THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

Sunderland v Norwich, Sunday 1.30pm

icon oneillsunderland16 March ~ The most famous match played between Sunderland and Norwich is the 1985 League Cup final. Norwich lifted the Milk Cup thanks to a Sunderland own goal and both teams were promptly relegated to Division Two. Since then the two clubs have contested the Friendship Trophy to commemorate a convivial atmosphere between fans at Wembley that day. Put in context, that game took place days after notorious riots at Kenilworth Road. Tomorrow Sunderland and Norwich will also be playing for three vital points in the Premier League relegation battle.

Martin O’Neill’s first full season at Sunderland has been disappointing and it could yet get worse. Sunderland fans have grown accustomed to the tedium of lower mid-table and were lulled into a false sense of security by a good run in December and January. But we’ve been shaken awake by an alarming plunge towards the bottom three. And doubts are growing about O’Neill’s management.

Long winless runs have been a feature of supporting Sunderland for several years now, whoever is in charge. The current flush now stands at six games and four defeats without a victory. The whole team seems chronically short of confidence. Our defenders are slow, old, prone to mistakes or playing out of position. The midfield is unable to either protect the back four or create chances going forward. Our attackers just look isolated from each other. Worryingly, the manager doesn’t seem able to do anything about it.

In games where Sunderland have gone ahead, as against QPR last week, the team hasn’t been able to control the game and simply invited pressure on themselves. In other matches, they haven’t started playing until they are a couple of goals down, like in the hard-fought 2-2 draw against Fulham the weekend before last.

For a man famed for his man-management and enthusiasm, O’Neill has looked bereft on the sidelines. He has tinkered with formations and players but consistency, or results, haven’t changed. And, in a genuine symptom of a relegation battle, he’s started stating the obvious in incredulous and downbeat interviews. “We need to start winning, really,” he said after the painful 3-1 defeat at QPR.

Due to injuries to Phil Bardsley and Spurs loanee Danny Rose, we’ve had two central midfielders, Jack Colback and Craig Gardner, playing at full-back. This issue was obvious before the January transfer window, but we loaned Kader Mangane, a central defender, instead. Gardner has since given away two penalties in the last three games.

It isn’t yet time for a new Sunderland manager. On paper O’Neill is about as good as we can get, sacking him now would be counter-productive and he deserves a full season. He seems to be restructuring the team for big changes in the summer, which explains the current lack of squad depth. Looking at the list of potential replacements is also instructive. The fact that Phil Brown has previously described himself as a boyhood Sunderland fan and is unemployed makes me very anxious.

But the fixtures ahead look difficult. After Norwich, Sunderland play Man Utd, Chelsea, Everton (who they haven't beaten in 19 games) and Aston Villa (battling for points of their own). Then again, mid-table is highly congested and only a few points away. Things could also look much healthier very quickly with a win or two.

So this game is vital. Norwich have had a bad run of their own but then won against Everton. The Canaries also breezed into a 2-0 lead against Sunderland at Carrow Road at the start of December and stoutly defended in the second half to win 2-1. They are more than capable of winning the game and that camaraderie cup at the Stadium of Light.

Even if Sunderland do limp back into mid-table it looks like the Tyne-Wear derby on April 13 is the only thing to look forward to. Having said that, our recent performances against that bunch have been so bad we might as well write that game off too. Roll on August. Ed Upright

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