How does one start to review the season that we completed last month? I should just quote a friend of mine who also has worked in the Venture Capital funded Biotech industry – the highs are very high and the lows are very low! All football fans know that anyway, but the contrasts can be truly glorious, horrible and simply amazing.
How can one rationalise the high of beating, even destroying, then League champions Chelsea 3-0 at Stamford Bridge, with the lows of crashing 5-1 to “the scum” at St. James, or that 5-0 whitewash at Man City? Psychology obviously plays a part, having players playing at the top of their game versus those who just look too shell-shocked even to go through the motions sometimes makes an enormous difference. Teams obviously perform best when every player is performing to maximum potential, and the team is gelling as a unit. It is the job of the club's coaches and management to make sure this happens as often as possible.
A lot has been written about the long, winless runs endured by the Black Cats' fans in the past couple of seasons. While every match is different, sets of players constantly change, and the influence of training methods cannot be discounted, I believe the main factors behind the gruelling, disappointing runs are injuries and group psychology. Just see how teams perform when the have put a few wins together compared to when they have suffered a series of morale sapping defeats – self-doubt can creep in and playing goes from being instinctive and a pleasure, to a grind. This is where sports psychologists can help, a lot of the factors behind a winning are in the mind. Sunderland need to bring in some consistent, mentally strong players who can produce what is needed week in and week out, as well being able to galvanise those around them into producing solid team performances.
Sunderland had a bit of a stuttering start to 2010-11, with a 2-2 home draw against Birmingham, after being ahead. Then a cheap 1-0 defeat at West Brom, which really riled for some reason, maybe because we did not know at that stage how good the Baggies were going to be, and how successful a striker Odemwingie was going to turn out. Sure enough, West Brom went on to win at the Emirates a couple of weeks later. Then in the last August fixture, the Lads redeemed themselves with a 1-0, late Darren Bent penalty win against Man City, leaving us safely in mid-table.
Asamoah Gyan then netted his first for the club in a 1-1 draw at Wigan after his record move from Rennes, with one of the goals of the season, an instant snap shot from Henderson’s driven cross. An incident-packed 1-1 home draw with Arsenal followed, with Fabregas smiling after his freak goal, and what looked like a tough set of fixtures was completed with a creditable 2-2 draw at Liverpool, enlivened by another controversial goal. We played out a 0-0 with Blackburn before a solid 1-0 home win over the then underperforming Aston Villa.
At this point in the season the defence was playing well, Gyan and Mignolet had emerged as true stars, Darren Bent was scoring, although less convincingly than in 2009-10, Bardsley was growing in confidence and combative midfielder and captain Cattermole was slowly learning how to stay on the field. Things were looking good, and progress was being made throughout the team. And then it happened…
That horrible Halloween horror show at the worst possible venue, St. James’ Park, in front of 51,988 baying fans…the true low of the season, and many seasons, I hope. We just did not show up, Newcastle were up for it, and Kevin Nolan hit a 50-minute hat-trick that had us reeling. Thank the Lord above that the ex-Bolton midfielder has moved on to join Big Sam at West Ham and will not be there to haunt us next season.
Credit to the Lads though for coming back the following week, with a Gyan brace in a 2-0 win over “hard-to-beat” Stoke City. Then on Tuesday, November 9th the Black Cats played well at White Hart Lane, after absorbing the pressure in the first and then equalising through Gyan in the second half. That performance set the stage for that incredible pounding of Chelsea the following Sunday, when all the stats were against Sunderland getting anything from the game. They simply ripped the Champions apart, with 3 terrific goals, and all this happened without Darren Bent.
A 2-2 home draw with Everton was followed by a pesky 3-2 defeat at Wolves, who are perhaps becoming our bogey team. The defence got back to their miserly best in two successive 1-0 home wins against West Ham and Bolton, with a predictable goalless draw at Craven Cottage sandwiched between them. An end of year reality check then took place with two 0-2 defeats, at home to Blackpool in an amazingly one-sided game, where the visitors scored with both their two shots, then a predictable loss at Old Trafford, where an injury-hit Sunderland just did not compete.
Overall we were approaching Christmas though in good shape, well into the top half of the table and looking forward to the second half of the season with justified optimism. The newly shaped side had blended pretty well, and the fans had responded.
©Lars J.S. Knutsen
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