Tomorrow is a huge day for the Premiership in what has been a very exciting season. To have the title decided on the last day is always something special. It is all just about over in the Blues' favour.
Let me first say that I much prefer Man. City to Man. Utd. City to me are just nicer, they have style, and when they lose, they lose with grace. Their rise to the top has been momentous. Their rivals have won too much, and Ferguson is of course talented but arrogant. How, you may ask, has this affected Sunderland? Well in my memory it goes back in part to the way he unsettled a very gifted French striker, David Bellion, who scored his first senior goal for the Black Cats against Aston Villa in September 2002, as related in Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Bellion). After a game United won at the SSOL in October 2002, Ferguson complimented Bellion after he had come on as a substitute.
Following that Bellion completely lost interest in playing for the Black Cats, and went AWOL to France at a time when the team needed him most. Upon returning, Bellion claimed he had been visiting his sick grandmother, and made himself temporarily unavailable for selection, claiming he was "mentally unfit" to be playing in a relegation battle. At the time, speculation was rife that the Frenchman had been "tapped up" by United, and sure enough he agreed a move to the "Red Devils" after his contract expired in June 2003. Luckily, Bellion was under the age of 23, and Sunderland was eligible for compensation, the clubs eventually agreeing a fee of £2 million out of court. Even former Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein claimed Bellion had been offered to Arsenal by his agent illegally and that United had been paying for Bellion's mobile phone bills whilst still at Sunderland.
You could fault the star-struck player for never really seriously kicking a ball again for Sunderland, but I put the blame firmly at the door of Alex Ferguson, who unsettled a talent that Sunderland had unearthed, and the Scotsman essentially transformed him into an ineffective wreck, in a season when the Black Cats just avoided relegation. These sleaze-ball tactics have made him less popular than such a hugely successful manager should be.
I remember Sunderland’s 1968 last day of the season league win at Old Trafford really clearly – I was very young and had recently been to my first Sunderland home game, by cycling to Roker Park. The climax of the campaign was upon us and the Lads were clear of relegation, having won 4 times and drawn 4 on their travels, and got the points in 8 home games – the team were where they are today on 45 points in the modern, 3-points for a win parlance.
The magic of that day on my young consciousness was also that Man. City were at Newcastle. Sunderland were expected just to roll over and let Man. Utd. just win the league, since Best, Charlton and Law were in that great team, with Man. City expected to be runners-up. Well, Sunderland stunned the Reds in a 2-1 win, with goals from Colin Suggett and George Mulhall – Hurley, Todd, Stuckey, Montgomery and Porterfield also starred that day. I was of course hooked as a fan, seeing the game in black and white later on Match of the Day – one can see the YouTube footage at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bmBEECo85yY
Of course, Man City capped it all in 1968 by winning 4-3 at St. James’ and gaining their last title, in an amazing climax to the season – with echoes of this season.
We all like to dream, but if tomorrow we finally manage to get our mid-season form back and start scoring goals again, and play like we did against Man. City, Liverpool, Stoke, Swansea or Norwich, then we can compete against the team likely to be runner-up. It is typical of United’s arrogance that even when second on goal difference, and requiring either City to slip up at home to QPR or to force an improbable landslide win over the Black Cats to edge back in front, they still believe they can just walk all over us at the SSOL.
According to the Sunderland Echo, home boss Martin O’Neill has promised to respect the title by fielding his strongest side against Manchester United tomorrow. The Black Cats’ boss is perfectly entitled to experiment in the last game of the season, with little riding on it for the home team.
But he says he has no intention of disrespecting the eagerly-awaited title deciders this Sunday.
“Obviously this is a very important game in the context of the Premier League season and what happens at the top of the table and we have to respect that. Manchester City and Manchester United both want to be crowned champions this weekend and I’m sure Manchester City will expect us to be as competitive as possible. Having said that, regardless of the circumstances surrounding the title, it’s also an important game to us as well and one that we want to win.”
“To that end, we’ll be putting out a side which we hope will make life as difficult as possible for Manchester United and give them a difficult game. I think everyone already knows exactly Manchester United want, and need, to win this game. But also, we really want to win the game for the sake of ourselves, our fans and our final league position.”
Sunderland go into the game with a near full-strength side to choose from. With so many ex-Utd. players on our roster, we are motivated. John O’Shea has not trained this week, but that is not expected to keep him out of contention for the game against his former club. Otherwise, Sunderland have a clean bill of health and the boss will have to decide whether to restore Nicklas Bendtner to the starting line-up.
He has also been further boosted by the return of several players. The manager said: “Wes Brown, Titus Bramble, Kieran Richardon and Connor Wickham have all been involved in training this week. Titus has got another week under his belt, Wes is doing well and both Kieran and Connor have been back this week and all of them could be pushing for the squad on match day. We’ll have to wait until the day itself before deciding what to do, but it’s good to have so many players returning to health.”
I would normally review all games, but the 2-1 loss at Fulham, our 10th away from home in the league this season, was a non-event. We created many chances, but did not take them. That is the story of our season, aside from that purple patch in mid-season, soon after O’Neill was appointed, when we could not stop scoring really spectacular goals.
A win would be a great tonic, and would show that we are serious about finishing as high as possible in the Premiership. We need to show that arrogance does not help anyone, but I just love us being involved in big games like this – that is what top-level football is all about. Great performances from one or two players will help the team but also show O'Neill who will or will not need to be moved on over the summer break.
©Lars J.S. Knutsen