Crucial point for Sunderland today at Bolton Wanderers, and a much better performance - with the only weakness being a terminal inability to hit the target. Indeed, Bolton ended up getting closer, Sunderland saved in injury time by an allegedly excellent save by the Hungarian Marton Fulop.
Even more critical was the return of Teemu Tainio in the centre of midfield, surely the best and most consistent player Sunderland have had in that defensive-midfield position since the days of local legend (but of course, Portsmouth born) Kevin Ball. He works hard, wins many tackles and distributes the ball simply, as well as having a good shot and cross; protecting a fallible defence and supporting an at times detached attack. The only problem is that he is a bit injury prone and also that he isn't always given ninety minutes; once replaced today by Reid, Bolton had their only really concerted period of pressure in the entire game. It should also be remembered that he was dropped for last week's dismal capitulation to Everton, and made one of the tackles of the season at Old Trafford in a game that Sunderland almost drew. He is a good player and a Finnish international because he does the crucial things consistently well - unlike the likes of Whitehead, Murphy, Richardson and Reid. A five-man midfield with Malbranque and Tainio prominent in the centre must be the way for the rest of the season.
So, the European players save the day. Not safe yet, but much more confident of gaining at least a point from the last two games, which would probably be enough considering the goal differences, form and remaining fixtures of Newcastle, Hull and Middlesbrough. Newcastle deserve cutting down to size - need a humbling, considering the arrogant expectation of so many of their fans, who, it should be remembered, were behind Shepherd in sacking Sir Bobby Robson a few games into a season (a man who achieved arguably as much as Keegan, in steering Newcastle to consecutive seasons of European qualification, finishing 4th, 3rd and 5th in the 2001-2, 2002-3 and 2003-4 seasons respectively).* An idiotic move, sympomatic of the club's short-termism, speculating insanely on player wages and transfers and employing nine managers (including caretakers John Carver, Nigel Pearson and the hapless Chris Hughton) in less than five years since.
The spectacle of local opera singer and prize porker, Graeme Danby, on the pitch of St James' Park, employed to try and stir up local feeling, was symbolic of the rotten state of the club. He sang complete renditions of 'The Blaydon Races', which one suspects all too few of the 47,000 or so crowd would know the words to. Like the nouveau-riche chairman Ashley, he wore a black and white replica shirt, and also brandished a black and white flag, a rather pathetic reminder of the times Hall and Shepherd exhorted the 'Geordie Nation'. True Newcastle fans will tell you that gaudy flags and overpriced replica shirts merely mask the void at the heart of the club; it used to be about the community knowing and enjoying their football, stood on the terraces, sharing in something.
It is surely all the sadder for the true fans that their relegation may now be presided over by one of the few men in football who might grasp what the club used to mean: Alan Shearer, whom, going by anecdotes at least seems a modest and generous man, staying truer to his working-class roots than many. So far, however, he has used 21 players in 5 games, showing little tactical or motivational nous; he is accompanied by relegation expert Iain Dowie and, crucially, has not started, let alone achieved, the UEFA Pro Licence course supposedly required to manage a Premier League side.
For Danby, and unfortunately too many, supporting Newcastle is about being part of a herd mentality; the singer displayed a vulgar, adverserial loutishness, verbally lambasting the 441 Portsmouth fans who made the longest journey in the Premership for a Monday night fixture: yelling "Have you come in a fucking car? You're the Mackems of the South Coast". This sort of 'passion' is an Empire of the senseless, to paraphrase the Mekons - demonstrating how little true pride and wisdom there is in the area these days, compared to the pre-Thatcher/Blair days.
Football is now about money and consumerism (never the same for me since my days at Roker Park as season-ticket holder in the Fulwell End, c.1990-7) and Newcastle United are one of the chief culprits; their relegation would provide a great feeling of Schadenfreude. If they stay up it will be by the skin of their teeth and clearly down to the failings of Hull, who unfortunately also believed in their own hype and got complacent; many fans, and the chairman, foolishly adopted the Us-against-Them moniker of The Tiger Nation.**
So, I hope it's a draw or even a Boro win on Monday; whilst there's a lot to dislike about them, they at least have more of an emphasis on developing a youth system and have a chairman who is a proper football chairman, trying to think for the long-term and avoiding most of the Leeds-Newcastle pitfalls. However, they did sign Alves for £12.7million, who was laughable last week, and has been all season.
* Robson is one of very few figures unreservedly respected in both Tyne and Wear, and not without reason; a survivor of the old north-east of Brian Clough, Norman Cornish (now 90, a key remnant as identified by Gordon Burn in his excellent Born Yesterday: The News as a Novel, 2008) and Robert Westall?
** There are 443 hits on Google for "tiger nation" and "hull", against 10,400 hits for "geordie nation" and "newcastle", which may indicate that most Hull fans have seen sense and not branded themselves thus, or done it more humorously if so. However, that dwarfs the 61 hits for "mackem nation" and "sunderland" - and I have never heard any Sunderland fans using such a term. Of course, there are many bad elements in the support for Sunderland, or, say, Stoke (and far too many BNP local election votes cast in both northern cities), but these clubs have realistic expectations.