Jordan Pickford: A Unique Success Story in Falling Sunderland

Jordan Pickford will not decide on his club future until after England U21s’ European Championship campaign. Photograph: Nigel Roddis/Getty Images

When a furious Jordan Pickford conceded a goal during a training exercise with England’s Under-21’s at St George’s Park this week, he whacked and burst one of the inflatable mannequins that had been put up to complicate the strikers’ route to goal. “I just don’t like conceding,” he explains with an endearing chuckle. There was an obvious quip that could have been made about being accustomed to it after a campaign behind the dummies in Sunderland’s defense but his club’s relegation is no lighthearted matter for the 23-year-old.

Pickford is still hurt by his hometown team’s fall from the Premier League even if things are looking up for him personally, with his acclaimed performances throughout the season likely to result in offers from several top-flight clubs waiting for him when he gets back from this month’s European Under-21 Championship, from which he is confident of returning as a winner.

“It’s hard to take that I got relegated with Sunderland and it’ll always be hard to take but I’m mentally strong,” says Pickford, who has been on the club’s books since he was eight. “[The impact of relegation] is massive – 40-odd people lost their jobs throughout the season and financially it’s not ideal for the whole club. For me, having grown up and been there since I was a kid, seeing people you’ve known for a long time losing their jobs, it’s not nice. But I feel like as a team and staff behind the scenes we did the best we could do and it was just unfortunate that we never got the results we needed.”

Of course it was more than misfortune that caused Sunderland to finish bottom of the table but the failure was certainly not the fault of Pickford, whose excellence earned him a place on the shortlist for the PFA young player of the year award. It is fair to say promoting Pickford to No1 rather than buying a more experienced goalkeeper when Sunderland’s first choice, Vito Mannone, was injured in August was one of the few decisions David Moyes got right during a miserable campaign.

“He has been great, to give me that experience,” says Pickford. “There was a lot of talk about certain keepers coming in, like Joe Hart, but the manager just brought in a No2/No3 [Mika, from Benfica] and gave me the opportunity. It was top drawer, really. I was a young lad thrown in at the deep end but I felt ready for it.”

His description of how he became ready for it begins with a memory from his early childhood, when his brother Richard, six years his senior, would invite him to kickabouts with the instruction: “Get on the tarmac and dive about lad.” He went on to hone his talent in the more formal surrounds of Sunderland’s academy and then, after turning professional in 2011, spent loan stints at a variety of Football League clubs, most recently at Preston North End in the 2015-16 season, when he kept 14 clean sheets in 30 matches. “That was proving that I was good enough,” he says with the confidence he has gained from working his way up steadily.

Another sign of that confidence, and his readiness, was the way he hollered instructions at veteran defenders as soon as he was thrust into Sunderland’s first team. “Around the place I’m just myself really but as soon as you cross that white line I feel it’s my job and I’m here to do it and get the lads going,” he says. “You don’t do it nastily, you do it to help the lads in front of you and you know you’re doing it when they look round and give you the thumbs up or, after the game, they bring up something you’ve done well and that you’ve saved a goal by talking.”

Pickford is all about the bottom line. The saves he cherishes most are not the most acrobatic or difficult ones but the ones that matter most. “I go back to the [Peter] Schmeichel thing: you save it how you have to, any way that you can. Technique goes out the window sometimes.” So his favorite stop in his career was the close-range one he made to prevent Leicester City’s Wes Morgan from equalizing in the sixth minute of stoppage time at the Stadium of Light in December. “It wasn’t an unbelievable save, it was just the timing of the game,” he says. “A match-winning save and we thought that win might have got us going.”

The win did not get Sunderland going – they were battered 3-0 by Swansea City a week later – but it lengthened Pickford’s list of admirers. Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea have been mentioned as potential destinations for him this summer. He admits to being torn about the possibility of having to choose between staying at his hometown club or heading back up to the Premier League, where his talent suggests he belongs. “Ideally it would have been better if we had stayed up; my heart is massive towards the club,” he says. “It’s a hard one, really. What will be will be.”

He has resolved not to think about it until after the European Championship. England kick off their campaign on Friday against the holders, Sweden, before completing their group fixtures against Slovakia and the hosts, Poland. “The Euros is massive for me and a lot of the other players. I don’t want to be getting distracted and I am really excited for it. We have got a chance to win it with the squad we have got. We have come this far, we have to get out of the group first but we are capable of doing that easily. We will see where we go from there.”

(The Guardian)

Leon Britton: The Anonymous Soldier Who Saved Swansea from Falling

Leon Britton: ‘Swansea fans back me through anything. It’s incredible’

When Leon Britton was pulling the strings at the Stadium of Light last weekend, a journalist on the BBC’s rolling blog accused Sunderland of making the Swansea City midfielder look like Andrea Pirlo. Robbie Britton, who is a Team GB ultra-marathon runner and the Swansea player’s cousin, picked up on the comment and responded on Twitter with: “Hey, BBC Sport, Andrea Pirlo wishes he was Leon Britton.”

Sitting in the canteen at Swansea’s training ground, where the sunshine gleaming through the windows reflects the upbeat mood inside after the Welsh club secured a seventh successive season of Premier League football, Britton breaks into laughter when told about his cousin’s remarks. “That’s nice of him to say that but I don’t think Pirlo’s too worried about me over in New York. I think he would be like: ‘Leon?’”

Whether Pirlo has heard of Britton or not will make no difference to the people of Swansea. Britton is a legend in the eyes of the club’s supporters, who took him to their hearts when he arrived from West Ham United in 2002, and it is becoming increasingly clear his status in the city transcends football. This week a headline on a Wales Online article read: “Should Swansea’s Leon Britton be awarded the freedom of the city?” Within the story a spokesman for the council talked about how Britton, who was born and raised in London, continues to be a wonderful servant for the club and is also a “great ambassador for Swansea”.

“My wife, Laura, who is from Swansea, mentioned it to me. I really don’t know what to make of it,” Britton says, smiling. “I’m not saying it’s happening, but it’s just something you’d never expect. Something you wouldn’t dream of. I was actually surprised the council publicly commented. I guess it shows the affection that people in the city have. Everyone is just so nice to me, not only the fans. At the club’s awards dinner on Wednesday night an elderly lady said to me: ‘I don’t follow the football but I know who you are and I don’t know anyone else.’ She said I should take that as a compliment.”

So many professional footballers merely pass through clubs, like trains pulling in and out of stations, but Britton’s relationship with Swansea runs deeper. The 34-year-old has represented Swansea in every division, racking up more than 500 appearances, and even supported the club as a fan when he left to join Sheffield United for seven months in 2010.

“Swansea were playing Wigan in a League Cup game, it was October and I was a bit wary of going over because I didn’t know what reception I’d get,” Britton recalls. “But in the concourse they were all singing my name, thousands of Swansea fans. I knew I’d made a mistake leaving the club, and that moment, hearing the singing, made me want to go back to Swansea even more. It was surreal and I’ll always remember that night.”

