Oh hello there, here's our latest column for The Durham Times. The North East's No.1 Newspaper. Why's that? Because they're awesome, and kind enough to feature us every week.
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If ever there was a week to showcase both the positive and negative sides to a good run in the FA Cup it was this week. The good, the bad and the ugly if you will. We'll start with the trip to Goodison, which most definitely represented the "good" side of the most famous club cup competition on the planet. I was one of the fortunate six-thousand fans that made up Sunderland's boisterous away following that day and can say that without a doubt that it was easily one of the best atmospheres that I have ever been a part of.
The game itself was an anxious encounter, as Sunderland showed a lot of hustle and bustle but lacked the creative spark, moment of genius, that the absent Stephane Sessegnon can so often bring to the table. The travelling side also survived a number of contentious penalty appeals, with Craig Gardner's trip of the lively Royston Drenthe probably the most likely to have seen Andre Marriner point to the spot.
That said it was Sunderland that came out of the blocks quickest and enjoyed a decent opening spell, capitalising on an Everton defence that was slow to react to a Colback freekick which he neatly rolled to Phil Bardsley who, lurking outside the area, arrowed home a low drive through a crowded penalty area. The old Bullens Road Stand creaked and swayed under the delirious celebrations it hosted as the travelling hordes went wild and I'm sure I'm not the only one still bearing the bruises suffered at the hands of Goodison's narrow rows.
For not the first time, and more than likely not the last, Tim Cahill would step up to the plate to break SAFC fans' hearts with a clever piece of improvisation to divert Nikica Jelavic's header past Simon Mignolet in the Sunderland goal who stood no chance. From then on the home side ramped up the pressure, pressing Sunderland further and further back into their own half with a valiant defensive display led by John O'Shea.
The replay was secured with a stunning double-save late in the game from Mignolet which given the circumstances has drawn comparisons to the great Jimmy Montgomery's effort at Wembley all those years ago. Whilst not quite as significant, it was certainly as impressive and kept alive our FA Cup dreams for another day.
It is often said that progression in the cup is at the expense of form in the league. Whilst O'Neill has been quick to dispel such logic it unfortunately appeared to be the case come Tuesday night as the "bad" was clear for all to see. I'm eager not to come down on the lads too hard as there is obviously some tired legs in the squad given the extra exertion the cup brings but the team just didn't show up at Ewood Park and gifted Steve Kean the easiest three points he is likely to pick up in his quest to secure his side's Premier League status.
Whilst the FA Cup exploits provide a valid excuse for the poor showing it is one that we can't afford to fall back upon again. The team have been fantastic since O'Neill's arrival and it would be foolish to lose focus on the "bread and butter" of the league, especially in games where we should really be picking up points and when defeat comes courtesy of poor play as apposed to tired legs.
Finally, the "ugly", as we welcome Joey Barton and company to The Stadium of Light tomorrow afternoon, although the reviled midfielder may find his place in the side in jeopardy following his performance midweek and reaction from the stands upon his substitution. At one time QPR boss Mark Hughes was the bookies favourite to take the vacant SAFC hot seat and I myself even talked up his potential as a candidate... How lucky we are that appointments are not made by the bookmakers or idiots! Whilst optimism of survival was high following the Welshman's appointment and further backing in the transfer market to "improve" an already burgeoning squad, there has not been the turn around in fortune that Tony Fernandes would have hoped for if not demanded, yet.
Having had focus realigned and a sizable O'Neill boot up the backside on the training fields we should, hopefully, see a reaction to Tuesday night's shambles come kick-off tomorrow. As they say, lightning doesn't strike twice, so surely so many players can't all choose the same game not to perform, can they?
With the visit of QPR we also get to welcome a number familiar faces back to the Stadium of Light who are sure for a warm reception. Nedum Onouha will always be fondly remembered for his slaloming run through Chelsea's defence in that famous Stamford Bridge victory, Anton Ferdinand also served the side well during his tenure on Wearside but most likely the biggest round of applause will be saved for the enigmatic Djibril Cisse who quickly become something of a cult hero during his disappointingly brief stay with SAFC.
QPR will no doubt travel to the North East with new found confidence following a miraculous late comeback on Wednesday night having found themselves 0-2 down at home to Liverpool before rallying with three goals of their own. The unlikely victory lifted Hughes' side out of the drop-zone at the expense of Bolton and gives them a glimmer of hope of avoiding relegation, although their remaining run of fixtures look extremely difficult on paper. You would therefore imagine that they will be looking at tomorrow's fixture as one where they must pick up at least a point.
Off the field the FA have finally charged both Newcastle United and Sunderland after both clubs accepted misconduct charges following the tempestuous Tyne and Wear derby a few weeks back. The sides were fined a staggering, wait for it, £60,000 between them, with NUFC having to stump up £40,000 due to a previous charge relating to their fixture with Arsenal back in August. They've got quite a good thing going with this have the FA, a nice and easy way to make a few bob based on a minor fracas and a little choice language on the football field. I suppose that's the bar tab at the next shindig in the Capital covered.
Keep The Faith.