EAVESDROPPING on trains is something you cannot avoid, so for my entire journey from London to Southampton I was able to listen to a young wannabee trying to impress a couple of Sunderland supporters about his exploits as a “journalist” – a “youtuber” with an obsession for “selfies” of the animated kind. Oh well, if it makes him happy. “I am living the dream,” he kept saying. “And Southampton v Sunderland is next for me.”
The red and white shirted Sunderland fans hadn’t come quite as far to see their team, but they were exiled Mackems living in the south. Sunderland are one of those clubs that doesn’t really deserve the loyalty their fans gives them. Their honours list in the past 100 years has been quite paltry: FA Cup winners 1937 and 1973; Football League Champions 1935-36. The rest of their major prizes were won between 1891-92 and 1912-13. Not a lot for the good people of Sunderland to cheer about.
“It’s an obsession, in your blood,” said one Sunderland fan on the train, swigging from an oversize blue bottle of WKD. “You can change your wife, but never your club.” On his neck, I could just make out a Black Cat tattoo.
Sunderland fans travelled down to the freezing cold south coast in force. “The only good thing about this season is that Newcastle are doing even worse than us,” said the craggy-faced Makem. “They’re going down, we’ve just to make sure we don’t get that third spot, ‘cos Villa have the other one sewn up.”
Sunderland fans console themselves with the fact that Newcastle are in a worse state
Our WKD friend had reason to be nervous about a return trip to the St. Mary’s sStadium. In October 2014, Southampton beat Sunderland 8-0. It remains the Saints’ biggest Premier League victory. This season, some of Sunderland’s performances have been better than their results, but it is a time of struggle. Sam Allardyce, their manager, who took over in October 2015, is trying to keep his record intact of never being relegated from the Premier.
Sunderland arrived at St.Mary’s in 17th place, level on points with Norwich and Newcastle. Their hosts, Southampton, were in ninth place, but had lost their past two games – at home to Chelsea and a south coast derby at Bournemouth. But Southampton have enjoyed some good results this season, winning at Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge and thrashing Arsenal 4-0 at home.
Over the past couple of seasons, Southampton have won many friends for their football and for producing and nurturing some fine players. Their stadium is the biggest in the south of England outside of London.
The Saints moved to their new home in 2001 when they left the oddity that was The Dell – the first ground in England to have permanent floodlighting installed.
Life after the Dell hasn’t always been easy. Southampton were relegated from the Premier in 2005 and then went down from the Championship to League One in 2009. This is their fourth season back in the Premier and they have improved each year – 14th to 8th to 7th. They may continue that momentum in 2015-16.
In the past few years, Southampton have lost a host of talented individuals – Calum Chambers (Arsenal), Luke Shaw (Manchester United), Adam Lallana (Liverpool), Dejan Lovren (Liverpool), Rickie Lambert (Liverpool), Nathaniel Clyne (Liverpool) and Morgan Schneiderlein (Manchester United). Furthermore, Maurico Pochettino, their manager, was snapped up by Tottenham after a relatively short stint in charge.
It is Southampton’s burden that they are neither big enough or financially-endowed enough to see-off the approaches of other more monied and more aggressive clubs. Under Ronald Koeman, they not far away from becoming a very effective team, and they are certainly one of the more respected outfits outside the top four or five. But then they always were, were they not? Just recall the days of Ted Bates, Lawrie McMenemy, Kevin Keegan, Mick Channon, Ron Davies and Matt Le Tissier.
St. Mary’s has a slightly nautical appearance about it – not as much as Southampton Central station’s art deco ocean-going liner look, but it has a vague resemblance to something maritime. It’s perched some 20 minutes walk away from the centre, but the shuttle buses that transport fans to the ground are very useful, and extremely good value for £2 return. They work.
Inside the ground, the seats are a little cramped and the sound system is appalling, making all the good work done by the on-pitch announcer null and void, but overall, it’s fit-for-purpose. The atmosphere was good for the game, largely due to the very noisy Sunderland contingent.
There was little, if any, mention of Adam Johnson, the Sunderland player charged with having under-age sex, which proved that even in football, there are taboo subjects. Sunderland fans were busy singing – I think – about Newcastle’s manager Steve McClaren. “Don’t sack the wally”.