All of which goes some way to explaining why Britton wanted to do more than just help out on the pitch when Paul Clement brought him into the team for the first time since he was appointed head coach in January, in a must-win game against Stoke City last month. Swansea had taken only one point from their previous six fixtures and Britton felt it was time for a gentle reminder about the club’s journey. He picked up 25 copies of Jack to a King, the film that documents Swansea’s rags-to-riches rise, got to the training ground early on the day before the Stoke match and placed a DVD on each player’s seat in the changing room. Britton then sent the players a text, asking them to try to find an hour to watch the film before the Stoke match to “see just see how much this means to not just the fans but also to the city”.

It is a story that says so much about Britton and there was no real surprise a fortnight later when Clement revealed after the 1-0 victory over Everton that the same person was responsible for coming up with the idea for the players to pay for 3,000 tickets for the away game at Sunderland.

“The DVDs and the tickets – I don’t do that to get praise elsewhere,” Britton says. “I was just doing things to try and help get us out of the situation we were in. During the season we’ve had so many words spoken, whether from players, different managers or different coaches, like: ‘Come on, boys, this game’s important’, or ‘This is a big one’. I’m not saying that doesn’t have the effect but it’s the same and people start to think: ‘We heard that last week.’ So the DVDs were just something different.”

As for Britton’s influence on the pitch, the fact that his return to the side has coincided with Swansea collecting 10 points in four matches to stave off the threat of relegation speaks volumes. There is also something of a theme developing in recent times, whereby managers seem to turn to Britton whenever Swansea are up against it. “Someone was making a joke to me about that the other day, saying in 10 years’ time they’ll be finding me in Morgans Hotel [in Swansea] and getting me down to the Liberty,” Britton says, laughing.

Britton lasted 85 minutes against Stoke before departing to a standing ovation that seemed genuinely to move Clement. “I suppose he hadn’t seen me on the pitch until that game,” Britton says. “I think he was surprised by the way the fans just love me. They back me through anything. It’s incredible. I don’t score goals, so I don’t get that feeling of a goalscorer. But I get the feeling of 20,000 people singing my name when I come off, and that’s special. I could never get bored of that. Even now it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.”

It was similar against Everton in the next home match when Britton, who is 5ft 5in, beat Kevin Mirallas in the air. “The fans go nuts if I win a header,” Britton laughs. Then came a full-blooded challenge on Idrissa Gueye that left the Everton midfielder in a heap. “That was a bit old school,” Britton says, smiling. “I wanted to win that game so much. Little things like that, we can talk about ‘the Swansea way’ and playing football, but the crowd still love a 50-50 tackle and seeing one of your players going in fully committed, especially in the situation we were in then. That sort of thing lifts the crowd.”

Although Swansea are delighted to have stayed up, Britton makes the point that they also strayed into relegation trouble last season and warns “lessons need to be learned because we’ve seen that, if you keep flirting with it, eventually you do go down”. In Clement, however, he is confident that Swansea have the right man to take the club on an upward trajectory. Britton speaks extremely highly of the 45‑year‑old’s “top-quality” training, attention to detail when it comes to analyzing the opposition and the level of thought he puts into his communication with the players.

As the captain, Britton had the job of ringing Clement last Sunday afternoon, once survival was confirmed, to see if the head coach would allow the players to enjoy a two-night break in Ibiza. Britton was in London at the time with Lilly, his daughter, and was being badgered by his team-mates to follow up a carefully worded text that Gerhard Tremmel, the third-choice goalkeeper, had sent to Clement “on behalf of the players” requesting a bit of sunshine. Although Clement made it clear to Britton that he wanted to finish the season strongly, he agreed to the players’ trip to Spain – provided they were back at the training ground for 1.30pm on Wednesday. “And he was waiting by the door,” Britton adds, smiling.

Britton is looking forward to finishing a difficult season on a high against West Bromwich Albion on Sunday as well as spending some time on the pitch at the end with Lilly, Shayne, his stepson, and Alfie and Charlie, his four-year-old twin boys, who have been pestering him for weeks about running out at the Liberty Stadium. “They keep asking: ‘How many more sleeps?’”

Given that Britton’s children were all born in Wales, as well as his wife, it is not surprising that he talks about developing a strong affiliation with the country where he has lived for the best part of 15 years. Britton stresses that he is “obviously English through and through”, yet he admits that he briefly let his guard down last summer.

“I got a lot of stick when I went to the Euros and I wore a Wales shirt,” he says. “I went to the Belgium game [in the quarter-finals] with a group of friends from Swansea. I was a bit skeptical putting the shirt on, but I did it. We were with the fans, soaking up the atmosphere, and pictures went round on social media – Garry Monk [the former Swansea manager] was on the phone to me within an hour of the photos appearing. I only did it for one day, and if England play Wales, then I want England to win. But I’ve been here so long now that in any other game I’d support Wales and want them to do well.”

The interview is drawing to a close and, as Huw Jenkins walks into the canteen, it seems a good time to check with Britton that he has only one year remaining on the 13th contract he has signed during a distinguished Swansea career. “That sounds about right. Where’s the chairman, I need to see if we can make it 14,” says Britton, laughing and looking over his shoulder in Jenkins’s direction. “I’d like to stay on longer, but that’s a decision for the club. Hopefully I’ll remain here anyway. That’s something I’d like to do when I finish, because this place is like home for me now.”

(The Guardian)

Premier League: 10 Talking Points from Last Weekend’s Action

Arsenal

London – José Mourinho has little to show from big away days, Vincent Kompany talks up the Pep Guardiola revolution, and Tony Pulis points to the bottom line:

1) Mourinho comes unstuck on road to top-four rivals

Manchester United’s run of 25 unbeaten league games came to an end at Arsenal where José Mourinho once again set up his team with the focus on nullifying the opposition. Asking Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Juan Mata to follow Arsenal’s wingbacks wherever they went meant sacrificing two of his most creative talents in an attempt to deny the Gunners control. This of course is the Mourinho way, to be reactive, to never make the first mistake, but against their direct rivals away from home it simply hasn’t worked: United have failed to score in 360 Premier League minutes at the Emirates, the Etihad, Stamford Bridge and Anfield this season. Next is a trip to White Hart Lane and given United’s league position it would hardly be a great risk to loosen up and go toe to toe with Tottenham, yet that kind of front-foot away performance seems no more likely now than it did under Mourinho’s predecessor.

2) Arsenal and the Champions League – the saga may continue

Arsenal have made a habit of finishing the season with a flourish under Arsène Wenger and with four games still left to salvage a Champions League spot, they may still fancy their chances. Victory against Southampton on Wednesday would move them above Manchester United into fifth and ensure they are in a strong position should either Manchester City or Liverpool slip up. With home games against Sunderland and Everton to finish, the trips to St. Mary’s and Wenger’s old favorite stamping ground of the Britannia Stadium to play Stoke look like being pivotal to their hopes given Arsenal’s recent struggles on the road. If not, a first season outside Europe’s elite competition since the Frenchman’s arrival in 1996 beckons.

