Monday, August 20, 2012

Sunderland in America

“Oh, you’re a football fan Robert! Who are you a fan of?” Not surprised by this question, I reply to my new friend quickly, “Sunderland” (as if there could ever be any other option.) The confused face looks blankly at me. “Why the hell are you a fan of Sunderland?” is the inevitable response I receive.

This is the exact conversation I had last week while I was on vacation. I was staying at the beach with my family and while I was at a local pub watching a bit of the build up to the opening weekend of the premier league I met a man who was from somewhere just outside London. We ended up talking for about an hour about Sunderland, the Mags, and the upcoming weekend of matches. Even after all of our conversation the man just couldn’t wrap his mind around someone from America willingly choosing to be a fan of Sunderland. His surprise did not shock me, I’ve come to expect it when I talk to people about Sunderland but it did get me thinking more about how Sunderland could be begin to grow their fan base in America.

For me growing up, and for most fans I believe, we choose our sports teams based on two main factors. The first is: Is there a team close to me? If there is a team nearby they are the easiest to follow because they are in the news, they are more likely to be on local television, and chances are you can get to see them play. The other major factor in choosing a team is: Who does your dad follow? This factor often trumps the location factor because our dad can ingrain in us from a young age who we should follow. Some of my children's first words were "Go Gators" (a cheer for my favorite American college football team). Even now I have my children singing "Wise men say…". Before kids can walk and talk it seems their fate of what team to follow has already been decided, and as a parent, I for one am all for that.

That is all well and good for American fans who are fans of American sports teams, but it doesn't help us in our pursuit of a club in Europe to support. I've chronicled my story of how I came to support Sunderland here, but apparently I am a rare breed of fan because most Americans support clubs with lots of money and who can attract the big name international players. That's likely not going to be something Sunderland can do any time soon, so it's doubtful our American fan base is going to grow because of that. So here are just a couple of suggestions from me as to how Sunderland can begin to get a hold of the hearts and the pocketbooks of the fans in America.
  • Bring the club over to play in the pre-season. In July of 2011 The Mags played a small club based in Orlando Florida. It was a team that doesn't even play in the highest division here in the States. The Orlando club beat the Mags and I had a good laugh, however, many of the fans who attended that day became Newcastle fans. At the time nobody had heard of many of the Newcastle players, but because they saw them live they started following them.
  • Sign an American player. I know that Americans have played for us in the past, and there have been others we've tried to sign and it didn't work out, but Americans love to support other Americans. Clubs like Fulham and Everton have huge American followings all because of Tim Howard, Landon Donovan, and Clint Dempsey. Now I know that none of those names will be coming to Sunderland, but there is plenty of young talent in the States and I'd love to see us have an American on the senior team.
  • Have a player who racks up fantasy football points. I'll admit this is an odd one. However, there are lots of Americans who aren't fans of a particular team but love to play fantasy football. I'm in a league right now with 30 guys, 10 of which don't have a club that they support. These non-partisan guys tend to start to follow the teams who have players who get them lots of points. I actually had a conversation with a guy from the States who follows Sunderland because he had Kevin Phillips on his fantasy team and Phillips helped him win his league. 
Those are my three ideas. Two of which that club has direct control over, one is just my hope that we'll have a player score enough goals to warrant starting for your fantasy team. While gaining fans in America fans does not guarantee us anything in terms of success, it would make my life in the States a little more fun as a fan of our beloved Sunderland. And as a bonus it may help provide a little extra funding to bring in a player or two to help the squad continue to grow.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Thoughts on Arsenal Match