The teams lined-up as follows:
G- Fraser Forster (27): Three England caps, formerly with Celtic. Cost £10m.
D- Cuco Martino (26): Dutch-born Curacao international. Previously with Twente.
D- Jose Fonte (32): Portuguese international, skipper of the Saints. Cost £1.2m from Crystal Palace.
D- Virgil van Dijk (24): Tall defender who cost £13m when signed from Celtic in summer. Dutch international.
D- Ryan Bertrand (26): Signed from Chelsea in 2015 after a loan spell. England international.
M- Oriol Romeu (24): Signed from Chelsea in 2015. Spanish under-21 international.
M- Jordy Clasie (24): Joined from Feyenoord in July 2015 for £8m. 11 caps for Netherlands.
M- Steve Davis (31): Northern Ireland international. Joined from Glasgow Rangers in 2012.
M- Sadio Mane (23): Joined from Austria’s Red Bull Salzburg in 2014 for £11.8m. Capped 31 times by Senegal.
M- Dusan Tadic (27): Serbian international who joined from Twente in 2014. Attacking midfielder.
A- Graziano Pelle (30): Joined from Feyenoord in 2014 for £8m. Italian international.
G- Vitto Mannone (28): Former Arsenal keeper who joined Sunderland in 2013. Italian under-21 cap.
D- DeAndre Yedlin (22): USA international on loan from Tottenham. Has also played for Seattle Sounders.
D- Lamine Kone (27): One cap for the Ivory Coast. Signed from France’s Lorient in January 2016.
D- Younes Kaboul (30): Joined Sunderland in summer of 2015 from Tottenham. Five France caps.
D- Patrick van Aanholt (24): Signed from Chelsea for £2m in 2014. Capped by the Netherlands.
D- Jan Kirchhoff (25): Germany under-21 international centre back. Signed from Bayern Munich in January 2016.
A- Fabio Borini (24): Italian international signed from Liverpool in August 2015 for £ 8m.
M- Yann M’Vila (25): On loan from Rubin Kazan. 22 caps for France.
M- Jack Rodwell (24): Signed from Manchester City for £10m in 2014. Three England caps.
M – Wahbi Khazri (25): Tunisian international. Signed from Bordeaux in January 2016.
A- Dame N’Doye (31): On loan from Turkey’s Trabzonspor. Senegal international.
The game fizzed from the start – it was never dull – with attacks swinging from one end to the other, but neither side created much in the way of goalscoring chances. The best opportunity fell to Southampton’s Dusan Tadic, who tried to get on the end of a knock-down by Pelle but saw his effort saved by Mannone. At the other end, Sunderland nearly scored when a free-kick from the impressive Wahbi Khazri was pushed against the crossbar by an off-guard Fraser Forster.
For Southampton, Ryan Bertand showed some good touches, the kind that marked him as a useful prospect at Chelsea. Pelle, all arm gestures and victim’s protests, was unable to seriously trouble Sunderland. At the back, the Saints giant central defender Virgil van Dijk stood out.
The game really came to life in the final 20 minutes. Sunderland’s Borini raced towards goal and was clumsily dealt with by Fonte. The red card was justified.
With five minutes to go, Sunderland took the lead. A high ball into the area arrived at the feet of Lamine Kone after Jan Kirchhoff had knocked it on. Kone avoided a couple of striped shirts and pushed the ball across to substitute Jermaine Defoe. The vastly experienced former England man wasted no time in shooting home – the sort of finish that has been his trademark. While Sunderland fans cavorted, many locals decided they had seen enough.
But their team was not finished. In added time, Van Dijk swept the ball home at the near post to equalise. Sunderland were devastated, the whistle shortly followed. A fair result, even if the travelling fans in the 31,458 crowd might not agree. Their next game may well be their most crucial of the campaign – away at Newcastle!
The St. Mary’s experience was enjoyable. When you watch a lot of non-league and lower league football, the quality of the Premier is something else. We claim that the Premier is over-hyped and that much may be true, but the pace, the noise and passion of the fans makes it quite special. Hats off to the Sunderland supporters, their humour, support and songs kept me entertained.