3) Howe sets sights on top-10 finish at Bournemouth

Both teams were supposed to be distracted by thoughts of the beach, but Stoke’s draw at Bournemouth showed two sides determined to finish the season with a bang. They finished the weekend as they started it, a point apart, in mid-table and quietly going about their business. They also went home assured of their Premier League status for another season. Bournemouth, especially, are intent on reaching new, higher ground. They are unbeaten in three matches and with two games to go, at home to Burnley and then away at Leicester City, they are sitting rather pretty on 42 points – the same number they finished with in 16th place last year. Eddie Howe’s side are desperate to go one (or six) better. “We want to try and secure a top-10 finish if possible,” the Bournemouth manager said. “From our perspective, it is always trying to improve.”

4) Pulis tells critics to look at table – and club’s bottom line

A bit of criticism is like water off a duck’s back for Tony Pulis. Be it his style of play or his reluctance to sit down in press conferences, the West Bromwich Albion manager is quite happy doing things his way. But after his side’s 2-2 draw at Burnley – a team who deserve all the plaudits they should get for their achievements this season – the West Bromwich head coach took exception to those pointing the finger at the way his team have tailed off since securing Premier League safety. Despite the result on Saturday extending their winless run to six matches, this – let’s face it – unfashionable Albion team remain a hugely creditable eighth. “People who have been giving us stick don’t understand,” Pulis said. “We will make a massive profit at the end of the season, this club is run very professionally. We have to survive and we do that very well.”

5) Pickford shows excellence that was missing at Sunderland

Put people under pressure and their reactions are sometimes spellbinding. With the stress off David Moyes’s already relegated Sunderland side, the immense tension surrounding Marco Silva’s team undid Hull City, even if Jordan Pickford’s saves contributed to their downfall. Sunderland’s brilliant goalkeeper has consistently excelled but it should be remembered Moyes was initially unsure about him, making a concerted attempt to sign Joe Hart in August. Had that happened Pickford would have wasted the campaign warming the bench rather than being a rare Wearside overachiever. “The first thing I expect from team‑mates is trusting them to give their all every game,” Billy Jones, Sunderland’s right-back, said in a devastating critique. “At times this season, that’s been lacking. Players need to look at themselves in the mirror.”

6) May could prove Mazzarri’s downfall at Watford

The month of May has become particularly precarious for Watford managers in recent years and Walter Mazzarri must know his moment of truth is just around the corner. Their fifth successive defeat on the road without finding the net will not have helped the Italian’s cause with the club’s owner, Gino Pozzo, although the former Napoli and Internazionale manager has actually fared better in the second half of the season than his predecessor at Vicarage Road, Quique Sánchez Flores. With trips to Everton and Chelsea to come before they face Manchester City on the final day of the Premier League season, Mazzarri will do well to exceed Watford’s points total of 45 from last season, when they also reached the FA Cup semi-final.

7) Southampton’s good point at Anfield cannot hide weak points

Southampton’s point at Liverpool was hard-fought and deserved but it was a performance that hardly answered Claude Puel’s critics. His players dug deep to earn a draw at Anfield, especially Fraser Forster, who saved James Milner’s second‑half penalty, but the Liverpool goalkeeper, Simon Mignolet, left the field without breaking sweat. Saints may have defended stoutly but they did not have a shot on target and when they did threaten to attack they were subdued; Manolo Gabbiadini was again painfully isolated up front. Defensively the center-back partnership of Jack Stephens and Maya Yoshida seems to be growing stronger with each 90 minutes but when Southampton host Arsenal on Wednesday it would be dangerous for Saints to take too much inspiration from this dull stalemate.

8) Kompany believes City side could be best of Sheikh Mansour era

As the man who captained Manchester City to two league titles, Vincent Kompany should be listened to when he states Pep Guardiola’s team may prove to be the best of the Sheikh Mansour era. After City thrashed Crystal Palace 5-0 the Belgian said: “My opinion is simple. I’ve been part of teams here who have been able to win trophies but never a team that has been able to control a game and dominate a game like we do now. Unfortunately we lost a little bit of the edge we had [earlier in the season]. But that’s something we can recover, especially when I see the talent on the pitch. Gabriel Jesus, you can see he’s hungry to get goals. Leroy [Sané] and Raheem [Sterling] were trying to shoot and get goals. We don’t mind as long as people keep trying. I see us having advantages over any squad we’ve had before at this club. So I’m objectively positive about the future.”

9) Mawson underlines how little Williams is missed at Swansea

One of the many criticisms levelled at Swansea City at the start of this chaotic season was that they sold Ashley Williams, their captain, without signing a replacement. That argument no longer rings true. Alfie Mawson, who joined from Barnsley in late August, upstaged Everton’s Williams on his return to the Liberty Stadium with yet another hugely impressive performance at the heart of the Swansea defense. Mawson had to wait until 22 October to make his Premier League debut and was not helped in the early stages by Bob Bradley’s chopping and changing at the back, but he has emerged as a key player. Composed on the ball, defensively solid and a real threat in the opposition penalty area, Mawson has a big future ahead of him, so much so that few home fans would have left the Liberty Stadium on Saturday wishing that Williams was still Swansea’s No6.

10) Lanzini’s big-game qualities offer hope for West Ham revival

Manuel Lanzini’s winning goal on Friday gave West Ham United, with apologies to Andy Carroll, the first landmark moment at their new home. Lanzini’s opportunistic finish also bolstered a curious statistic: the Argentinian has now scored nine of his 14 league goals in London derbies. If nothing else, this perhaps reveals something of the big‑game player in Lanzini. It is a quality that has been lacking as West Ham have struggled to adjust to their new status and surroundings, with Slaven Bilic trying out a host of unconvincing options to fill the creative void left behind by Dimitri Payet. On Friday the front three of André Ayew, Jonathan Calleri and Lanzini appeared to provide as much optimism as any, and the system allowed Lanzini to shine. He drifted instinctively into key areas and scoring a poacher’s goal for the biggest win of West Ham’s season.

The Guardian Sport

Premier League: 10 Talking Points from Last Weekend’s Action

Arsenal

London – Gabriel and Arsenal falter under pressure, Crystal Palace have a problem with fan behavior, Sunderland must keep Didier Ndong while Hull’s Harry Maguire continues his excellent form:

1) Palace fans throwing objects gives cause for concern

Sean Dyche laughed off the fact James Tarkowski had been struck by a plastic cigarette lighter as Burnley’s players celebrated their first goal but Crystal Palace will find the incident far from amusing. This was the third time a visiting player has been struck by an object thrown from that corner of the Holmesdale stand since the club returned to the Premier League in 2013. Wayne Rooney and more recently Fabricio Coloccini were the others hit and the Metropolitan police appealed for witnesses over the coin flung at the Newcastle defender. The Football Association spoke with Palace on both occasions but took no action. The incident is sure to be included in the referee Bobby Madley’s match report. Palace upgraded their CCTV after the Newcastle incident. “It’ll be dealt with, but it’s very disappointing,” Sam Allardyce said. “You don’t want to see that.”

2) Koeman knows Everton have hit glass ceiling in top flight

Ronald Koeman is looking increasingly annoyed at Everton’s present situation – held at West Ham last week, overrun in the end by Chelsea to end a sequence of eight wins on the bounce at Goodison – yet he knew the score when he came to Merseyside from Southampton. Everton are best of the rest, a nailed-on seventh. This season, with Chelsea back, Spurs going well and Arsenal hanging in there as usual, a top-six finish was always likely to be beyond Everton’s grasp. That situation will apply most seasons unless one or more of the big six unexpectedly hit the buffers, and it is for that reason that Everton face a difficult summer trying to keep Romelu Lukaku. Everton are not quite successful enough to retain their best performers, yet in playing if not in financial terms they cannot afford to sell them. Everton have improved under Koeman, though the significant step upwards seems as far away as ever.