What a start to the new season's campaign. Away at Arsenal is always a tough draw, but it was made slightly easier with the Gunners being down Robin VanPersie and Alex Song. They boasted plenty of firepower with Lukas Podolski and Santi Cazorla making their debuts for the home side. Sunderland expectedly lined up in a defensive formation, but there were a few surprises from the Black Cats. Seb Larsson played centrally behind Sessegnon who was deployed as a lone striker. Frazier Campbell played out wide right to provide pace and width on the attack. While Sunderland had some good play going forward, they spent much of the match on their heels and putting up a wall around their 18 yard box. Ultimately Martin O'Neills tactics won out and we held on for a 0-0 draw. Here are my quick thoughts following the match.
  • Carlos Cuellar looks to be an excellent signing. He played well in the middle with John O'Shea. The two blocked numerous shots and kept things tight and compact in the middle. He slotted in nicely with Wes Brown being injured and Michael Turner off to Norwich.
  • I'm not sure how much longer Kieran Richardson will be at the club, but he was excellent at Left Back today. I hope we are able to convince him to stay on with the club. His positioning and his work rate were excellent all day.
  • Lots of fans wondered what would become of Seb Larsson this season, and like many predicted he was deployed centrally. However, he did not fare so well. He looked sloppy in possession and a little out of sorts in the middle of the pitch. I'm not ready to give up on the experiment yet though, I think he'll eventually succeed there.
  • James McClean, who played with a jersey with his name misspelled, did not have much cutting edge today. I think when we set up so defensively his game is limited. He needs players ahead of him in the box for him to provide service to. We had so many numbers behind the ball today that when he did get the ball in advanced positions he was often the furthest payer forward.
  • Frazier Campbell played wide on the right today, and in my opinion he struggled mightily. His pace is excellent but his touch on the ball and his positioning left much to be desired. I thought we looked better when Elmohamady replaced him out wide and gave us a more natural right winger on the pitch. It'll be interesting to see what happens with that position this season
All in all it was a great performance by the lads today. Cattermole and Colback manned the midfield with poise and I think both players are in for break out seasons. I think in the end it was our organization in the middle of the pitch that paid off and helped us earn a tough point against a very strong Arsenal side. 

Ha'way the Lads! 

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Looking Into the Crystal Ball

It's that time of year to make predictions for the upcoming season. It's been a long summer with not much news coming out of the Sunderland camp but I for one and really looking forward to the season. Here are my predictions for the season ahead.

Who will be our top scorer?
Of course I want my answer to be Stephen Fletcher, Jermaine Defoe, or maybe even John Guidetti, but as of right now none of those players wear the red and white stripes of Sunderland. With no significant signing to lead our top line it leads a list of players like Connor Wickham, Frazier Campbell, and Ji Dong-Won to choose from. There is always "the little magician" Stephane Sessegnon to consider as a candidate for most goals. Without new signings to choose from I'll go with Sessegnon. Last year he finished with 7 goals, one short of team leader Nicklas Bendtner who is of course gone and Sess will have to be the offensive catalyst if squad changes aren't made.

**I opt to let my vote be changed to Defoe or Fletcher if one of them signs. If both sign I'll fall out of my chair with joy and then choose Defoe for top scorer**

Who will lead the team in assists?
We have much better candidates for who will lead the club in assists over who will score the most goals. Last year Sessegnon led the club in assists but James McLean and Seb Larsson also provided a number of opportunities for teammates and both look to feature heavily in this year's team. We lack a real creative central midfield player but young Jack Colback seems to be coming on strong as more than just a utility player but as a viable creative influence on the match. For this season I expect James McLean to lead the club in assists. He came on so strong in the second half of last year and I expect him to continue to terrorize the left side of the field and swing in crosses for our forwards to latch on to. However, I think that Sess and Seb will be hot on his heals in the assist category.

Who starts the most games in goal?
This might seem like an easy answer. Simon Mignolet was the clear #1 choice last season for Martin O'Neill and not much has happened this summer to change that. However, I have a sneaking suspicion that if he's given another chance to start between the sticks, Keiran Westwood will do just fine. I expect Mignolet to end up getting a majority of the starts, but I suspect Westwood will get 5-10 starts and he'll do just fine.

Breakout player?
This is a tough one to predict, because in order for it to be a breakout player it has to be someone who hasn't featured much in the first team in the past. Options include players like Louis Laing or John Egan who play in the back, or maybe someone like Billy Knott who can play the Sessegnon role in the middle of the pitch. You could also easily consider Ryan Noble as a candidate as he's played decently when given the chance this pre-season. But in the end i'm going to go with a player we are all pretty familiar with but one who hasn't been given much of an opportunity to impress. I think Ji Dong-Won is going to have a fine season and by the end of the year will be pushing for first team minutes. He still needs to beef up a little bit but his versatility as a striker and a player who can do well pushed a little more wide will make him a valuable asset to our attacking core.

