What is it, asked Ken Gambles -- a contributor to Salut! Sunderland's series of necessarily gloomy end-of-season reviews -- about footballers in night clubs and 50-pound notes? He was referring to the unseemly episode in which Sunderland defender Phil Bardsley was photographed lying on the floor of a casino surrounded by money of that denomination. -Macintosh: Di Canio outburst sets up fall drama Bardsley, an all-heart plodder whose limitations had already placed a question mark over his continued Sunderland career, was promptly excluded from the squad for the final game at Tottenham Hotspur Sunday and heavily fined by coach Paolo Di Canio.
In the part of France where I spend several months of the year, friends and neighbours are celebrating in style after Jonny Wilkinson again did his bit for the entente cordiale, helping les rugbymen of Toulon come from behind win a thrilling Heineken Cup final in Dublin. All week, the French media had been saying Clermont were the slight favourites. Could Sunderland produce their own rear-guard action with the round ball in the final game of their Premier League season on Sunday against emphatic favourites in Tottenham Hotspur?
First things first. Thank you Arsenal. And hasten back Wigan. Sunderland are safe courtesy, in the end, of the success and failure of others and it is right to acknowledge that. The Gunners, of course, beat the FA Cup winners not because they wished to help out Sunderland but to improve their own chances of finishing fourth ahead of Spurs or even third if Chelsea stumble in their final game at home to Everton. - Rose returns to Tottenham Some Arsenal fans still went along to Salut! Sunderland after the 4-1 defeat of Wigan to point out that Paolo Di Canio's team now had a solemn duty to return the favour and defy Tottenham on Sunday.
If you needed one match to sum up the woefulness of Sunderland's season, this was it. For the second home game in succession, a draw was scraped when victory was required. And not a soul among Sunderland's undeservedly large army of supporters could seriously protest after a game in which relatively modest opposition, as so often since last August, was made to look more like a bunch of world-beaters. Sunderland 1-1 Southampton. - Match report: Sunderland 1-1 Southampton Briefly, it looked as if Paolo Di Canio's underperforming, frequently non-performing, side might have fashioned their own Premier League safety.
Yes, I know where I was when JFK and Princess Diana died -- at a cinema in County Durham and in bed in North Yorkshire, respectively. It is even easier to identify my whereabouts whenever Sunderland have been relegated in my lifetime. It never happened before my lifetime as the club was ever-present in the top flight until 1958. On many sad occasions since then, I have either been at the match in question or somehow in touch from far away. On the night of April 22, 1997, I was at a Thai restaurant in London with my wife.
Others teams find themselves able to produce the big performance when they have to. Aston Villa a week ago, Wigan and Villa (again) at the weekend spring to mind, and even Newcastle United bounced back from humiliation at home to Liverpool to keep a clean sheet at West Ham. So what is Sunderland's initial response to dire need, especially after their own humiliation (the 6-1 hiding at Villa)? To look a complete, shapeless shambles devoid of threat for half an hour, conceding a bundled goal to Stoke City's Jon Walters and then losing the last of their three top scorers for the rest of the season.
After his first game in charge of Sunderland, a narrow and honourable enough defeat at Chelsea, Paolo Di Canio praised his players' effort and told them to prepare for six cup finals, the games from which they would have to claw the points needed to stay in the Premier League. For two games, the motivation worked. The Tyne-Wear derby, from which many Sunderland supporters had feared the very worst, turned into an easy romp to victory. Then Everton arrived at the Stadium of Light full of top four ambition -- and left empty-handed as PDC's team club clung in reasonable comfort to a lead established with a classy Stephane Sessegnon shot in the first half.
For Sunderland supporters, there were two ways of looking at Newcastle United's astonishing collapse against Liverpool. The temptation to gloat was matched by the knowledge that a tough match of their own was to come at Villa Park. And in a game that Sunderland, up until the start of the second half, looked capable of drawing or even winning, comprehensive defeat brought all the worries of inadequacy and relegation streaming back. Aston Villa 6-1 Sunderland . - Villa vanquish Sunderland On the evidence of a second half rout, despite what I feel was a less than balanced display of refereeing from Lee Probert, I raise no serious complaint about the justice of the scoreline.
In March 2008, Michael Chopra, born in Newcastle, alumnus of Alan Shearer's school and out-and-out Magpie, scored a vital away goal for Sunderland at Villa Park. It was another of those seasons that found the red and white part of the North East, then managed by Roy Keane, involved in a relegation struggle. The three points from Aston Villa -- who will again be Sunderland's opponents on Monday night, again at Villa Park -- brought Keane's first away of the 2007-08 campaign. It was also the margin that separated Sunderland at the end of the season from the clubs that went down, Reading, Birmingham City and -- beating Sunderland's own record-creating low of 15 points in a Premier League season -- 11-point Derby County.
Before anyone shouts, Stephane Sessegnon is an entirely different kind of player to Claudio Reyna. But in one important respect, they have proved indispensable in the scenario -- all too familiar to Sunderland supporters -- of fighting relegation. Consider the events of recent weeks since even before Martin O'Neill was abruptly replaced with Paolo di Canio by the club's exasperated American owner, Ellis Short. - Sessegnon praises Di Canio impact The last time an out-and-out attacker scored was on March 9 when Steven Fletcher put his team ahead at Loftus Road only for one of the Premier League's feeblest contenders, QPR, to bounce back with three goals.
With one winning Stephane Sessegnon strike and one desperate Simon Mignolet save from his own teammate's bizarre backpass, Sunderland handed Paolo Di Canio victory on his home debut as head coach. Much more important, though the importance of PDC's influence should not be underestimated, the win brought three more invaluable points and Sunderland are now back to where I believed them to be until decline under Martin O'Neill became a sharp downward spiral: Unlikely to be relegated. Sunderland 1 Everton 0.
Twice a season when in the same division, more when drawn together in the cup as happened last year, there is the worrying business for Sunderland of having to play Everton. It doesn't seem to matter how well Sunderland have been doing prior to these games or what form Everton may have been in. You can just about guarantee that someone like Tim Cahill will score, Leon Osman will fall over his own feet and somehow persuade Howard Webb it's a penalty or that either Sunderland will look as if they are suffering the effects of an all-night party or the Toffeemen will be transformed into world-beaters.