3) Clement makes heartfelt plea for video replays

After Marcus Rashford wrongly won a penalty when diving in this 1-1 draw, Paul Clement made a strong argument regarding video technology. Swansea’s manager said: “When we played Burnley at home, a cross went into the box, their player has handled it, and he [the referee] gave a penalty to Burnley. A simple look at any kind of device sorts it out in less than a minute. I saw in the France-Spain game they trialed it. They reviewed an offside decision, it took 48 seconds and the correct decision was given. It’s unbelievable that in this day and age with the technology available, the only people that don’t get help are the ones who most need it. We can see it, you can, the fans, everyone apart from the officials. It has to be done. It’s long overdue.” Neil Swarbrick, the referee here, deserved help to avoid making the latest mistake a quick replay would have avoided.

4) Mourinho running out of defenders for run in

Manchester United missed the chance to move third with a 1-1 draw against Swansea, but the damage to their top-four aspirations was relatively light given Manchester City’s slip at Middlesbrough. After the match Mourinho blamed a busy fixture list for “punishing” his team’s success in cup competitions, and threatened to play the reserves in their last league game of the season in order to rest his team for the Europa League final three days later – but a depleted United must get there first, or risk missing out on Champions League football and regretting the 10 Premier League home draws, like this one, which have stalled their season.

5) Guardiola waiting anxiously on Agüero injury update

While Pep Guardiola faces an anxious wait to discover whether the injury to Sergio Agüero here will sideline his key striker, Steve Agnew is similarly concerned to learn if he has done enough to become Middlesbrough’s manager next season. Like Guardiola at City, Aitor Karanka’s interim successor has not always convinced but this was the Teessiders’ best performance of the season and suggested he could yet mastermind a Championship promotion bid. Although Boro are not mathematically down, their survival chances are fading in much the same manner that City’s hopes of a top‑four finish will recede should Agüero be unavailable.

6) Maguire shining in Hull’s relegation dogfight

Marco Silva has undoubtedly been the driving force behind Hull City’s turnaround since the turn of the year but their captain, Harry Maguire, has also come to the fore. The 24-year-old, who joined Hull from Sheffield United for £2.5m in 2014, was used sporadically by previous managers but has been at the heart of Hull’s resurgence. The challenge for Silva, regardless of which division they are playing in next season, will be retaining the defender, whom he has suggested should be in England squad. “Of course, it is an important player to us, a young player as well and it’s important for Hull City to keep these types of players,” said Silva, who confirmed the club had not received an official approach for Maguire. The center-back, after a difficult first 12 months in east Yorkshire, almost joined Bristol City in 2015 but Steve Bruce rejected the offer and the player, although he has had to bide his time, is reaping the rewards.

7) Butland return is good for Stoke and England

England have lacked for good news on the goalkeeping front for some time but the return of Jack Butland for Stoke, after more than a year out since his injury against Germany, offers one piece of encouragement. Butland was probably the standout performer in an otherwise meaningless goalless draw with West Ham on Saturday. His saves from André Ayew and Manuel Lanzini caught the eye but it was his commanding overall presence in the box that might have most impressed the watching England manager, Gareth Southgate. “All top clubs need keepers like Jack,” said the Stoke manager, Mark Hughes. They need good strikers too, of course, and Stoke must hope Saido Berahino’s luck finally changes soon. The forward is still goalless for his new club and was agonizingly close to breaking his duck when denied by Adrián’s one-handed save.

8) Sunderland need to keep hold of French gem Ndong

Sunderland’s relegation represented the “worst day” of David Moyes’s career and his Wearside tenure may now end in divorce but the former Everton, Manchester United and Real Sociedad manager did something right in the north-east. When he invested almost half the club’s £30m summer spend on the little-known Gabon midfielder Didier Ndong, from Lorient in France, eyebrows were raised – and not least in Ligue 1 circles. Ndong, though, has frequently proved to be Sunderland’s best outfield player this season (the brilliant young goalkeeper Jordan Pickford has been the real star) and, typically, kept his side in the game up until Josh King’s late winner for Bournemouth. Sunderland’s record signing is still a bit raw but his high‑energy enterprise could serve the team extremely well in the Championship. Providing Sunderland can keep hold of him, of course…

9) Gabriel mistake exemplifies Arsenal fragility once more

It was a moment that summed up Arsenal’s afternoon at Tottenham Hotspur and, also, a broader theme of their season. One-nil down to Dele Alli’s goal, it was vital that they kept things tight for a few minutes, tried to ride out the storm. Enter Gabriel Paulista. It was a ridiculous challenge from the Brazil defender, one that he did not need to make and it presented Harry Kane with his penalty, three minutes after Alli’s goal. Game over. Gabriel lacked the composure when the pressure was at its highest and it felt like yet another instance of Arsenal’s fragility. This was an ordeal for them. Quite simply, Tottenham wanted it more. They ran harder and further; they dominated the 50-50s and, were it not for Petr Cech, the final scoreline would have been heavier. Thanks to results elsewhere, Arsenal’s top-four hopes are not dead. Playing like this, they will be.

10) Everything has turned out fine for Leicester after all

It has been a wild season for Leicester City, a rollercoaster ride that led to Claudio Ranieri’s dismissal and at one stage looked like ending with English football witnessing its first top-flight champions to be relegated since 1938. Yet when the dust settles on this chaotic campaign, and people look back through the record books in years to come, everything will point to a perfectly acceptable season on the back of the unthinkable 12 months earlier. After flying the flag for English football in the last eight of the Champions League, Leicester are now on course, with three of their final four games at home, to finish in the top half of the Premier League. “If somebody said we’d got to the quarter-finals of the Champions League and finish 10th, then a lot of people would have been snapping people’s hands off for that,” Danny Drinkwater said after this win.

The Guardian Sport

David Moyes’ Old-School Ways Helped Drag Ailing Sunderland over the Edge

Moyes

London – Within hours of becoming Sunderland’s manager last July David Moyes boarded a privately chartered plane. He and the team were bound for a French training camp but an ominous grinding noise from the engines and slightly tense looks exchanged among the cabin crew soon confirmed they would be making a detour.

Engine failure had prompted an awkward emergency landing. With the benefit of hindsight, it seemed an ominously emblematic portent of an impending season destined to conclude with the club bumping down hard into the Championship and Moyes’s carefully burnished reputation in ruins.

The harbingers of trouble ahead did not end there. About to touch down at a small Austrian airport before a pre-season friendly, Sunderland’s plane subsequently endured a further drama. With a safe landing deemed impossible, the engines throttled ferociously, the aircraft’s noise pitched violently upwards and a shaken Moyes realized they were, in aviation parlance, “going round”, in other words taking off again.

