After Victor Anichebe’s masterclass against Bournemouth at the weekend it’s fair to say that there is a renewed sense of hope surrounding the club. That’s not to say the fans are expecting to waltz out of the relegation zone over the coming weeks. Yet there was something about Victor’s battle and the response from his teammates that injected a new found self-belief that perhaps another great escape could be on the cards.
As I sat watching the various highlight shows analyzing Anichebe’s standout performance, I couldn’t help but wonder whether clubs like our own need some kind of figurehead in order to thrive.
In the modern era of football our club has seen a whole host of irrepressible characters who have seemingly carried the club on their own backs like some Wearside Atlas. Names like Kevin Ball, Niall Quinn, Kevin Phillips, Julio Arca, Lee Cattermole and Jermain Defoe are synonymous with leadership, determination and a will to succeed. Those aforementioned forged a relationship with the fans that goes beyond football. These men understood what football meant to the fans, and they duly delivered what was expected of them.
The Likes of Ball, Quinn and Cattermole have all proved their worth thanks to their grit, drive and ability to pick those up around them through sheer effort and resolve; Ball and Cattermole are the archetypal hard men of the midfield, constantly putting their bodies on the line in an effort to drive the team on to a win. Nothing needs to be said about Niall Quinn’s commitment to this club, both on and off the pitch.
Phillips, Arca and Defoe have provided us with enough quality in times of need to propel the club in the right direction. Arca staying with the club after relegation spoke volumes about his commitment to the team and the love he had for our region; whereas Jermain Defoe’s decision to join a struggling Sunderland squad and give his all at the twilight of his career epitomises the man’s sheer professionalism. Kevin Phillips is another who will live long in the memories of the fans with his extraordinary goal-scoring ability; his goals bring back memories of a time when the club looked on the cusp of something special.
Yet the abject start to this season has left the squad looking limp, dull and lifeless. With Cattermole out injured there seemed to be a real lack of leadership, something Defoe struggles to provide whilst being isolated at the other end of the field. Many fans would have backed Lamine Kone to be the man to grab the team by the scruff of the neck and demand more from his fellow teammates… £90k per week would certainly motivate me. The opportunity was also there for Jack Rodwell to finally step up and be the commanding presence in the middle of the park we thought we were acquiring back in 2014; yet neither player has stepped up to the plate, and subsequently we found ourselves bottom of the table with two points after ten games.
This weekend, however, there was a tangible shift in the player’s attitude on the pitch. Despite going one goal down, there was an outlet: Victor Anichebe. And whilst Anichebe provided an outlet in offense, Jordan Pickford and, believe it or not, Billy Jones were the commanding presences in defence - barking orders and demanding concentration. This weekend there was a core group of players on the pitch that were able to influence the game through their attitude, enthusiasm and energy - something we’ve been missing for a long time.
Look at the teams around us: Swansea, Hull, West Ham, Crystal Palace and Middlesbrough; teams who at the end of the season could very well be in the race for the trap door. In those squads you have to ask whether they have a nucleus of players they look to in times of need. Take Swansea for example, they have struggled since the departure of Ashley Williams, and despite having an impressive midfield on paper - the lack of leadership and direction has cost them dear this season - in fact, they’re just as bad as us. The return of captain Michael Dawson for Hull this weekend saw a shift in spirit and a well-earned win against Southampton. West Ham’s woeful start to the season can be traced back to a lack of leadership, club man James Tomkins was allowed to leave this season and that, combined with a host of other issues, has brewed a fragile confidence.
I could go on, but in my opinion the point stands: have as much quality on the field as you want, but without leadership there to drive those players forward then teams will struggle to perform. The perfect example from modern memory would be Manchester United after losing the likes of Neville, Vidic, Ferdinand, Scholes and co. as well as the ultimate figurehead of the club: Sir Alex Ferguson. Leaders each and every one of them, and none adequately replaced by any of the successive successors to Fergie’s throne. Again, it was the reinstatement of Michael Carrick, for me, that enabled such a comfortable win for United this past weekend - his character and desire to organize, and drive his team forward is just as valuable as the skills offered by Pogba or Ibrahimovic.
So if you couple the impending return of Lee Cattermole with the impressive leadership skills shown by Billy Jones, Jordan Pickford and Anichebe at the weekend, then there has to be a glimmer of hope. If the team can come together and channel those player’s determination then maybe, just maybe, Sunderland might be in with a chance of survival.
Everyone knows the gravity of our current predicament. We know the financial worries that loom large over our club and we know the frustrations of lackluster performances. But get that fight back into the bellies of those players and perhaps we’ll look back on the win against Bournemouth as a cathartic moment.