In Roy Keane’s second autobiography he details possibly the greatest team-talk a manager has ever given. No, I’m not referring to when the man himself told his Sunderland team, “Lads, you’re shit and you’re probably going to get beat. So just enjoy the game. Enjoy being shit.” Besides, it was Danny Higginbotham who included that particular yarn in their book.
The instance that I’m referring to is when Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United took on Tottenham Hotspur, on an unspecified date, at Old Trafford. Keane recounts “It was Tottenham at home. I thought please don’t go on about Tottenham, we all know what Tottenham is about, they are nice and tidy but we’ll fucking do them.” Ferguson’s words were simple - “Lads, it’s Tottenham.” That was it, nothing further needed. Perfection.
It may not be a game of the same calibre, quality or even significance as United against Spurs but Sunderland’s short sojourn to Middlesbrough has me thinking the same thing - with a little hint of the team talk that Higginbotham described.
I know we’re shit. We’re really, really shit. So shit that I gave up defending the club I support ages ago. Honestly though, it’s Middlesbrough. They’re just as bad - if not worse - than we are.
Just like ourselves they have very little pace in their side, they lack leadership and even their defence, their one positive under Aitor Karanka, has deteriorated since the Spaniard's departure. It’s no real surprise that we’re both battling for the wooden spoon.
To make matters worse, they’ve already done us over once this season and they didn’t even have to play that well to do it. A wonder goal from Christian Stuani set Boro on their way and he wrapped it up just before half time, when he was allowed a tap in after Sunderland’s defence decided to do impressions of traffic cones.
At least Moyes could point to a squad light on numbers on that warm August, Sunday afternoon - a makeshift and inexperienced midfield of Steven Pienaar, Lynden Gooch and Paddy McNair was testimony to that. Now that Wahbi Khazri has reemerged, Lee Cattermole has returned to give us impetus in midfield and Victor Anichebe is using his physicality to be a nuisance up front, there’s really no excuse for Sunderland not to beat Middlesbrough on Wednesday night.
It’s a perfect opportunity for David Moyes to show that he’s the man to take Sunderland forward from next season. This game is effectively a dress rehearsal for next years Championship campaign, so a win will give supporters a flicker of hope that he’s the man to guide the club back to the Premier League. Another insipid defeat and it will just raise more questions about a manager who many already feel to be the wrong man for Sunderland.
It speaks volumes to how terribly Sunderland have performed in 2017 that my thought is “just please don’t finish bottom.” Not even “let’s keep fighting right until the end” or “anything is possible, we can still finish 17th”, just a simple “let’s not be the absolute worst.”
A win over Middlesbrough gives us the chance to do just that.
Seriously though, it’s only Middlesbrough. Two defeats to them in one season would be a damning indictment of Moyes and the players - and that should be motivation enough.