Although it set lights flashing and alarms buzzing while briefly electrifying the atmosphere in the air traffic control tower, the pilot landed at the second attempt and always seemed to have a potentially high-risk situation under control. In sharp contrast Sunderland’s manager never really had a grip on a toxic Wearside inheritance.

With relegation confirmed by Saturday’s 1-0 home defeat against Bournemouth, Moyes has dropped heavy hints he could well shortly part company with the club and, if so, there will be few tears. The former Everton, Manchester United and Real Sociedad manager may be only 54 but his strangely dated mind-set has arguably exacerbated Sunderland’s long-standing stasis.

If, off the pitch, his observations that two of his African players, Papy Djilobodji and Didier Ndong, required more “Britishness” in their football jarred, on it, Sunderland’s tactics have frequently seemed somewhat binary for a division filled with kaleidoscopic positional rotation and ever shifting systems. Some players reputedly found training slightly old-fashioned.

The impression this may be a man stuck in his ways and reluctant to challenge received wisdoms was reinforced when Moyes claimed teams “don’t win things” with back threes.

Further question marks appeared when a manager who spent £30m last summer set about signing several players he had previously worked with at Everton and Manchester United, including Victor Anichebe and the United loanee Adnan Januzaj.

Having failed properly to address the squad’s chronic lack of pace and creativity, Sunderland’s seventh manager in five turbulent years consistently sidelined the gifted Wahbi Khazri, a playmaking success under Sam Allardyce last spring.

Sunderland fans cannot comprehend why Allardyce’s successor failed to acquire the former France midfielder Yann M’Vila, outstanding on loan last season, and available for £7m from Rubin Kazan, but Moyes was fast discovering that, to echo Kevin Keegan, the job “wasn’t like it said in the brochure”.

If he possibly did not fight hard enough for M’Vila, Sunderland’s dismal recent performances should be assessed in the context of some significant managerial mitigating factors.

Last July Moyes was unaware that Ellis Short, the owner and a man initially delighted to secure the Scot’s services at the fifth attempt, hoped to sell the club. Neither did he appreciate the scale of the debt – currently £110m with wages representing an alarming 78 percent of turnover.

After a series of grueling relegation battles Sunderland were an established bottom-five Premier League club shouldering a top-10 wage bill. Had Allardyce, highly impressive on Wearside last season when his sports science regimen raised fitness levels dramatically, not been lured away to, very briefly, coach England, he may conceivably have broken this cycle of struggle. Yet well before his departure the current Crystal Palace manager’s relationship with Short had become severely strained, with the transfer budget a sore point.

Privately Moyes – who considered resigning last autumn – feels similarly let down. His critics, meanwhile, argue that his limitations, particularly in the recruitment sphere, have been horribly exposed by Hull City’s Marco Silva. The Portuguese, after taking over in January and immediately selling his two best players, Robert Snodgrass and Jake Livermore, for a combined £20m, revitalized the club with seven eclectic imports, five on loan.

Whereas Hull recruited cleverly Sunderland have bought very badly in recent years, with only four of their past 47 signings sold on for a profit. Short has acknowledged this in a written apology to supporters.

It dictates that, despite crowds frequently in excess of 45,000 and a very well-appointed training facility – Allardyce said it was the best he had worked at – Sunderland and success have long been strangers.

Whoever is in charge next season will preside over radical change in an unforgiving Championship. With nine senior professionals, including Jan Kirchhoff, John O’Shea and Seb Larsson, out of contract in June a squad overhaul beckons.

A clause in Jermain Defoe’s contract permits the England striker to depart for free but Jordan Pickford’s excellent goalkeeping, featuring some brilliant footwork, will prompt a high-price transfer and the center-half Lamine Koné should also command a decent fee.

Talented as that trio are few disagree with Moyes’s oft-repeated assertion that, collectively, the squad is “limited”.

The Guardian Sport

Sunderland Fans Expose David Moyes’ Decline and Could Spark His Fall

David Moyes feels he is paying for predecessors’ recruitment mistakes at Sunderland, has been unlucky with injuries and wants time to conduct root and branch reform. Photograph: Scott Heppell/Reuters

This time four years ago David Moyes was about to succeed Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United but today he is struggling to restore his tattered reputation at Sunderland where a significant proportion of supporters want him sacked.

It has been quite a fall from grace for the former Everton, United and Real Sociedad manager who endured chants of “We want Moyes out” from all corners of an unusually hostile Stadium of Light during Sunderland’s 2-2 draw with West Ham United on Saturday. There were also choruses of “David Moyes had a dream, to fuck our football team” and boos when the home manager ventured from his dugout.

Despite Sunderland’s position – bottom of the Premier league and nine points adrift of the 17th-placed Hull City – Ellis Short, the club’s owner, is not minded to sack the Scot, but may be forced to rethink should anger build during the remaining two home games, against Bournemouth and Swansea City.

Moyes, meanwhile, has made it clear he has no intention of resigning and is determined to rebuild Sunderland in the second tier while challenging for immediate promotion.

He maintains that he inherited a poisoned chalice at a club now around £140m in debt and who, in recent years, have consistently occupied the Premier League’s bottom five positions despite a top-10 wage bill.

As Sunderland’s seventh manager in five years Moyes feels he is paying for predecessors’ recruitment mistakes, has been unlucky with injuries and wants time to conduct root and branch reform. His critics’ riposte is that his tactics have been unimaginatively one-dimensional and his prolonged marginalisation of Wahbi Khazri, arguably Sunderland’s most gifted individual, self-destructive.

Above all, they have been dismayed by the persistently downbeat demeanour of a manager who, as early as last August, declared that a relegation battle beckoned, and underwhelmed by a series of low-key, low-impact signings including Darron Gibson and Donald Love, almost all of whom had played for Moyes at Everton or Manchester United.

Reconstructing the squad will involve a major overhaul this summer as, by way of exacerbating the manager’s problems, his Italian forward Fabio Borini has revealed the dressing room has been fractured by internal divisions.

Without a home league win since mid-December, Sunderland have long seemed destined for the Championship but, paradoxically, Saturday represented the team’s best performance for some time.

Unfortunately for Moyes the crowd were able to use the fact that his side’s first goals in eight games were scored by Wahbi Khazri and Borini, two players he has persistently sidelined, as a stick with which to beat him. “Are you watching David Moyes,” they sang as Khazri, a Tunisian playmaker starting his first game since October, scored direct from a corner to equalise André Ayew’s early opener.

James Collins restored West Ham’s lead before Borini, only brought off the bench as Billy Jones had been taken off with concussion, snatched an equaliser before celebrating, somewhat provocatively, with a knee slide in front of the home bench.

Afterwards Borini revealed that there had been behind-the-scenes tensions within the squad this term. “We have not been as united as a group as in previous seasons, that’s what probably has been the problem,” the Italian said. “There have been a little bit of problems within the dressing room but that’s for us to deal with. To keep going now we have to be more united than ever before.”

Remarkably, attendances at the Stadium of Light have averaged well over 40,000 per game this season and Saturday was the first time a hitherto extraordinarily loyal crowd have turned on the manager.

“The chants were to be expected,” said Moyes, who will shortly discover whether he faces sanction from the Football Association in the wake of the unfortunate comments he directed towards the BBC’s Vicki Sparks last month. “The manager and the team are not doing well and they are entitled to take their frustration out on somebody. It’s nearly always the manager and I have no issue with that. I have to accept it. I just remember I’ve got the third or fourth best win record of any Premier League manager.”

