So, the season has started. Knowing that West Brom had been hammered by Paul Merson – sorry, Walsall, and West Ham had managed a win, it was all eyes on Sunderland, away to Forest.
The first surprise was the selection. Mick McCarthy said, quite categorically, that no-one who hadn’t figured in pre-season would be selected for the Forest game. Fair enough, thought most, no Phillips, Flo, Gray, Thome, Babb, Myhre, Arca, then. Hang on, Phil Babb? Of all those listed, he would be the last one you’d expect to see lining up at the City Ground, yet there he was. Equally surprising, given we were drawn away to one of last season’s better sides in the division and one of this season’s pre-tournament favourites, was the absence of Sean Thornton, perhaps our best attacking midfielder, and Jeff Whitley, the player McCarthy has talked up for the past three months. Instead, the sideways-passer, Paul Thirlwell, and John Oster took to the field. Oster, at least, has had a good pre-season and much was expected of him, at long last.
Without going into a blow-by-blow account of the game, suffice it to say that we were all over Forest. How we weren’t two or three up before Andy Reid split the defence and Marlon Harewood sidestepped Poom to score Forest’s opener is still a mystery. Young Proctor looked lively enough, but maybe the thoughts of last season, despite all the rhetoric, remain and the youngster was unable to convert any opportunities. Kyle, despite hitting the post, was equally ineffective, aiming for the safety of mid-goal where, inevitably, the Forest keeper was waiting.
As good as their first goal was, it showed up defensive frailties that had been obvious to all during pre-season. The choice of defence is somewhat limited, with Darren Williams a target for Wigan, Craddock already at Molineux, Thome unable to play as we cannot afford even one more game out of him, Gray frozen out, Rossiter recovering from injury and Breen not yet match fit. That leaves Wright the only right back choice, a centre half pairing of either Babb or Clark alongside Bjorklund, and McCartney or young James at left back. This lack of options was even more pronounced when Babb allowed the Forest full-back a free run from the edge of the 6-yard box to the front post to head an easy second goal and kill the game.
Our best chance of getting back into the game seemed obvious. Make three changes – Butler for Oster, Clark for Babb & Stewart for Kyle. Oster, despite one decent moment, was ineffective and failed miserably to reproduce his pre-season form. This change did occur, and Butler seemed more effective in testing the full-back and causing problems. Clark for Babb, to tighten up at the back, never came, but by then Forest weren’t interested in getting a third. And Stewart did appear, but to replace the one player likely to make something happen, in Proctor. For all his missed chances, he was the only player likely to create a chance, or score the goal. Kilbane seemed lost coming inside and didn’t get out wide. Thirlwell preferred the sideways or even backwards ball, rather than creating a decent opening, and McAteer was left to operate as best he could.
The match slipped away and we went down without a wimper in the last minutes. The 16th straight defeat – one more and we equal the 1890s record of defeats by non-league Darwen – and Mick has some serious work to do before the visit of Millwall. The answer seems obvious – learn from the Roy Keane saga and see that whilst no one player is bigger than the club, the club needs its big players. Flo, Phillips, Gray, even Thome, no matter that it costs an installment to Chelsea, have to be better options at this level and more able to secure Sunderland AFC the points we need to launch a successful campaign. Failing that, leaving players who will be able to change the game out because of a failed alarm call is, at best, negligent, at worse, suicidal. Thornton had to be better than Oster, and Whitley, with something to prove, better than Thirlwell. Surely these two, with the addition of Reyna, will provide McCarthy with better options next Saturday.
All we can hope, now, is lessons are learnt and SAFC re-launch the campaign from the Stadium of Light next week, with a win against Millwall.