set for a dynamic second half. The Lads have to believe they can get a result to get their season back on track.
PS - Mentioning Howard Wilkinson made me recall this quote from the 1991-2 season when Wlkinson won the league with Leeds Utd. His team had just won a game, and he was asked on Radio 5 Live how it felt to go top of the league. "It won't make the sun shine tomorrow" was his droll response! Amazingly, as of 2010, Wilkinson is the last English manager to have coached a team to the English league championship title, but at Sunderland he won just 2 of his 20 games in charge, and Bob Murray went on to brand his appointment "a mistake".
©Lars J.S. Knutsen
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