With Khazri most people’s man of the match, Moyes was asked why he had excluded a key player during Sunderland’s avoidance of relegation under Sam Allardyce last spring for so long. “I can only tell you my choice has been to play other people because of what I have seen,” said the 53-year-old who, earlier this season, turned down a chance to sign Dimitar Berbatov, the currently unattached former Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United striker. “But Wahbi was good today, much more disciplined.”

Tellingly, when Khazri scored Moyes sat with his arms folded while the rest of Sunderland’s bench applauded.

(The New York Times)

Sam Allardyce: The Formidable Firefighter Cursed By Unrealistic Expectations

‘Sam Allardyce usually promises solidity and safety, nothing more, and rightly or wrongly some clubs set their sights higher than that.’

Queuing up for some liquid refreshment at one of the country’s overcrowded beauty spots at the weekend, it was impossible not to overhear the excitable football chatter of a couple of Crystal Palace supporters nearing the bar.

This was a day before the prodigious result against Arsenal, so the Palace pair were not enthusing about their best performance of the season, they were simply reassuring themselves that other results in the relegation zone were going their way and thanking their lucky stars they had Sam Allardyce piloting them up the table.

“Do you like the way Allardyce has the team playing then?” another customer asked. “Good Lord no,” came the reply. “We are still terrible, the other day we won a game without even managing a shot on target [Watford and Troy Deeney’s own goal, presumably], but what matters is that we are winning. A few weeks ago we were down, we had about as much hope as Sunderland and Middlesbrough, but now we look as if we can keep out of trouble, because that’s what Big Sam is good at. Once we do that we can start looking for another manager.”

How sharper than a serpent’s tooth, as Shakespeare nearly said, to have a thankless fan base. Granted, my tiny sample might not be representative of the whole of the Palace support, and for all I know the bloke in the pub and everyone else might have changed their opinion completely after the result against Arsenal, but Allardyce himself will be familiar enough with this snooty attitude. He had it all at West Ham United. He might be a great operator when it comes to getting a side into the Premier League, and an even more formidable firefighter when hired to rescue seemingly lost causes near the bottom of the table, but unless you are actually in trouble he is considered too temporary a solution to fulfil the dreams and aspirations most supporters form for their clubs.

Yet this is the manager who, against all expectations, has just supervised wins over Chelsea and Arsenal in a little over a week. Fair enough, there was a defeat to Southampton in between, but how many other relegation candidates would take six points from that run of games?

In the last few weeks, since the Watford game in fact, it has not even been possible to say Allardyce has had Palace grinding out results or playing the percentages. Players such as Wilfried Zaha and Andros Townsend have been finding freedom to express themselves, Yohan Cabaye has rediscovered his form and Allardyce has been bringing the best from Mamadou Sakho and Christian Benteke, players whose confidence must have suffered after being shunned at their previous club. Luka Milivojevic, the defensive midfielder brought in during the January transfer window, looks an inspired signing. So why the sniffiness?

The general supposition might be that what Allardyce does so effectively cannot last, he can transform a team over a short period but only take it so far. Though he achieved the almost miraculous at Blackburn Rovers and Sunderland, Allardyce has not actually won anything in his long Premier League career.

By the time he left West Ham the club’s support was heavily prejudiced against him. There was never any danger of relegation while he was at Upton Park, but never any danger of a new contract either.

Allardyce usually promises solidity and safety, nothing more, and rightly or wrongly some clubs set their sights higher than that. Allardyce was never going to work long term at West Ham, just as, slightly unfairly, he was never given the chance to be anything other than short term at Newcastle United.

Allardyce went to Tyneside with a certain reputation, and a section of support took against him straight away. With time he might have won them over but he was an early victim of Mike Ashley’s takeover of the club, and all the previous owners’ plans for stability and continuous improvement went out of the window.

Newcastle originally went for Allardyce because they had been impressed by his patient but effective transformation of Bolton Wanderers. Here was a manager who could pay attention to the smallest detail yet still deliver on a five-year plan.

Allardyce was very good indeed for Bolton, who were never the same after he left, but it may be the case that a provincial club with limited expectations remains the only situation where his appointment might be welcomed. Blackburn were glad enough to have him in 2008, and in view of what has happened since must look back with a mixture of annoyance and regret at the folly of parting with a manager while 13th in the Premier League. Sunderland supporters usually take an unrealistically high view of the calibre of coach who might be persuaded to run their club, even they accepted that few other managers could have got them out of last season’s predicament.

That led to Allardyce’s appointment as England manager, not a common progression from the Stadium of Light, and a new predicament entirely of his own making. With his obvious attributes Allardyce was never likely to be out of work for long – indeed in the allegedly insecure business of football management his particular skill-set is practically guaranteed to be in demand every season somewhere – and given the impressive uplift at Palace in recent weeks it is tempting to wonder how he would have fared with the national team.

A personal view is that he might not have had enough time with the players to drill them in the defensive disciplines that form the basis of most of his success. Allardyce probably needs week-in, week-out contact with his teams. Most likely he would have managed the qualification cycle easily enough, as Gareth Southgate seems to be doing, but might not have been able to react quickly enough against quality opponents in tournament situations.

Then again, since the turn of the century England have usually found themselves in trouble in tournaments and, as the Palace fan in the bar said, if you are in trouble then Allardyce is your man.

Or, if we are talking about Palace, maybe Tony Pulis is your man too. It seems like only yesterday that the present West Bromwich manager was performing one of the most remarkable rescues in Premier League history at Selhurst Park, not only saving the Eagles from what looked certain relegation but turning them into a fighting force along the way.

What Palace and their supporters should really be asking themselves is why they keep reprising the great escape. After Pulis and Allardyce, who is going to haul them out of the mire next time? Only one thing seems certain: should Palace be so unwise as to start looking round for a new manager if safety is achieved. Recent history suggests they will be in trouble again before Pulis or Allardyce.

(The Guardian)

Toxic Mood at Relegation-Threatened Sunderland Is Helping Nobody

sport

Managerial stability is supposed to promote reassurance, a sense of safety even, but its belated advent at Sunderland has merely prompted widespread insecurity.

Last July David Moyes became the club’s seventh manager in five turbulent seasons as Ellis Short vowed to end his seemingly interminable cycle of hirings and firings. Subsequent results may have tested the owner’s resolve – paradoxically, Moyes appears in acute danger of being the first of the American financier’s appointments to lose a relegation skirmish – but even if Sunderland do go down, the Scot will be allowed to rebuild in the Championship next season.

By then, though, as many as 60 familiar faces may have disappeared from club corridors. In February, scores of employees received emails from Martin Bain, the chief executive, warning that their jobs were at risk. This has created a somewhat toxic atmosphere, particularly among those staff members who had never spoken to Margaret Byrne’s successor in the wake of his installation last June and suspect the former Rangers and Maccabi Tel Aviv CEO might be a bit hazy as to what their roles actually entail.

