In the build up to Norwich’s trip to Sunderland I think I – probably on Twitter – called the match a meeting of the two darlings of this Premier League season. While I don’t doubt that some reading that statement wouldn’t have fully understood what I meant (a lot of my followers on Twitter are Brazilian strippers and spambots who are incapable of reading my Tweets because they don’t exist in real-life), the statement itself was an entirely complimentary one.
I was referring to the fact that both sides involved in the match have been looked upon kindly by fans and pundits of the Premier League alike. Norwich have garnered praise for their approach to staying up, Sunderland liked for their resurgent upturn in form since the departure of Steve Bruce. In addition, the managers of both teams have been highly-rated by the dispassionate observer of late.
In fact, the very motive behind my attending this game was to see a team that had grown on my group of friends so ardently that we felt compelled to pay an outrageous amount of money to see them lose. Norwich City, a team who’s fortunes I continue to curse when watching, have captured the admiration of the Premier League’s majority with their no-holds barred attitude to the English topflight. Players like Grant Holt and Steve Morison have instilled a feeling of nostalgia in the minds of the onlookers – Holt a big, bustling number 9, might remind football fans of a by-gone era, when men were men and strikers were brutish, slow and sluggish in their pursuit of goal – real target men. Morison may also spark a feeling of reminiscence. It wasn’t long ago that ‘Morro’ was in England’s backwaters – choosing between a career in shredding paper and playing for Stevenage Borough – he’s really taken the old-school route to the top.
Alas, I digress. When the game had actually begun (me and several friends were situated in the away end of the ground to further our commitment to the Canaries) I soon realised it would be Sunderland that’d have me swooning.
For the large part of this season, the Wearsiders haven’t been much to look at; dropping points despicably often under Steve Bruce and playing unattractive and stuttering football. Of course, it’s extremely easy to be negative about Bruce now he’s gone - and even easier now a new era is flourishing so. Why do you think I’m doing it?
Again, back to the point. It’s crystal clear to see that Martin O’Neill has rejuvenated a tired-looking Sunderland side and turned them into a team of actual quality. Perhaps most impressively, is the fact the team are doing the simple things with such ease and guile, beating sides like Norwich at a canter when, before, under Bruce, they would have struggled to impose themselves. O’Neill’s arrival seems to have boosted the squad to varying degrees and it’s evident in the hard work the players are prepared to offer the team. If you’ll excuse the cliché, I would add they’re looking like a side that ‘plays for the shirt’.
While an industrious work ethic and a focus on the simplistic aspects of the game have reunited the club – the win over Norwich proved that O’Neill can make Bruce’s team even more than that. Apart from introducing Wayne Bridge in the second half, the eleven men that comfortably and stylishly swept Norwich aside were essentially the same outfit that failed so miserably at the start of this season. When Stephane Sessegnon collected on halfway, dinked a nutmeg through Bradley Johnson and spread the ball to the right wing for Fraizer Campbell, my mouth was already agape with the inventive football on display. “Is this actually Sunderland I’m watching?” I found myself wondering. The consequent pin-point cross made it all too easy for Sessegnon, who’d scampered down the middle of the park to meet the ball with the simplest of headers. It was 2-0, and, by my reckoning, game over.
And even though I was among the Norwich faithful, I couldn’t help but applaud. It was the finest goal I’d seen Sunderland score in a long, long time and it came just minutes after a sumptuous finish from a freshly-fit Campbell. The home support had colossal grins etched on their faces at the interval; it was like they’d seen a half that’d put the world to rights. Perhaps it was.
While the second half might have been a foregone conclusion when the hosts scrappily sucked in a third, I felt like I was in attendance for the game that had proved Sunderland’s revival. Later on in the evening, I saw a delighted Sunderland fan comment using the phrase: “Neil before the king” and that sealed it. Before the crime-obssessed Northern Irishman arrived here in the North East, there was none of that. That was witty. That was quite funny. Has O’Neill helped re-define the qualities of the Sunderland support as well as the team? Surely not? Well, for now anyway, he’s as untouchable as his counterpart that evening, Paul Lambert.
As for the visitors – of whom I’m being urged to stop watching by my Canary-loving friends, through fear that I’m some bad omen – they’ll be just fine. Besides being outclassed at the Stadium of Light, I’ve seen enough from Lambert’s side to suggest they’ll stay up – perhaps even push for a top-half finish. Their intrepid away support was noteworthy, considering the long trek and the fact it was a midweek game being shown on Sky. It’s hard to appreciate how loud the fans actually were, but their constant singing and undying passion was also excellent in its own right – even at 3-0 down.