New Black Cat Stubbs the right man for a scrap

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The Independent Football

On Thursday morning, as he sat down to talk about this afternoon's trip to Middlesbrough and the prospect of lifting the mood of depression on Wearside, a replay of Liverpool's Xabi Alonso flashing a free-kick past Kelvin Davis appeared on the television showing Sky Sports News in a corner of Sunderland's training ground. "Against Manchester United he had a free- kick from the same position and he nearly missed the ground," McCarthy lamented.

Sunderland are not quite losers in the Barnstoneworth United class, but their manager could be excused for identifying with the Michael Palin character in Ripping Yarns, a fellow son of South Yorkshire, who would come home and smash up the crockery after his team's ritual weekly hammering. It was by turning to a collection of old-time players that Barnstoneworth were saved from the clutches of the local scrapyard, and McCarthy, too, is looking to experience for salvation.

"A player like Alan Stubbs is vital to us," he said. "When people all around are fretting that it's all doom and gloom, it's important that we have experienced players who can see the wood from the trees."

Having beaten testicular cancer not once but twice in his career, Stubbs has a healthier perspective than most on the trials and tribulations of football life. Now 33, he has only been a Sunderland player for two months, yet already he has been a steadying influence both at the heart of defence and off the field too. Not that he was unaffected by the nightmare finish to the West Bromwich match eight days ago.

"I didn't have a good sleep that Saturday night," he confided. "I kept waking up, thinking, 'How have we lost that game?' Sorry, not lost the game, but it felt like we lost it. We shouldn't have been hanging on, but we have to learn to deal with that situation. It's about being mentally strong, staying switched on for 94, 95 minutes, and seeing the game out - not bringing problems on ourselves by giving away corners and free-kicks.

"When I was a young player at Bolton I made a few mistakes, and I can always remember Bruce Rioch saying to me, 'Keep playing. I want you to keep playing. You will learn from it'. And I did learn from it. That's the thing I think the players need to do here, because we have got a young squad. We've got to learn from our mistakes.

"But I think we'll be fine. I do. There have been a lot of positive things in the games up to now. We could be sitting here on seven or eight points and looking at things completely differently. We're, say, 12 wins from being safe, and we've still got 32 games to play. So it's not a big ask when you look at it that way."

As captain at Everton last season, Stubbs played 32 Premiership games and guided the Goodison side to victory in 16 of them. Sunderland have not won now in 26 Premiership matches, stretching back to their disastrous spell in the top flight three seasons ago.

Not that the Black Cats of 2005-06 can be justly linked with the pussycats of 2002-03, who won just four matches. Not one of the 13 players involved in the club's last Premiership victory, a 2-1 success at home to Liverpool on 15 December 2002, will be in McCarthy's squad this afternoon.

For Stubbs, scrapping for points with Sunderland has been a stark contrast to chasing a Champions' League place with Everton last season. He has no regrets, though, about his summer move. "Believe it or not, I'm really enjoying my football," he said. "I feel as if I'm playing well. All I'm looking for now is us getting a win.

"My desire to win is still as strong as it was when I was 17, but there's a lot that's happened in between times to make me realise that football's not the be-all and end-all."