The latest issue of Private Eye reflects wholesale shock that Rob Mason, the erudite, highly respected editor of Sunderland’s multiple-award-winning program Red and White features in the at risk category. It points out that with it having either won, or been runner-up, in Program of the Year for each of the past nine years, Mason is the club’s only proven winner.

In mitigation Bain and Moyes – whose bottom-placed team face key games at Watford on Saturday and Leicester on Tuesday – have inherited considerable problems at a club currently around £140m in debt. If recording such staggering losses during an era when Premier League clubs are rich beyond belief seems almost incomprehensible, one particularly damning statistic explains Sunderland’s plight. Of the past 46 signings made by assorted managers only four, Darren Bent, Simon Mignolet, Patrick van Aanholt and James McClean have been sold on for profit.

The collateral damage caused by such chronically poor investment has not only spread to Sunderland’s back offices but also community projects in Africa and the club’s once flagship women’s team. It is not so long ago that Sunderland Ladies, inspired by Beth Mead’s goals and Carlton Fairweather’s astute coaching, threatened to rival Manchester City and Chelsea at the top of the Super League.

Mead is now at Arsenal and Fairweather unemployed after the team’s reversion to part-time status. Aware that a nucleus of the current England side – including Steph Houghton, Lucy Bronze and Jill Scott – began their careers on Wearside, Byrne had made Fairweather’s side a priority before resigning in the wake of her failure to suspend Adam Johnson before the winger’s conviction and imprisonment for sexual activity with a 15-year-old girl.

Almost a year later, Bain’s judgment was questioned when he announced the impending wholesale redundancies shortly after sanctioning an extremely expensive bonding trip to New York in February enjoyed by Moyes and the players.

The manager and chief executive, both Glaswegians, have established a bond so strong that some insiders suspect they may have talked each out of resigning last autumn, when it became apparent that Short wanted to sell – he is now apparently resigned to the reality that it may be some years before a buyer is found – and Moyes realized the January transfer kitty was empty.

As winter bit, Bain accepted the resignation of Gary Hutchinson, the previously influential commercial director, and Moyes proved increasingly unsparing in his descriptions of the squad’s limitations.

If there is little doubt that he has been dealt a horrible hand, some fans are concerned the former Everton, Manchester United and Real Sociedad manager harbors too many old-fashioned notions.

More specifically, the 53-year-old’s recent claims that he dropped Gabon’s Didier Ndong, Sunderland’s record£13.5m signing, because he wanted “more Britishness” in midfield and needed to “put more Britishness” into his £8m Senegal center-half Papy Djilobodji’s game raised concerns about his ability to breathe new life into a side badly missing the injured winger Duncan Watmore.

Indeed, with Watmore’s energies diverted into saving the lives of three pensioners after a boating accident off Barbados, where he was on a convalescent holiday, the only man who looks capable of resuscitating them is Jermain Defoe.

Without the newly recalled England striker’s goals Sunderland would probably be in the second tier already, but the bad news is that a clause in Defoe’s contract grants the 34-year-old a free transfer in the event of relegation.

Moyes clings to the hope it will not come to that. “We’re not down,” he says. “And we’re not planning to go down. We’re planning to stay up.”

(The Guardian)

Dilemmas Mount for Clubs Engaged In Premier League Relegation Dogfight

After guiding Leicester City to the Premier League title in his first season with the club, Claudio Ranieri is in danger of taking them down in his second. Photograph: Ashley Crowden/CameraSport via Getty

Sack the manager? Keep the manager? Sell your best player and import seven new ones, five on loan? Go warm‑weather training in Dubai? Cancel the Gulf trip?

Switch to a sweeper system? Revert to a flat back four? Play two up front? Keep the faith with a lone striker? Go cold‑weather training in New York? Go lukewarm‑weather training in Benidorm? Abolish days off? Start regretting Champions League progress?

Relegation battles are full of dilemmas and the Premier League’s bottom six have played at least one of the above cards as they strive to stay out of the Championship in this season’s particular game of “stick or twist”. Leicester City face the hardest decision of all, whether to dispense with Claudio Ranieri, last season’s title‑winning manager.

Changing managers mid-season has worked for Sunderland during each of the past four years when Paolo Di Canio, Gus Poyet, Dick Advocaat and Sam Allardyce presided over “great escapes”. Accordingly it would be somewhat paradoxical if Ellis Short, the owner, were to keep faith with David Moyes this term and the division’s bottom‑placed side were to be relegated.

Such short-term fixes are expensive, though, and have contributed to Sunderland’s £140m debt, something their manager is hardly easing by taking his squad to the Big Apple for a diet of daily runs in Central Park, sightseeing and male bonding. Coaches invariably delight in extolling the benefits of transporting players somewhere warm and vitamin D rich at this time of year, so this Moyes “masterplan” seems a little left field – to say the least.

Allardyce has always been a big believer in the sun’s healing properties and maintains that February trips to Arabia with previous clubs represent a big reason why he has never endured relegation from the top tier. Unfortunately for the new(ish) manager at Crystal Palace, amid relentlessly dismal results, a proposed Dubai trip did not get off the ground, thereby dictating that this season is so far very much the exception to his tried and trusted rule.

With Palace arguably worse now than under his predecessor, Alan Pardew, some fans fear Allardyce may have lost his touch but, after succeeding Advocaat in October 2015, he started slowly at Sunderland, too. Indeed, at one point, the Wearside club endured five league defeats in succession before perking up on returning from the United Arab Emirates and losing only one of their last 11 games. It ensured they finished last season fourth bottom, two points clear of Rafael Benítez’s then convalescent Newcastle United, who were unbeaten in their final six games. Newcastle, though, had almost certainly paid a very high price for lingering a little too long before replacing Steve McClaren with the transformative Benítez.

By acting much earlier Palace, Hull City and Swansea City have avoided that trap, with the latter two achieving a near instant “new manager bounce” as results improved markedly under Marco Silva and Paul Clement respectively.

In Hull’s case it helped that, without collecting many points, Silva’s predecessor, Mike Phelan, had got his team playing arguably the best passing football of any in the bottom six. It meant Silva, the former Sporting Lisbon and Olympiakos coach, had a decent framework and broadly similar philosophy to build on as he endeavored not only to integrate those seven new faces but cope with Robert Snodgrass’s much-lamented defection to West Ham United.

By common consensus, Silva – who has temporarily abolished days off – is sharpening Hull’s attacking edge, something he will be further honing during a training/bonding camp in Portugal this week and which offers a stark contrast to Aitor Karanka’s survival strategy at Middlesbrough.

Karanka’s side rarely concede more than a goal per match but are the division’s lowest scorers with the fewest wins – four. Fans, thoroughly ticked off by their Basque manager for recently chanting “attack, attack, attack”, are increasingly frustrated by his refusal to play two up front.

If the recent, spectacular, improvement in Adama Traoré’s wing play emphasizes Karanka’s very real coaching talents, he is possibly too intransigent for his own good in believing a squad warmed by the sun in Benidorm last week can inch their way to safety through of a series of ground-out, low‑scoring, draws.

With Gylfi Sigurdsson around, Swansea have threatened going forward but Clement – who, counterintuitively is keeping his squad at home this month – has performed wonders in tightening a defense in which Federico Fernández looks reborn and Alfie Mawson’s form means supporters are no longer missing Ashley Williams quite so badly.