Who will disappoint most?
This is a real downer of a category. You certainly don't want to hex a player by predicting him to do poorly, but I think there is likely a player who will perform lower than the fans expectations of him. Players like Sess, McLean, and Colback have such high expectations on them that it would be easy for them to perform less than we expect, but I get the feeling those guys will be alright this season. This may be a bit of a copout answer, but I don't expect Phil Bardsley to do much this year. It was only two seasons ago that he finished as the player of the year for the club but I think his spot in the starting XI is very much in jeopardy and I don't expect to see him start more than 10-15 matches this season.

Where will we finish in the league?
Ah, the question that we love to try and figure out. Will we exceed expectations and sneak in to the top 10 or will we have another mid table finish? Worse than that, will our lack of a dynamic goal scorer leave us stuck in a relegation battle? I think we'll sign a striker or two, improve our midfield and maybe even add another defender by the end of the transfer window and I think we will have a strong side. In the end I expect us to finish right in the middle at 10th but we will give some of the bigger clubs fits this year. Another year with O'Neill leading us and another couple of transfer windows and we'll be pushing for that top 10 finish and maybe even a spot in Europe (fingers crossed on that one).

How many points will we get off the Mags?
I'm going out on a limb, and this may be my lease likely prediction to come true, but i'm going to go with 4 points. We'll take all 3 at home and sneak a draw on the road.
With that said I hate to say that they've had a good summer. They've kept their core players and even added a few. I expect they'll have a decent year again.

So those are my predictions. Do you agree? Disagree? Let me know on twitter @onlysafc

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Pre-Season thoughts so far

I'm back from an extended break since the end of last season and to be honest it doesn't seem like I have missed much news worth writing about. There have been lots of players exiting our squad and only one addition. The addition of Carlos Cuellar does provide us with some cover in the back, but i'm confident that there are more changes coming. I decided to come back before the start of the season and write a post to get a few thoughts that i've had as our pre-season is halfway done and the season is only two weeks away.

Our goal scoring problems are obviously still an issue. In three of our four games we've scored a total of zero goals and it seems our lack of a consistent finisher is still a problem. Granted these games doing count for anything, and we haven't had our primary offensive players in most of the games but you would think that we'd have found the net a few more times. We're obviously linked with a number of attacking players as transfer options and the addition of one or maybe two strikers seems imminent. Martin O'Neill has had a propensity to do his transfer business late and it feels like this off season will be no different. I'm hopeful that changes are coming, but that's not what this blog post is about either. This post is about thinking of the positives of the pre-season so far. I posted a question on my twitter account today about the positives of the pre-season so far. Here are some of the responses I got.

  • Ryan Noble has looked better than he had before. He may still need a season on loan, but he's looking more like a first team option for the future.
  • We've gotten lots of players some valuable minutes. David Meyler for one has gotten more playing time than he has in years. Martin O'Neill seems to think Meyler may develop into a helpful player.
  • Management has seen our weaknesses clearly and it seems very clear where the areas of need are.
Well that's about it for positives. Not many so far. I would add this. I'm confident that O'Neill has a plan. I think he's working hard at finding targets and pursuing them. There will be fresh faces and they will come in and have to contribute right away. As tough as it is to be patient as fans we don't have much of a choice. O'Neill gave us reasons to believe last year, let's hope he can do it again come August 18th at Arsenal.

Ha'way the Lads!

Friday, May 18, 2012

thinking back on the season

One thing I am guilty of as a fan is that I normally see the negative side of most situations. If I were to receive 10 compliments on something and 1 complaint, the only thing I would remember is the complaint. Maybe that's just human nature, or maybe it's a serious flaw in me, but I find myself doing this as a fan all the time.
This past season was a difficult one for most Sunderland fans. We started with such high expectations after our 10th place finish in the 2010/11 season. We also brought in 10 new signings that were supposed to help transform us into a side that could compete and push for a second straight top ten finish. It didn't take long for us to figure out that our new look side wasn't coming together very well, and our manager looked more and more incompetent going forward.
Enter Martin O'Neill-- and our season prospects were transformed. We started winning, scoring cracking goals, and made a great FA Cup run. Even the most negative of fans seemed to be turning to the positive side.
Unfortunately we ran in to a very in form Everton side and crashed out of the cup and our season took a dip. We struggled to score again and it looked like we were coasting to the finish line.

