Fatherly figure needs his boys to become men

In the firing line: Wilkinson talks up the fight at the Stadium of Light where Sunderland's rivals have much to prove

Simon Turnbull
Sunday 15 December 2002 01:00
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There was not much sympathy on Wearside this week for those poor members of the Toon Army stuck in Barcelona wondering what to do after the Champions' League fixture scheduled for Tuesday night in the Nou Camp was washed out. Sunderland's supporters would die for such a dilemma.

Only the grey or greying among them can recall the club's fleeting flirtation with European football. Next autumn marks the 30th anniversary of the Cup-Winners' Cup ties against Vasas Budapest and Sporting Lisbon earned by Ian Porterfield's goal and Jimmy Montgomery's saves at Wembley.

Barring an FA Cup success every bit as miraculous as that of 1973, Sunderland's fans are more likely to be going to Bradford and Millwall next season than Budapest and Lisbon. Just the season before last and the one before that, they were getting their passports at the ready at this stage of the campaign, with their beloved red and whites lying, respectively, fifth and third. Now they are getting ready for the highways and byways of the Nationwide League.

Sunderland were a wash-out against Manchester City on Monday night. They have not scored a goal for two minutes short of eight hours. After 17 games, they have won just three matches, scored just eight goals and gathered just 14 points. At the same stage of the 1996-97 season they had won five games, scored 17 goals and gained 20 points. That was the season they sank to relegation with Peter Reid effing-and-blinding all the way on the BBC's Premier Passions film.

There were a few expletives from Reid's replacement on Friday afternoon, not least when Howard Wilkinson got down to the psychological bottom line his players are now facing. Having been booed off the pitch by those who stayed to the bitter end of Monday night's 3-0 defeat, they can hardly expect the most encouraging of welcomes this afternoon, when Liverpool provide the opposition at the Stadium of Light. "You've got to make them aware of the options they have," the former technical director of the Football Association said, leaning against the radiator in the gym at Sunderland's training ground, the Charlie Hurley Centre. "They have to choose.

"You know, I can go out at the Stadium of Light and when the crowd have a go I can go [drops his head and shoulders]. Or I can go out at the Stadium of Light, having in the week had a word with myself and thought about it and thought about it, because I care about how I play, and when they have a go I can give a bit more and a bit more and a bit more. And then I can give it a bit effing more. So, instead of living off their approval, I actually decide I'll live off their effing disapproval – until I change it.

"It's disappointing for me, because I know that the players are a decent bunch and they don't want to be in that situation. It's a bit like watching your children at a school sports. You know they can do better and you try to help, and sometimes you think your help is not enough. Later in life you find out it was enough. When they're old enough and wise enough, you find out they've remembered it all."

If the pupils Wilkinson inherited from Reid nine weeks ago are to avoid a drop in class come the end of term the one thing they need to remember – and quickly – is how to score. Having drawn blanks in their last five League and cup matches, their most recent goal dates back to 10 November, when Tore Andre Flo claimed the second in a 2-0 home win against Spurs.

Kevin Phillips scored the first that afternoon, his one and only goal this season. In the space of three seasons the one-time England striker has gone from "Golden Boot to rubber welly", as his manager put it on Friday (which prompted Phillips to turn out on the training ground yesterday morning wearing a pair of green wellingtons).

Not that Wilkinson has fallen out with the goal-starved poacher. The gesture of apparent exasperation Phillips made upon being substituted on Monday night was, according to Wilkinson, not directed towards the bench but "towards a very close member of his family".

The fact is Phillips remains Sunderland's best hope of salvation. He is potentially their best source of money too. Although Wilkinson insists he does not want to sell his better players, with a debt of £25m announced at the annual meeting on Friday, he has been told he can only add to his squad in the transfer window if he generates income. Meanwhile he must soldier on with the squad of underachievers left to him by Reid – a squad that has been weakened by long-term injuries to Claudio Reyna, Thomas Sorensen and Jason McAteer.

Jody Craddock added his name to the list when he twisted an ankle in the warm-up on Monday night. You could say it was a case of Sunderland shooting themselves in the foot, although on their present form they would have missed. Their drought started with a goalless draw at Anfield a month ago, when the shot-count finished 24-0 in favour of Liverpool.

In Liverpool's favour today is historical precedent. They have not lost on Wearside since 30 August 1958. Don "Rhino" Kitchenbrand scored the winner in a 2-1 success for Sunderland, their first ever victory below the top-flight. They could well be fighting for second-class victories again next term, unless the Peter Reid old boys start picking up their winning Premiership habits of old.

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