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Sunderland v Birmingham City - Sky Bet Championship - Stadium of Light

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Editorial: Refereeing standards, the Rooney effect, Sunderland’s squad depth and retro badges!

It’s been another eventful week at the Stadium of Light!

Photo by Owen Humphreys/PA Images via Getty Images

A clip of that infamous incident where Andy D’urso was being chased by Roy Keane and pretty much every other Manchester United player popped up on my social media feed the other day. I hadn’t seen it for years – it looked bad at the time, by today’s standards it’s horrendous and would have resulted in pretty big bans for five or six of the Man Utd players.

I don’t think anyone wants to see a return to scenes like that, but you almost couldn’t blame players today, such is the standard of refereeing at the moment.

It’s not just us that’s suffering – it’s affecting every team somehow – but in 40 or so years of watching football, I don’t think I’ve ever seen refereeing as consistently incompetent as it is now.

Years ago, a bad refereeing display usually revolved around a poor individual decision (I’d just like to say hello to Mr Graham Barber at this point). Yes, there were inconsistencies, but usually from game to game, referee to referee. Today it’s from minute to minute.

This season especially, it seems it’s pretty much a consistent level of uselessness. Consistent inconsistency. Sometimes it seems like they’ve never played, watched or even liked football before. We became used to crap refs in League One, but this season’s Championship referees have managed to be pathetically, horrendously bad.

Is the ripple effect of VAR to blame? While we don’t have it in the Championship, referees – particularly those who have officiated in the Premier League – seem reluctant to make big calls, as they know they can pass the buck to someone else. We saw that with Craig Pawson at Blackburn last season.

Saturday’s game at home to Birmingham saw yet another completely incompetent display; one which left everyone in the ground frustrated. Even Wayne Rooney, who’d seen his midfield player Bacuna escape three clear yellow cards in the first half, thought the referee had been swayed too easily by the crowd, an observation that I found to be bizarre, but just goes to underline the commonly held frustration about refereeing performances.

The thing that really compounds these appallingly bad refereeing displays, however, is this demand for respect.

Sunderland v Birmingham City - Sky Bet Championship
Cue Aretha Franklin
Photo by Robert Smith/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

And that’s what it is – a demand. As we saw with Dan Neil against Boro, and again with Patrick Roberts on Saturday, you can’t say a word, or even hint at frustration. You can’t criticise, show any disagreement, or dare to look at a referee the wrong way today.

They are immune from criticism, but are demanding every player must respect them. Or else.

And that’s a massive issue, because in any walk of life, respect has to be earned – and referees are only going to get that respect when they’re consistently getting the simple decisions right, and are treating players as equals, rather than like school children.

Go back 15-20 years, and good referees earned that respect. Yes, they got decisions wrong – but they could talk to players, they’d tell them where to go back to their faces and have a bit of a laugh, but today there’s none of that. They operate as if they’re on a different planet. And that’s only going to further deepen the chasm between players and referees.

Yes, of course, we should respect referees, and yes, we need referees for the game to go ahead. But respect is a two-way street, and football, in general, isn’t getting any respect back in the way referees are operating today.

I guess it’s symptomatic of the world we live in today, which has been heightened to ridiculous levels by social media. People will repeatedly go on and on about a cause or point of view they’ve attached themselves to, convince themselves theirs is the only possible way, which has been reinforced in their echo chamber, and react incredibly intolerantly to anything that challenges their views.

There’s very rarely appetite for – or indeed tolerance of – a reasonable, good-natured conversation about why one person thinks another’s talking shit – and that applies as much to refereeing as it does to anything else in life.

Referees will probably be telling themselves they’re right, it’s everyone else who’s wrong – and that’s only going to cause more problems. Indeed, a referees’ support charity on Twitter takes exactly this stance – the referee is right, you are wrong.

Patrick Roberts’ booking on Saturday, after showing frustration for being the victim of three fouls from the same player, each of which could have easily been a yellow, was only ever going to earn ridicule. Everyone watching that game, regardless of who you were supporting, would agree that Bacuna should have been booked once, if not twice. Maybe even three times.

To not see at least one yellow for Bacuna was absolutely pathetic, and you can’t blame Roberts for getting frustrated.

You can’t demand respect – you’ve got to earn it. And referees need to start performing and managing games with that very clear truth in mind.

Sunderland v Birmingham City - Sky Bet Championship - Stadium of Light
Photo by Owen Humphreys/PA Images via Getty Images

Rooney is a good reminder to be careful what you wish for

Overall, Tony Mowbray’s done an excellent job for us – yes, his subs are strange at times, and yes, sometimes he’s unnecessarily downbeat, but he’s showing again he’s the right man, at the right club, at the right time with his management, coaching and development of our young squad.