My tendency is to look towards the summer with a negative spin on things. We ended on a down, our form was poor, we couldn't score, and we looked lethargic. However, I'm trying to turn over a new leaf and look at some positives as we head toward the summer and next season. So here are some things I'm excited about, and let me know if I've missed something I should have included. Tweet me @onlysafc
  • We have a manager with a plan. He has a system and knows the types of players he needs to get to fit his system. 
  • Frazier Campbell showed some promise and after a summer to continue rehab he should be fully fit and ready for next season.
  • Jack Colback has emerged as a marvelous midfielder and his upside seems very big.
  • James McClean should only continue to get better, especially with the experience of being in the Euro's this summer.
  • Simon Mignolet looked fantastic at times this season. He is developing in to a top class goal keeper.
  • Wes Brown should be back and fit and hopefully can remain injury free to help anchor our defense.
So there are a lot of positives. Here are a few things I'd love to see Martin O'Neill address this summer.
  • we need a proven goal scoring striker.
  • We need a right winger with pace and power
  • We need both a left back and a right back
I think all these needs will be addressed, and I can't wait to see how our squad looks in August.
Ha'way the lads!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Players from relegated clubs

Here is my short list of players who are from relegated clubs worth pursuing. Each one fills a need of ours. Some are very unlikely to come, but I'd be happy to see any of these players join Sunderland.
Check our Roker Report's article on why we don't have to fear players from relegated squads if you're worried that we don't need players who starred for bottom 3 sides.

Grant Hanley, Blackburn-CB
Mark Davies, Bolton-MF
Steven Fletcher, Wolves-F
Yakubu, Blackburn-F
Stuart Holden, Bolton-MF
Junior Hoilett, Blackburn, Winger
Matt Jarvis, Wolves-Winger

What do you think of my list? Send me a tweet if you agree/disagree. @onlysafc

Ha'way the Lads

Season Summary

Here are my thoughts from this past season. I'll be doing a few more posts throughout the summer, but i'm already looking forward to the 2012-13 season!
Ha'way the Lads

Player of the season
For me it's not much of a debate. Stephane Sessegnon has to be the winner. He's obviously our offensive catalyst, and as his game goes so does our offensive production it seems. He hasn't always been consistent this year, but he has had some magical moments and keeping him around is essential for us to continue to move up the table next season.

Young player of the season
This is a tough call for me. There are two main options. It's either James McClean or Jack Colback. Both have been fantastic, but for me, it has to be Colback. His consistency in the middle of the pitch has been outstanding, and he's even filled in as an emergency left back. O'Neill seems to rate him and it's likely you'll see young Colback in the middle of the pitch for some time to come.

Best signing of last summer
This again is a two horse race for me. Is it John O'Shea or Seb Larsson? Both have been vital to our success this year, but the edge for me goes to O'Shea. Maybe it's because as a player i'm more defensive minded, or because Seb seemed to slip in form late in the season, but O'Shea has been such an important player when he's been fit enough to play. JOS's ability to play fullback or center half also gives him an edge. His versatility and consistency make him my top signing of last summer.

Most disappointing signing of last summer
I'm tempted to say Connor Wickham here. The young lad certainly hasn't produced much, but he also hasn't played much either. He was bought with an eye on his future so I'll give him a pass. I'm going to go with Craig Gardner. This isn't to say that I don't think Gardner was good at times, or that he may not end up being a solid player for us, but he cost us more money than any other signings besides Wickham and he didn't settle in and produce like I hoped he would.

Goal of the season
There are many to choose from. Frazier Campbell's volley against Norwich was superb, but I'm going to go with Sessegnon's goal against Swansea. He had the tightest of window's to get the ball in and it was at such a narrow angle. He really is a magician with the ball sometimes.

Game of the season
It's a tossup between Arsenal in the cup or Man City at home. A case can be made for both games so i'll pick one out of the hat and I came up with…….…Arsenal at home. I did love that match. We played them right out of it and although they had the possession we always looked like we were going to win. Too bad we rolled over against Everton, ugh.

Who should we sign?
My votes are for Fletcher, Moses, Hoilett (i'm dreaming here), Ryan Bertrand.

Who might surprisingly be on the way out?
I think Craig Gardner or David Meyler may end up being sold this summer. I'd love to see both stay, but Gardner still doesn't seem settled and I'm not sure O'Neill rates Meyler. Will be interesting to see what happens.
Way too early predicted finish for next season
I'll say we are on our way up, but not quite there. 9th place.