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Tranmere Rovers & Cheltenham Town Stare Into The Abyss
What a difference a couple of weeks can make. Fifteen days ago, there was a tangible feeling of gloom around Carrow Road as Norwich City lost by a single goal to a West Bromwich Albion team which had hitherto hardly been setting the Premier League itself. This, we might have rationalise, was exactly the sort of match that Paul Lambert’s team needed to be winning if it is to have much of a chance of keeping itself above the dotted line come the end of the season, and it was an opportunity lost. Since then, though, the tables have turned and Norwich City are starting to look like a Premier League club in many senses. Last weekend, they came away from a trip to The Reebok Stadium – a venue from which more illustrious names have returned empty-handed – with three points, and this evening they took another three points from a match against another well-established Premier Club which means that Norwich City will begin October in a very healthy looking ninth position in the table.
For Sunderland, meanwhile, disquiet has seldom been far from the surface so far this season. Defeat at Brighton in the League Cup was followed up by an insipid goalless draw at Swansea City and, while a home defeat at the hands Chelsea might have been expected, their win against Stoke City last week was perhaps more comfortable than many might have expected. Steve Bruce has been the subject of a rash of articles in various sources over the last couple of weeks or so but, while last Saturday’s win provided welcome relief for him from an uncomfortable start to the season, he remains on the edge of the “at risk” category of Premier League managers. As the evenings begin to get longer, the dress rehearsal period of the Premier League season is already starting to feel as if it set to become a memory.
Matches like this may well come to act as a barometer for the winter months to come. One of the key tricks of surviving upon promotion into the Premier League is to quickly lose the feeling, which comes with a forty-six match season, that points can somehow afford to be dropped. With eight matches less to play in the league this season, every single match counts and the room for error for a newly-promoted club is slim-to-none. For clubs such as Sunderland, meanwhile, who seldom seem likely to much better than finish in a respectable mid-table position, the danger of getting sucked towards a relegation black hole for which the club as a whole may well be psychologically unprepared is a very real one. It is too soon to call them relegation candidates, but with every defeat the nervousness within the club’s support will likely grow.
This evening, though, it was Norwich City that played with the greater urgency, as if they were aware that, if their Premier League season is to be a race towards a “safe” – say, forty points or so – level, they are better off getting on with the job of accumulating as many of those points as possible as soon as possible. Sunderland, meanwhile, looked sluggish, as if playing to win matches was something that could be put off for another day. Perhaps, it could be argued, there is an element of truth to this, but the league table is starting to look as if it doesn’t lie and it is they that are just a point above the relegation places tonight, while Norwich are in the top half of the table.
Both Norwich goals came about thanks to Sunderland defending that was more than a little lackadaisical. For the first, Elliott Bennett’s smart inter-play with David Fox opened a hole in their defence before Bennett’s low cross set Leon Barnett up to score from close range. The second, three minutes into the second half, came when Russell Martin was allowed to drift unchallenged to within twenty yards of the Sunderland goal before laying the ball wide to Mark Tierney, whose cross was powered in by Steve Morison. There was still plenty of time for Sunderland to awaken from their slumber and try to force their back into the game, but it wasn’t until there were just four minutes left to play before Kieron Richardson’s low, angled shot caught the Norwich goalkeeper John Ruddy off-guard and flew in. It made for a frantic final few minutes – particularly with a minimum of five minutes’ worth of stoppage time having been added on – but Norwich hung on with a reasonable degree of comfort, albeit with one scare averted as they laboured to clear a Richardson corner.
It probably remains a little too soon for panic stations for Sunderland. For all of the talk about Bruce of late – and there has been a lot – the end of September is not a good time to be replacing a manager, and three points from a winnable-looking match against West Bromwich Albion at the weekend may settle some nerves and reinstate the sense of detente that hung over the club after their recent win against Stoke City. There was, however, little for their supporters to be optimistic about this evening. Sluggish and nonchalant during times when they can ill-afford to be, though, they were tonight out-played by a team seemed to place a greater value on working hard for every ball, working hard for each other and Bruce is certainly starting to give off the distinctive aroma of the dead man walking, and if Sunderland haven’t noticeably improved by Christmas, it is difficult not to imagine owner Ellis Short’s trigger finger starting to get itchy.
Norwich City, meanwhile, continue their recent upward trajectory. They travel to Old Trafford on Saturday and, while it may be a little too much to expect them to come away from that match with anything, it may at least be a comfort to their supporters making football’s current equivalent of a trip along the green mile to know that they will be doing so from a position of relative comfort. There is a long way to go, of course, but eight points from six matches is a perfectly respectable return on their season so far, and the end of season survival target looks eminently attainable at the moment. For now, at least, pre-season rumours of their inevitable demise by the end of this season seem to have a chance of looking misplaced.
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Ian began writing Twohundredpercent in May 2006. He lives in Brighton. He has also written for, amongst others, Pitch Invasion, FC Business Magazine, The Score, When Saturday Comes, Stand Against Modern Football and The Football Supporter. Ian was the first winner of the Socrates Award For Not Being Dead Yet at the 2010 NOPA awards for football bloggers.
How do you feel O’Shea and Brown have contributed to Sunderland so far? One would have thought they could bring some defensive stability to Sunderland, but it does not seem to be working.