Of course, football being football, and supporters being supporters, after most defeats there are murmurings about whether we’d be better off with someone else in the dugout.

There’s one thing changing a manager when everything’s going tits up – but when things are going pretty well it’s logically flawed, as it relies on the presumption that all of the good things remain the same, people aren’t negatively affected, and the areas of weakness can be – and are – improved upon quickly.

Birmingham are a prime example of this, and it’s a very good reminder that the grass isn’t always greener. If Wayne Rooney was a League One journeyman who’d stepped up at Derby and did OK, he’d be nowhere near St Andrews today.

Sunderland v Birmingham City - Sky Bet Championship
Tony Pulis Wayne Rooney hasn’t had the best start to life at St Andrews
Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

He was a great player, yes, but as we’ve seen so often, that doesn’t make you a good manager. On Saturday, he looked more like a bad Tony Pulis impersonator than a top Championship manager.

He was appointed because he’s a name – and I just don’t see him as a successful manager. I may well be proven wrong over time, and I do like his ‘no fear’ approach in theory – but to go into a club sitting 6th and playing well, and try to change the playing style overnight to something the players clearly aren’t comfortable with, smacks of arrogance.

It should be about Birmingham City and what’s best for them and the squad they currently have. This isn’t – it’s about Wayne Rooney – and I have sympathy with the Birmingham supporters. Eustace was doing a good job there, and while ‘Wazza’ might think they performed excellently, defended brilliantly, and should have got something out of the game on Saturday, he’s only kidding himself. The Birmingham fans aren’t buying it, and nor should they.

Birmingham’s owners have gone all in – a three-and-a-half-year contract means it’d be a costly mistake to rectify – and, who knows, with a transfer window or two it might work out. They’ve got a couple of very winnable games coming up, which they simply have to get maximum points from.

But was it worth the risk in the first place? Not a chance.

And that’s worth keeping in mind the next time we go through a bit of an indifferent run.

Finally – we’re seeing genuine strength in depth

Given we were without – deep breath – O’Nien, Ballard, Cirkin, Rigg, Alese, Pembele, Embleton, Evans, Matete and probably a few others who’ve slipped my mind, our bench was incredibly strong on Saturday, from an attacking perspective at least.

Aouchiche and Mayenda really helped turn the game firmly in our favour, and both looked superb in their cameo appearances. It was our first look at Mayenda, and what a prospect he is – fast, strong, skillful, he came so close to grabbing a goal, too. John Ruddy will have ‘Mitre’ imprinted on his face for the rest of his days.

Of course, the big selection story was Seelt and Triantis starting – both did well after an understandably nervy start, and that experience will serve them well.

Fitness permitting, Ballard and O’Nien will quite rightly be back in the starting XI when we next kick-off away at Plymouth in a fortnight – they’ve been two of our best players so far this season – but it’s good to know we’ve got some depth there, which will only be strengthened when those aforementioned players are back in contention.

Sunderland v Birmingham City - Sky Bet Championship
Worth waiting for!
Photo by Robert Smith/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

If we have a relatively fully fit squad come January, it’ll be interesting to see what we do with moving a player or two out – but there’s a lot of football to be played between now and then!

Form will come into it, too. We saw poor performances on Saturday from the likes of Ekwah and Dan Neil, and we need players fit to rotate in and out. As we’ve said before, one downside of relying on younger players is the lack of consistency, which is where a bigger squad should come in very handy – and with our busy December fixture list, it’s likely we’ll see a lot more of Aouchiche and Mayenda very soon.

Ship badge, anyone?

David Bruce, the new commercial director from the MLS, has only been in position for a few months, but there has already been a noticeable improvement in certain aspects of the club's commerciality. The new retro ‘ship badge’ gear, for example, is simple but so, so good. The players were warming up in one of the tops on Saturday, and it looks great – I’m sure it’s already flying off shelves, and in place of being able to buy the real kit, it’s a good alternative.

We’ve been so insipid commercially over the past five or so years, it’ll be revolutionary actually to see some competence in this department. The club has missed so many revenue opportunities, and it’s pleasing to see this being addressed.

Of course, one of the talking points about the new ‘retro’ range is the use of the old badge, which also appears on some of the Nike gear the squad’s wearing too. It’s rumoured this is testing the water a bit before reintroducing it more permanently next season.

I’m all for it. Nostalgic, maybe. I used to spend hours drawing that badge on every school book I had, but for me, it’s a far better badge for Sunderland. It’s unique, it embraces our past, and it’s – well – us.

I always thought the ‘new’ badge was a big mistake from Bob Murray – it looks so much like many other clubs’ badges, whereas the ship badge is unmistakenly Sunderland.

I know it’s relatively unimportant in the grand scheme of things, but the details really do matter – and getting little things right off the pitch is essential.


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