Swansea’s latest win – 2-0 at home against Leicester on Sunday – has left the champions 17th. Ranieri, with his side a point clear of the drop zone and without a goal in six league games, must be cursing the distractions of Champions League involvement.

The Italian has been badly let down by his now fuzzily focused players but might this be the time for Leicester’s owners to decide the manager has lost too many dressing-room “hearts and minds” and take the “nuclear” option? But with whom would they replace Ranieri? Dilemmas, dilemmas …

(The Guardian)

Sunderland’s Lynden Gooch: ‘People say bad Things to Me about the North-East but I Don’t Know Why’

Gooch’s

Lynden Gooch sometimes struggles to comprehend just how rapidly his life has changed. “A couple of months ago I don’t think many people knew who I was,” he says, breaking into a high-wattage smile capable of powering a set of floodlights. “No one knew anything much about me but David Moyes has altered everything.”

It takes a brave manager to hurl an untested youngster into a floundering team yet Moyes’s faith in the midfielder from California has been rewarded by some heavy hints that Sunderland’s future may not be as bleak as advertised.

After enduring the worst start in Premier League history it was a trip to Bournemouth a fortnight ago that brought Sunderland their first league victory and a player overlooked by Sam Allardyce is displaying persistent promise.

Baptisms rarely prove more testing but Gooch’s potential has ensured the veteran of 11 appearances has rejoined Sunderland’s preparations for Saturday’s home game against fellow strugglers Hull City after returning from duty with the USA. Having sat on the bench throughout the febrile, politically charged, defeat by Mexico in Ohio, the 20-year-old won his second cap during the World Cup qualifier in Costa Rica on Tuesday. That chastening 4-0 thrashing prompted an inquest into Jürgen Klinsmann’s future as the USA coach but also reminded Gooch how swiftly things can change.

A month ago everything was very different when, after joining Klinsmann’s squad for the first time, he helped make history in Havana. “The locals were all cheering, treating us like superstars, everyone seemed quite excited to speak to us – it wasn’t a normal game,” he says, reliving a groundbreaking friendly against Cuba.

After sitting out the 2-0 win as a substitute he made his debut during a 1-1 draw with New Zealand in Washington DC, earning praise from Klinsmann.

Considering his first cap had been prefaced by an “absolutely amazing” tour of the White House’s West Wing, returning to Wearside might have seemed an anticlimax. In reality Gooch suspects he could hardly be in a better place. After all Moyes acquired a reputation for offering young players, Wayne Rooney included, first-team chances at Everton. Moreover, in many respects, the Californian’s elevation serves as a template for the manner in which the former Manchester United and Real Sociedad manager hopes to revolutionise Sunderland.

For far too many years there has been no discernible pathway from the academy to the first team but Gooch is proving a trailblazer. Equally importantly, his pace and technical ability – statistics indicate he is quicker than Jamie Vardy – makes him ideally suited to the possession-based passing game Moyes is attempting to introduce.

“Results haven’t gone the way we’d hoped but the manager has put a lot of belief into us and we still feel that, little by little, we’re improving, gradually moving in the right direction,” Gooch says.

“The manager wants us to keep the ball, pass it and play good football and that’s my game. That’s how I’ve been taught to play all the way through the academy and it’s helping me now. I feel that, under David Moyes, I can keep progressing.”

It does not hurt he is two-footed and has an eye for goal. He is also unafraid to tackle, with such ball-winning attributes swiftly winning him the respect of senior professionals, most notably John O’Shea and Jermain Defoe.

Gooch has travelled a long way since joining Sunderland as a 10-year-old, swapping Santa Cruz for the club’s Cleadon training base during school holidays before emigrating at 16.

Although both his homes are adjacent to the ocean, the Pacific breakers crashing on to America’s west coast are rather more conducive to surfing than the unruly North Sea waves awaiting visitors to Roker Beach.

“My oldest brother [he is the youngest of four boys] is a professional surfer and I used to surf a lot in Santa Cruz,” Gooch says. “I haven’t tried here, though – it’s not warm enough.”

Hostile temperatures have not stopped him falling in love with the north-east and becoming increasingly irritated by those who depict the region as some sort of post-industrial wilderness where no one who is anyone would contemplate living. “A lot of people say bad things about it to me but I don’t understand why; the north-east’s very underrated. For a start it’s so beautiful – you’ve got great countryside and great beaches. And great shops in Newcastle. I’d love to stay a Sunderland player for a very long time. I’ve been here since I was 10 and this club has given me an awful lot. I’ve made friendships I’ll have forever.”

Now he wants to give something back. “We know it’s hard for the people of Sunderland to be bottom of the Premier League – and especially when Newcastle are doing so well in the Championship,” he says. “This is a massive club with a massive fanbase and we’re not doing well enough. We’ve got amazing facilities, an amazing stadium and we’ve got to do better for the city. Our home crowds are averaging well over 40,000 but the fans aren’t getting what they deserve.”

Born in California to Anglo-Irish parents – his father, a soccer coach, is from Colchester and his mother a Dubliner – Gooch never expected to be a full USA international by now. Or that his first call-up would coincide with the country’s first game on Cuban soil since 1947. Coming only a year after the restoration of diplomatic relations between Washington and Havana, touching down in Cuba felt like landing in a parallel universe.

“You flew for just over an hour, it’s so close to Florida, but it was weird. It was a completely different world, arriving felt like being transported into a different age. Almost everything was behind the times. The cars are amazing, they’re all old, all out of the 1950s. It was something really exciting to be part of.”

He has never doubted his decision to represent the stars and stripes rather than wait for a call from England or the Republic of Ireland. “It was a difficult choice – part of me feels English,” Gooch says. “But I was born and raised in California and I’m proud to be American.”

After Havana came Washington, the West Wing and his debut against New Zealand, with his nerves calmed by a familiar face. “When I was in the under-18s here I used to clean Jozy Altidore’s boots and suddenly I was playing alongside him. Jozy’s a really nice guy. When I did his boots he treated me very well – I think he almost felt bad about having things done for him – and since leaving for Toronto FC Jozy’s messaged me a few times. He’s really welcomed me into the US squad. Hopefully we’ll get to the World Cup together.”

Whereas Moyes has variously deployed Gooch wide on the left and deep in central midfield, Klinsmann fields the former junior sprint champion further forward. “A No10 role behind the main striker is my best position,” he says, approvingly. “Ideally, I’d always be there but, right now, I’ll play anywhere.”

Considerably tougher than his slender, 5ft 8in frame suggests, he has impressed Klinsmann. “Lynden’s fearless,” said the USA coach who sees something of Landon Donovan (the LA Galaxy forward and Gooch’s hero) in Gooch’s rapid dribbling ability and possibly regrets not starting him against Mexico and Costa Rica. “He takes people on and he’s very physical. Lynden doesn’t shy away from anything.”

Gooch certainly seems up for Sunderland’s relegation battle. “The spirit is still good in our squad. We’re all fighting to win games, trying everything we can. When you’re down at the bottom you’ve got to stick together – and we’re doing exactly that.”

The Guardian Sport