On seeing scoreless draws

March 3, 2010

‘The Open University! I’ve got plenty of time for the Open University!’ This was in the free Park and Ride bus last Sunday, on the way to see Sunderland play Fulham at the Stadium of Light. During my Devonian exile, I’ve had the excuse of distance not to see my hometown team in action, but now they’re only up the road, it is tempting, especially given the parking system. So off I went to see if the team could, after over ten weeks of draws and defeats, make amends. As it happens, it was a) dire, b) rubbish, c) depressing and d) [add your own disillusioned adjective]: reading the papers the next day you got the impression that there was some goalmouth action of some sort. For maybe a minute of the ninety. You have to wonder how Steve Bruce (the manager) is handling the woeful form. His message to the fans later was something along the lines of ‘Not a clue. I may have to pack it in’ , which may be the conclusion his paymasters come to.

But you don’t go to the SoL just to get a hefty and masochistic hit of woe. After all, they’ve not won anything meaningful since 1973 (and before that, 1937, although the 1890s were terrific). One day the 1973 team will die out entirely: Sunderland regularly parades its giant-killing squad on big occasions, and, 37 years later, it’s getting a bit sad. (The numerologists were hoping that since 37 and 73 add up to 110, 2010 might be our year. Not a great piece of mathematical thinking.) Nor do you – and the 40,000 others – go for the freezing weather and the dodgy meat pies. It’s about conversations with strangers.

The man on the bus who mentioned my employers ranged intimately over many subjects, including the likelihood of a new Falklands war, and it’s part of the pleasure to join in the banter. Sunderland is filled with talkative gurus. The man next to me as we watched the farrago – does Kenwyne Jones think the ball will come to him by magic and that he has time to dither over it? – kept up a running commentary, addressed to each and every player, for the full 90 minutes. It was almost worth the price of the ticket. He should have been the manager. He should probably have been on the pitch.

Sunderland 0, Fulham 0. It was good to be back.

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The North-East football nightmare

May 21, 2009

I was lying on my mother’s bed, listening to her radio… No, this isn’t another dip into childhood, it’s just that, when my mother died, one of the things that I inherited was her bed, and not her second-best one, either, and also the radio by which she used to wake up. I find it comforting, although any Freudians out there may be having a field day. The reason it is comforting is that my mum was once fleeced by a bed salesman. It is a massage bed (which I don’t think she ever used) which can be set to ripple and judder at different speeds. Fantastic.

I was there on Monday this week, listening to Sunderland FC getting beaten by Fulham. I would not say I was an obsessive football fan, but I have my hometown team to support. It is not an option, in Sunderland, not to support. It draws colossal crowds (40,000) completely out of proportion to its place in the Football League, which is, more or less, to hover between narrowly escaping relegation and being relegated from the top division, the ‘Premiership’ (a word I loathe. Beneath the ‘Premiership’ is the ‘Championship’. How stupid is that). Sunderland last won the Football League in the 1936, and the FA Cup in 1937, and its second FA Cup win in 1973 is really the only other achievement since then. It is still celebrated wildly.

As per usual, Sunderland is in what the pundits call ‘near the drop zone’, with one game to play. If they had beaten Fulham, they would be safe to struggle another day. But they didn’t. And so, the exquisite agony of being depressed about football is now at its most intense (this is what made Nick Hornby famous as a writer – he nailed, in ‘Fever Pitch’, the way in which football support is an essentially depressive activity. You have to learn to take the rough with the rough).

What makes the end of season especially torturous is that there are four teams who could occupy the two remaining relegation places. They are Newcastle, Sunderland, Middlesborough and Hull – i.e., all three of the North-East teams, and one (Hull) which most Midlanders and Southerners think is in the North-East (I had to disabuse the plumber about this the other week), but is actually in Yorkshire (the North Midlands, as far as I’m concerned). Its manager comes from South Shields, however, so there is at least some local connection.

It once happened at the end of a season that three teams – Bristol City, Coventry and Sunderland – were playing on the last day of the season to avoid one remaining relegation place, and to complicate matters, Bristol and Coventry were playing each other. There were nine possible outcomes – Bristol and Coventry drew, or either of them won, while Sunderland won, lost or drew, in each case. (That is nine, I promise.) Eight of the permutations sent Coventry or Bristol down. One sent Sunderland down – if the others drew, and Sunderland lost. And that, of course is what happened (what is more, the other two started late, and were told Sunderland had lost with ten minutes to go, when they were level. That incident has not been forgotten).

But this time, and I can tell you that most of Sunderland has been up poring over these perms and combs intently, it is more complex. Not only are Sunderland up against their local rivals, there is the added complication that two teams – Sunderland and Hull – are facing two of the country’s top three teams. Middlesborough have an easier game. Newcastle have a slightly easier game. But at the moment, Sunderland have one more point than Hull, two more than Newcastle, and four more than Middlesborough. A win is three points; a draw is one. So Middlesborough cannot catch Sunderland. Teams ebding onequal points are then separated by goal difference (goals scored minus goals conceded).

Ready?

If Middlesborough win by a margin of three goals, Newcastle lose, and Hull lose by a margin of two, Hull and Newcastle go down.

If Middlesborough win and Hull lose, but the difference between their goals is under five, Middlesborough and Newcastle go down.

Middlesborough go down under every other scenario. If Hull win, lose or draw, and Newcastle fail to do any better than Hull, Newcastle also go down. If Newcastle win and Hull draw, Hull go down. If Newcastle draw and Hull lose, Hull go down.

In all the above permutations, Sunderland survive to struggle another day. But … if Hull win and Newcastle win and Sunderland lose or draw, Sunderland go down.

You wouldn’t bet against it.

1937, before calculators were required

1937, before calculators were required