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Saturday, February 21, 2009
ESPNsoccernet: February 23, 4:37 PM UK
Sunderland celebrate mediocrity

The Insider

If enthusiasm and passion was enough to secure success in this great game, the Premier League 'North East Three' would be title challengers.

Newcastle United and Sunderland have long viewed themselves as big clubs who fall into the category of 'sleeping giant', while Middlesbrough are equally ambitious despite their less lofty status. If there was any justice in the world, they would argue, the dice would fall their way and they would make the breakthrough they have long dreamed about.

A glance at the record books suggests such fantasies don't happen for clubs isolated in the North East and unless the country is turned upside down by a freak of nature in the near future their status as no-hopers looks sets to prevail forever more. We often hear that the North East is a football hot-bed, but trophy polishing equipment is not a big-seller in that part of the world as Middlesbrough are the only side of the three to toast such glory in the last 36 years.

Wembley appearances have led to nothing but heartache for Newcastle, while Sunderland's brief flirtation with the big time under the management of Roy Keane came to a typically unfortunate end. Now all three are contemplating the reality that the best they can hope for is being Premier League strugglers.

Quite simply, football teams in the goldfish bowl that is kissed by the frozen north sea seems destined to remain in the shadow of the rest and there is little they can do about it.

Simple geography may be their biggest enemy and it is a problem they cannot overcome. In an era when money and demanding footballers wives and girlfriends dictate where the top names in the game ply their trade, clubs that come with a London or Manchester postcode are always likely to have the edge over one in a place many overseas WAG's have never heard of.

Picking up designer hand bags on Bond Street is far more appealing that a day out in Sunderland's Bridges Shopping Centre, so Black Cats chairman Niall Quinn may be fighting a losing cause in his bid to bring glory to his club.

As for Newcastle owner Mike Ashley, he realised a long time ago there is no reasoning with people who demand success even though their side have not won a major domestic trophy since the days when President Dwight D. Eisenhower was in the Oval Office back in 1955.

So it was with a sympathetic eye that Soccernet's Insider arrived at the Emirates Stadium to witness the ongoing dramas of one of the 'North East Three' in a year when reality has punched them firmly on their proud chin.

After a summer that saw some relatively big, if slightly tarnished, names arrive at their club, hopes were high that something more than a relegation battle would be on the agenda, but no.

Once manager Roy Keane realised there were no more steps for this club to climb, he jumped ship and with him went the idea that Sunderland were becoming a big club. The appointment of the unheralded Ricky Sbragia as his successor merely confirmed their road had reached a dead end and it is hard to see anything but survival for this club from here on in.

Their team sheet for this trip to the capital featured a collection of talented if tarnished players, with the likes of Andy Reid, Tal Ben-Haim, Kieran Richardson and Steed Malbranque only ending up at Sunderland when they failed to shine at bigger clubs. Callum Davenport, Paul McShane and Djibril Cisse could also be thrown into that category.

While Sunderland was the focus of our attention this afternoon, the most notable name on the team-sheet was that of Andrei Arshavin, who made his Arsenal debut as a starter rather than the substitute he was expected to be. After a poor run of displays at home of late, the introduction of this quality performer was timely.

Starting the game seven points behind fourth place Aston Villa after their defeat against a revived Chelsea earlier in the day, Arsenal simply had to win and the sight of Arshavin on the right of the midfield encouraged Gunners fans who have long given up on Emmanuel Eboue's abilities in an advanced position.

The stocky little Russian so nearly made a grand entrance and his purposeful run and shot flew inches wide of the Sunderland goal just five minutes into the game; and he went close again moments later as he burst in from the right flank to force a smart save out of keeper Martin Fulop.

It was an encouraging start from Arshavin and while Wenger has often been reluctant to add ready-made stars to his youthful line-up, his midfield has been crying out for a touch of weighty presence all season and it now has it in the shape of the Russian international.

Sunderland could only dream of signing a player with such a profile and on a day when their own star turn, Djibril Cisse, was out with an ankle injury, their 4-5-1 formation was picked with caution in mind. Like so many sides who take on Arsenal, negativity is generally their first tactic.

Arsenal's enduring failing is they struggle to counteract such predictable tactics and as the second half ambled towards an end it quickly became clear that they had no solution. William Gallas and Robin Van Persie went close late on, but large sections of the crowd booed as the final whistle blew.

''I don't believe we are out of the race for fourth place,'' was Wenger's view of his latest setback.

''Villa have some difficult games to play and it will be tight until the end, but we need to be more decisive in the final third. Sunderland came with 10 men back today and we had to find a way to break them down. We didn't get the ball forward quickly enough.''

This reporter has said more than enough about Arsenal's demise in recent months to earn a sack load of hate mail, so he will leave the judgements on this latest flop to others and instead offer praise to a Sunderland side who achieved all they could in the circumstances.

This was a display to delight the hoards that followed them down to London and while it lacked any attacking verve, this is all they can hope for in the foreseeable future.

Manager Ricky Sbragia was surprisingly dismissive of his team's efforts as he claimed luck earned them a point at the Emirates. ''We needed a lot of fortune to get out with a point,'' was his assessment. ''Arsenal are an exceptional side and we knew we would be under pressure here, but we worked hard to get our point.''

As survival is a decent effort for a club who have been 'yo-yoing' between the top two tiers of English football for many a year, mediocrity may well be celebrated by Black Cats supporters who have been brought up to expect very little.

Being a Sunderland fan is more fun than following Newcastle right now and that is enough to satisfy many who wear the red and white shirts with pride. Such a narrow ambition may be part of their problem.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Martin Fulop
Cue hoards of abusive messages from Arsenal fans as the Sunderland keeper deserves this title after he made some fine saves. Fulop should not have been given a chance to save some of them.

FOOD WATCH: A mix of lasagne and potatoes was complimented by some carrots that were bordering on being raw. An extra five minutes in the pot next week please.

PRESS ROOM CONFUSION: One reporter appeared to have had a little too much wine as he asked Sunderland boss Sbragia if he felt he had a chance of getting the job on a long term basis. The hack seemed genuinely surprised when he was told by Sbragia that he still has 18 months to run on his deal as permanent Black Cats boss!

SUNDERLAND VERDICT: This was a great point on the road against an Arsenal side who continue to falter, but questions remain over whether manager Sbragia is capable of taking them onto the next level by challenging for a top six finish next season. For now, they should revel in this success.


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