Sympathy with the opposition

“I've never seen us dominate a game so much and yet end up with nothing to show for it, like”, so said the supporter on the seat opposite me on the train home after last Saturday's match.

“I've never seen us dominate a game so much and yet end up with nothing to show for it, like”, so said the supporter on the seat opposite me on the train home after last Saturday's match.

After we had got talking a bit about important matters such as Mr. Riley's timekeeping, and once he had removed his red and white striped specs, we got along famously, in fact just as if reliving the so-called 'Friendly Final' when we squared up at Wembley all those years ago… with the same result I hasten to add - (not that you need reminding!)

I will admit to a certain degree of sympathy with him as we've all been to games where we could, nay should, have won by the proverbial golden mile but came away with one measly point or, worse still, could justifiably say 'we was robbed!' and Sunderland I thought probably deserved something out of the game, though if I said that to my dad he would rightly remind me that to win you need to score and score they most certainly did not! Still, goal or no goal, I could see where he was coming from so my sympathy remained…until he and his similarly striped cohort decided to perform the entire repertoire of Wearside ditties, generally slating those who play in the same region only in black and white stripes, and got louder and louder as the miles passed, never mind my desperate desire to grab forty winks!

Thankfully one or two of the saner members of the travelling contingent ended up on my neighbouring seats after others sought out the refreshments on offer and we shared a reasonably decent conversation about our respective seasons. Their appraisal of theirs was summed up by “with or without Keano we don't score enough or hurt teams enough to end up above halfway, and that's disappointing”. Whether that is the case only time will tell of course. Their assessment of ours, albeit from a distance, was interesting. “You're a funny side” was said more than once (now we've never heard that before have we?), closely followed by “without Huckerby you have no spark of anything. Lose him in January and you've had it”. A little harsh on a few others who do have the capability to create even if we don't always see it, but the fact remains, whether January or June is irrelevant, if we lose Hucks our greatest creative asset will have gone and may be very hard to replace.

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As to the actual game itself, well to say it wasn't a classic would be an obvious understatement. The atmosphere at times seemed as flat as one of Delia's crêpes and the play on the pitch was often little more than scrappy. Thank goodness then for my neighbour's comment that never mind a pair of scissors - he was going to get his Stanley knife to Robert Eagle's barnet, and equal thanks to the footballing gods that Sunderland were a pretty poor side and couldn't take advantage of us on the day - a comment which I put to my travelling companions an hour or so later but, due to those stripy specs they insisted on wearing, they just could not entertain in any way, shape or form!

All of which left me reflecting on our promotion-winning season three years ago. These were exactly the games that we could easily have lost points in but we kept winning, or at least earning points where none had looked possible. And putting together those non-losing runs became so important in the overall scheme of things, lifting heads when they might have dropped, encouraging that extra effort when it may have slackened off a bit, making players go the extra mile for their team mates as well as their personal pride, and so on. That season all of those things were there in abundance and it is precisely those qualities and attitudes that Peter Grant now has to try to instil in those in his charge.

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It will not be an easy task for no side goes through the couple of heavy defeats that we have recently and feels completely that everything in the garden is rosy; whether he can get us to the play offs or not is very much in the balance, but one thing is for sure: the next few matches are crucial. Yes, they all are, but these next couple are against teams we will probably be fighting with for those precious places and dropping any points could prove critical, whereas picking up points, especially three away from home might just be the springboard to success at the end of the season.

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