Wins in Cats' own back yard elusive

SOMETIMES football makes no sense whatsoever. It was only because of their excellent home form that Sunderland are playing in this season’s Premier League.

SUNDERLAND'S home form is doing their hopes of beating relegation this season no good at all. But, says Stuart Rayner, it could have a knock-on effect for their transfer policy.

SOMETIMES football makes no sense whatsoever. It was only because of their excellent home form that Sunderland are playing in this season’s Premier League. Now their failings at the Stadium of Light are endangering their chances of staying in it.

Not since they beat Newcastle United a month ago have the Black Cats won at home. The three games since have been lost and each time the team has been booed off at the end.

Both their North East rivals have been defeated there, but no one else. Even League One Northampton managed to muster a draw in the League Cup, only to go out on penalties.

If Roy Keane is beginning to get twitchy, it will be troubling his chairman Niall Quinn even more. Gates are on the decline, surely settling the debate which has been raging recently in football circles about pretty football versus winning football.

Last term, Sunderland claimed 30 of their 39 points on Wearside. This time around, less than half their tally has come there so far. Whereas Fulham and Stoke City have done their chances of staying in the division a power of good thanks to their home records, only Blackburn Rovers (five) and Everton (six) have less Premier League home points than Sunderland this season. Blackburn are chronically under-supported though, of course, the ever-increasing gaps in the Stadium of Light stands are down to more than poor results alone. Christmas is around the corner and the world economy just happens to be disappearing down the toilet.

But Quinn and his chief backer, the American multi-millionaire Ellis Short, threw a lot of money Keane’s way this summer in the hope of attracting more, not less, supporters into the ground.

They would not be human if there was not a voice in the back of both men’s heads wondering out loud if this is the start of a longer-term trend which means further heavy investment makes bad business sense. That opens up a rather complicated game of Russian roulette. Spending big in January when attendances are heading south would represent a huge gamble. Looking at it objectively, it would be a largely unnecessary one. Keane has had more money than most to spend recently and the result is a bloated squad. Less rather than more players are needed for the second half of the campaign.

If he wants different players, Keane should have enough saleable assets to raise the cash without Quinn, Short and friends having to chuck any more into the pot.

But Keane’s new contract remains unsigned and cutting the purse strings will not help the chances of that changing. Some fans may be starting to have doubts about their manager but Quinn does not seem to be one of them. Having thrown in his lot with the Black Cats, Short is presumably not either, particularly if most of his football opinions are formed by the ex-footballer-turned-chairman he is in business with.

Whichever way they decide, it could add up to a board meeting as tense as Christmas dinner at Gordon Ramsey’s house . The irony is that in trying to make their team more attractive to its supporters, Sunderland have inadvertently made it less able to win in front of them. When they get it right they should, in theory at least, be better at home and away but during this transitional phase they are better at a counter-attacking style of football needed away from the Stadium of Light than setting the pace.

Last season the team revolved around Kenwyne Jones. This term the load was supposed to be shared more evenly, but in practice the burden has fallen on the shoulders of Djibril Cissé. The Frenchman is at his most dangerous when the opposition are pushed up in search of a goal of their own. For a man who has broken his leg twice and nearly lost it the first time, the Lord of the Manor of Frodsham’s pace is astounding.

The perhaps unplanned rebirth of Kieran Richardson as a central midfielder has furthered Sunderland’s counter-attacking potency. Keane always saw Richardson more as a wide player than a central figure but his performances in the middle this term have forced the issue. Like Cissé, though, Richardson’s greatest strength lies not in picking holes in blanket defences, but sprinting through gaps in less well-manned rearguards.

Andy Reid, Dwight Yorke and Steed Malbranque all possess the necessary guile to prise open teams determined to “park the bus” at the Stadium of Light. But it appears that the first two have been left behind in the evolution of Keane’s Sunderland and Malbranque can not do it all on his own.

As always, the question is one of balance. But if Keane can make his players more ruthless in taking the few chances they get, the problem can be solved without changing the personnel.

LAST season, Sunderland won 30 of their 39 points on Wearside. This time around, they haven’t fared so well, as the table on the left shows. Less than half their current points tally has come from games at the Stadium of Light.

Newcastle, in contrast, have accrued 11 of their 14 points at St James’s Park – in the ‘home only’ table they sit just a point behind league leaders Chelsea, but the Magpies dropped back into the actual bottom three after Wigan’s win over Everton last night.

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer