Caldwell jumps to defence of McCarthy

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The Sunderland defender Steven Caldwell has pleaded with supporters to stop criticising the club's manager, Mick McCarthy, and to blame the players instead for their plight.

Sunderland went into Tuesday's derby with Middlesbrough at the Stadium of Light determined to complete a first double of the season and maiden back-to-back League wins. However, they lost 3-0 and McCarthy faced a fresh outburst from angry home supporters.

With just nine points to show from their 23 Premiership games to date, the Wearsiders' fate is all but mathematically assured. But Caldwell insists the manager cannot shoulder the blame for what happened on the pitch against Middlesbrough.

"We have to stay together," he said. "At the end, the fans were venting their frustration at the manager. But really it should have been at us, the players.

"He sent out the same team last night that got a great result at West Brom 10 days ago [a 1-0 win], so you can't really blame him. The anger should be targeted at the players on the park.

"We are big enough to take that kind of responsibility on our shoulders," Caldwell added. "In my opinion, the fans have got every right to be angry after that kind of performance, but it is us they should be angry with."

There was resignation in the air at the Stadium of Light on Tuesday night - not that of McCarthy, who insisted he will not walk away, but over the club's chances of retaining Premiership status.

Goals from Emanuel Pogatetz, Stuart Parnaby and Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink left Sunderland needing to win five games simply to overhaul the three teams immediately above them - and that would require Portsmouth, Birmingham and West Bromwich Albion each to suffer as many successive defeats.

Even Caldwell admits that is unlikely and although neither he nor his team-mates are giving up, the more achievable target of bettering the record low 19 points with which Sunderland slipped out of the top flight at the end of the 2002-03 season is the immediate focus.

"We are not setting too many targets," he said. "We want to finish with more than 19 points - that would be the first benchmark to hit. We don't want to go down with fewer points than the team of three years ago," the former Newcastle defender admitted. "That team was tagged as a side that lacked fight, and I don't want to have that kind of label put on me during my career. I'm sure the rest of the lads feel the same.

"For now, we just have to get as many points as we can, try to catch the second-bottom team - and you just never know in football.

"There are still enough games to do it [avoid relegation], but it's looking very unlikely with the standard of performance that we put in against Middlesbrough and earlier in the season against Portsmouth, Birmingham and Aston Villa."

A sombre McCarthy, who added Southampton utility man Rory Delap to his squad on a free transfer hours before Tuesday's kick-off, now faces the task of raising his players for Saturday's trip to West Ham.

"I've had a fair bit of experience throughout the game as a player and as a manager," McCarthy said. "What I didn't do last season when it was all going swimmingly for me and we got promoted was gloat about it or go out and be smug about it. I enjoyed it; I took it as a successful season.

"This season, it's been difficult. It's tough, but because I didn't go mad and have fantastic highs I don't have such bad lows that it's going to keep me like that for days on end.

"I try to keep on an even keel about it all.

"We have a group of young lads, some of whom have come from more humble starts not that long ago and done wonderfully well in getting the club back into the Premiership," McCarthy added.

"I think they are finding it tough. It's a tougher league and it's proving a real problem for us."