Premier League Pass & Move: In Which Sunderland Lose a Cup Final

A look back at the weekend’s Premier League action, with a special dispatch from the heart of Sunderland fandom darkness, from Graham Parker.

Cheers, Gods

Graham Parker: Sometimes a defeat (or a win — though I know less about those) has an echo of an earlier defeat. Sometimes it’s the game itself. Sometimes it’s just something about the day.

On May 11, 1991, I was a student living in Manchester. Sunderland had been promoted the previous season, despite losing a playoff final to Swindon, and were now about to play their final game of the season. Swindon lost their promotion place owing to being “guilty of financial irregularities,” and Sunderland had duly taken their place and struggled with it. By this final day of the football year, they needed a win at Manchester City to stay up at Luton Town’s expense.

That day has become part of Sunderland folklore. Thousands of Sunderland fans turned up in Manchester to help swell the then–Maine Road stadium to its biggest attendance of the season. I was among them, though owing to a student budget and a friend with a City season ticket, I was in fact standing with the City fans on the Kippax. I stoically bit my lip as Sunderland took a 2-1 lead just before halftime, in front of a baying throng over to my left that included at least one banner hopefully proclaiming “Luton Town guilty of financial irregularities.”

It being Sunderland, the lead couldn’t last. Even as Sunderland celebrated, I had the sense that would be the case, though the distancing effect of having to stay quiet rather than bay my support was actually strangely empowering. Robbed of the illusion that my contribution of chants might be the difference between success and failure, I was able to watch events unfold without feeling that strange sense of misplaced responsibility that is the engaged fan’s lot. I’d find my glance flicking over to the Sunderland fans 100 feet away, singing their hearts out, feeling both proud of them and secretly relieved not be among them as fortune tilted downward, carrying their emotions with it.

City came back almost immediately and went on to win 3-2 and secure a fifth-place finish, their highest in the league for 13 years. I would leave the stadium and head to a party in Rusholme, where I would be mugged en route.

On Sunday I watched a latter-day Sunderland team take a halftime lead over another Manchester City (truly another Manchester City) side, before losing the Capital One Cup final. Sunderland had gone up through a wonderfully finished Fabio Borini goal that had hints of Luis Suarez in its persistence in the buildup.

As the teams left the field at halftime, my wife, gamely sporting a “Sunderland Till I Die” T-shirt that was part of a domestic sartorial onslaught I’d initiated that morning — partly in the spirit of superstition, and partly out of the occasional migrant’s affectation for homeland ties which I like to indulge in on occasion — turned to me and, smiling cheerfully and possibly faintly patronizingly, asked if I was happy.

I told her that, no, I wasn’t happy, not just because the game wasn’t over, but because at least if Sunderland had been losing 4-0 at halftime, I could have lived through the second half without struggling with hope. In taking the lead so early, Sunderland had given their more long-suffering fans (the ones not using the #DaretoDream hashtag on Twitter … as if) — a challenge to suppress hope in favor of the more familiar and brutal expectation. The opposite of “hope” isn’t “despair” for a Sunderland fan — it’s a lovingly tended “not hope” that takes up exactly the same volume as hope in their brains.

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The City goals were quick, powerful, and beautiful. Strikes from Yaya Toure and Samir Nasri were so impressive that it was impossible to begrudge as someone who loves the game. I was almost relieved the gods had decided not to toy with me for the whole second half before crushing me. Cheers, gods.

It was during the final 20 minutes or so that I started getting images of that City relegation game in my head — the slightly strange remove that comes from watching a game among opposing fans and having to keep part of your attention on governing your own reactions, rather than just letting go and following the game.

Watching in Brooklyn with my wife and 15-month-old, who was cheerfully spilling food down a Sunderland jersey his grandparents had bought for him (I couldn’t quite do that to him, myself), I had something of the same sense of distance as in that moment 23 years ago. Not just the literal distance of watching from another continent, but the distance of never quite being immersed in a story whose ending I felt I knew. It was as if I’d read the book and knew this adaptation might take liberties with elements of the story, and add a minor character or two, but would not change the ending.

My association with Sunderland goes back most of my life and this was only the third cup final, and the first for 22 years, that I’d seen them in since becoming a fan. That’s a significant moment in a timeline, and I genuinely don’t and didn’t want to downplay its significance to me.

And yet … and yet. Wigan, last year, notwithstanding, in fact probably because of Wigan, I’d never truly thought there was going to be any other outcome to this game, and sitting with my little family watching, I had a realization I was truly OK with that. I could watch the Sunderland players commit wholeheartedly without reward, and watch another generation of fans singing their hearts out, and feel a certain peace about the inevitability of events.

Honestly, my only real sadness afterward was for the possible end of Jozy Altidore’s Sunderland career, symbolized by his absence from the match-day squad, and the moment the gods decided to have one last little piece of fun with one of his replacements, Steven Fletcher, who fumbled getting a shot off just before City’s third. It was the type of moment that tends to earn an unfortunate place in fan folklore/infamy, but that image would be a sad way to remember a day when Sunderland, collectively, had little to regret and everything to admire.

I may never see them in another cup final, or I may see them in the FA Cup final in a couple of months. I can’t pretend it doesn’t matter to me, but for those who meant well and told me they’d wanted Sunderland to win because it would have been historic, I have to say that for a fan, win or lose, the history happens anyway. Congratulations to City.

Soldado Scores at Last

Mike L. Goodman: Spurs are what they are at this point. They are a pretty decent team, who will likely finish outside the Champions League places, but have just enough in terms of quality players and Tim Sherwood voodoo luck to keep the last vestiges of a run at the fourth spot alive. After this season, Spurs will be faced with the tricky prospect of what to do with a roster of expensive buys that haven’t quite worked. To that end, the sight of Roberto Soldado scoring a goal from open play is quite a relief.

Spurs are likely to be stuck with the 28-year-old striker for a while, having paid £26.4 million last summer. It was a break in the club’s usual strategy to spend so much on a player as old as Soldado. They run the risk of having him as he gets older and his skills decline, plus they will be unlikely to recoup very much money should they decide to sell him in another season or two. So the fact that Soldado had only one Premier League goal from the run of play this season before Sunday was a concern, to say the least.

Will Soldado become a more capable finisher for Spurs? He will likely improve, because two goals from 48 shots is a rate that’s so bad, it’s almost impossible to sustain for an extended period of time. Will he become enough of a presence to justify his price tag? That’s another matter entirely.

Liverpool, in One Goal

Chris Ryan: A Steven Gerrard pass from deep midfield, perfectly dropped into the run of Luis Suarez, cut back for speed demon Raheem Sterling’s clinical finish. Man, this team is fun to watch.

The Best We Ever Had?

Brett Koremenos: As entertaining as the Saints have been to watch this season, their true appeal (to me at least) has had nothing to do with how they play on the pitch. With an academy churning out exciting prospects, an energetic style of play, and budding, world-class talents like Adam Lallana and Jay Rodriguez, the Saints draw you in, like any good rebellion, because they represent a real threat to the established order.

Even after they became the latest victim of Liverpool’s clinical counterattacking, a loss that firmly embedded them in the middle of the table, it’s easy to view this season as precursor to greater future accomplishments. Southampton almost seems destined to become even more compelling moving forward.

Or are they?

The first 59 minutes of Southampton’s performance against Liverpool were so engaging because of the contributions of players who likely won’t be with the club next season. Precocious left back Luke Shaw, who spent most of the Liverpool match rampaging down the flank firing in crosses, might as well just start wearing a Chelsea kit now (unless City can beat them to the punch). The flamboyant Lallana (one of my favorite players to watch this year) will likely be taking his talents to a bigger, more crowded, stage as well — especially if David Silva finally waves good-bye to Manchester City. Even manager Mauricio Pochettino, whose frenetic pressing and fluid attacking schemes have made the club almost a must-watch, could move on as well.

For a club like Southampton, the loss or decline of personnel of that caliber is nearly impossible to overcome without some type of setback. The exits of Shaw and Lallana will come with a hefty financial reimbursement, but as the Dani Osvaldo and Gaston Ramirez signings have shown, turning cash into top-end talent isn’t the easiest process.

So as I watched the Southampton players trudge off the field at St. Mary’s Stadium on Saturday, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was the best we were going to see from the club, at least for the near future. As much as the hipster in me wants to see a Borussia Dortmund–like rise toward the top of the league, the economic landscape in English football is just too harsh. For all the Saints’ promise, the reality of the Premier League is that without financial muscle and/or the presence of European football, it’s nearly impossible for most clubs to retain the talent needed to join the wealthy elite.

The Meaning of Stoked

Goodman: On the face of it, Arsenal’s loss to Stoke was the surprise result of the weekend. But dig a little deeper and it starts to feel more inevitable. Despite sitting atop the table for most of the first half of the season, and remaining within a couple of points of the summit all year, Arsenal have not been as good as their main rivals for the top spot — Chelsea and Manchester City. Whereas Chelsea and City have both created the lion’s share of shots in their matches, Arsenal has lagged behind in that department. Instead they have kept pace by both finishing a comparatively higher percentage of their shots, and preventing their opponents from doing the same. That’s virtually impossible to do over the course of a season (and even when you do, you often pay for it in later years, as Manchester United are showing us).

Basically in a game where stuff happens to everybody, and the best teams overcome that random stuff, Arsenal managed to avoid it for the most part. Until Stoke. Eventually everybody gets Stoked. A dreary game, a contentious hand ball penalty call and that’s all she wrote.

Arsenal now have to face a particularly tough schedule down the stretch, traveling to Chelsea, Everton, and Spurs while hosting Manchester City over their next four Premier League dates. It’s more likely that Arsenal will be fighting to avoid being dragged into a battle for fourth rather than climbing back up the table toward the top.

If that happens, we might want to look at the Stoke match as the turning point, but that’s not really the case. Arsenal were always bound to get nipped at some point — it happens to everybody; they just might not be good enough to overcome it. Manchester City and Chelsea, however, have both proved several times that they are.

Filed Under: Premier League, Sunderland, Roberto Soldado, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, Southampton, Brett Koremenos, Graham Parker, Mike L. Goodman, Chris Ryan