SAFC U23s 2-1 Spurs U23s: Djilobodji has a mare, but mackems win – Match Report & Player Ratings.

Sunderland pulled off a late comeback to win this evening against Tottenham Hotspur, with goals from Ethan Robson and Denver Hume sparing the blushes of Papy Djilobodji, who had an evening to forget. Here’s how the lads rated.

Co-authored by Gavin Henderson.

Sunderland U23s took on Tottenham Hotspur U23s this evening in their season opener at Eppleton Colliery Welfare, with former Everton left-back Bryan Oviedo making his first appearance of the season following his recovery from an injury sustain whilst on international duty.

Oviedo picked up a hamstring problem back in April which kept him out of the final run towards the end of the season, and then upon his recovery from that issue he suffered a leg injury which saw him sent home from the Gold Cup by Costa Rica.

Senior Goalkeeper Robbin Ruiter made the starting line up, along with first teamers Lynden Gooch, Jack Rodwell, Papy Djilobodji and Donald Love in a strong looking Sunderland side.

Manchester City v Sunderland - Premier League
Donald Love was drafted in at right back – Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

Sunderland XI: Robin Ruiter, Donald Love, Bryan Oviedo, Elliot Embleton, Thomas Beadling (c), Papi Djilobodji, Andrew Nelson, Ethan Robson, Lynden Gooch, Jack Rodwell, Jack Diamond.

Subs: Michael Ledger, Max Stryjek, Luke Molyeneux, Denver Hume, Adam Bale.

Tottenham XI: Brandon Austin, Timothy Eyoma, Jaden Brown, Oliver Skipp, Christian Maghoma, Japhet Tanganga, Shilow Tracey, Joe Pritchard (c), Kazaiah Sterling, Dylan Duncan, Will Miller.

Subs: Marcus Edwards, Luke O’Reilly, Ryan Loft, Keanan Bennetts, Samuel Shashoua

Match Action

First half

Sunderland started the game with Jack Rodwell playing as a number ten behind Lynden Gooch, who led the line for Elliot Dickman’s side.

A pretty uneventful first 20 minutes saw Spurs have the first real chance of the game, which forced central defender Tom Beadling into a goal-saving tackle.

It was Gooch who provided Sunderland’s first meaningful opportunity on 21 minutes with a superb solo effort. The American beat three Tottenham defenders in the box before firing a shot at straight Spurs ‘keeper Austin – a great bit of play by the United States international.

With ten minutes left to run in the first half, Spurs took the lead through Kazaiah Sterling after some sloppy defensive play from Sunderland afforded the Spurs man with a golden opportunity, which he dispatched with ease past Robbin Ruiter.

Sunderland ended the first half strong. Jack Rodwell burst forward to allow Gooch a chance to slip the ball through to Diamond, but the American dithered and the attack was ended quickly.

However, further hapless defending from Papy Djilobodji almost gifted Spurs their second. The former Chelsea defender sold Ruiter short with a terrible back pass, but was spared of his blushes after some indecisive play from Spurs led to the move breaking down.

Half Time: Sunderland U23s 0-1 Spurs U23s (Kazaiah Sterling, 34)

Livingston v Sunderland - Pre Season FriendlyPhoto by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images

Second Half

There was one change for Sunderland at half-time as Lyndon Gooch came off for Luke Molyeneux, pushing Andrew Nelson into the central striking position.

Spurs started the second-half much like the first, tidy in possession.

Much like the first half, the second was typically uneventful at the beginning – but, not wanting to divert from his usual antics, Papy Djilobodji was off the boil. Had it not been for the bar, the Senegal international would have afforded Spurs another simple opportunity as he was out-jumped with ease, leading to the ball striking the woodwork.

Andrew Nelson was lively throughout the second period after moving up front and had a number of half-chances, causing the Spurs back line considerable discomfort.

And it was just after the hour mark when Jack Rodwell and Bryan Oviedo were withdrawn – neither man gave a glittering performance but it was the minutes under the belt that was most important, with both players striving towards full fitness after spells out through injury.

Sunderland v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League 2Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images

Upon the departure of the two senior squad members it gave Sunderland some impetus, and it wasn’t long before they were back level.

With the ball loose in midfield, Ethan Robson intercepted it quickly and marauded through the centre of the Spurs defence, blasting home past the ‘keeper to level the scores with 20 minutes to play – a good, powerful finish.

With the match even both teams ramped up their efforts to get a foothold in the game and the pace was upped considerably – for the first time in the evening there was an edge to the play and both sets of players were putting everything into every tackle.

And then came the clincher for the Mackems – Denver Hume won it for Sunderland with a minute to play, smashing a superb strike from just outside of the box in to the bottom corner of the net. It was brilliant play from the left back, who celebrated signing a new contact with the club this week by scoring the winner.

Full Time: Sunderland U23s (E Robson, Hume) 2-1 Spurs U23s (Sterling)

Player Ratings

Robin Ruiter, 6/10 – Didn’t really have much to do and was tidy as usual, not helped by Papy Djilobodji’s defensive limitations. Pulled off two good saves at the end to preserve Sunderland’s win.

Donald Love, 6/10 – Solid performance for Don Love. He didn’t do anything flashy, kept things simple and worked hard.

Bryan Oviedo, 5/10 – Poor before being substituted on the 62 minute mark. Needs more game time to resume full fitness, nearly cost Sunderland a couple of goals and generally looked off the pace.

Elliot Embleton, 6/10 – Tidy in possession.

Thomas Beadling, 7/10 – Tidy on the ball in the first-half, looked more assured than his central defensive partner.

Papi Djilobodji, 3/10 – A performance to forget for the Senegalese defender. He almost gave away a penalty in the second half and looked generally unsure on the ball.

Andrew Nelson, 7/10 – Much better when moved into the middle following Gooch’s withdrawal.

Ethan Robson, 8/10 – Neat and tidy display from Robson today, passed the ball well and helped to break up the play. A great interception and burst forward to slot in a powerful finishes shows that this lad has a bit of quality.

Lynden Gooch, 7/10 – Industrious performance from Gooch in the first-half playing as the central striker. The forward exhibited some good touches and worked his way into some good goal scoring positions. Needs to improve on his finishing.

Jack Rodwell, 6 /10 – Flattered to deceive for the most part. Showed his passing ability in flashes but is clearly working his way back to full fitness. Rodwell should be dominating games like this, we didn’t see that tonight.

Jack Diamond, 7/10 – Carried the ball well all night and looked very energetic. Still has a lot to learn but the winger didn’t look out of place having been fast tracked to the U23s team for this season. A good, solid performance from the youngster.

Adam Bale, 5/10 – Did nothing of note.

Luke Molyeneux, 5/10 – See Adam Bale.

Denver Hume, 7/10 – Sunderland’s match winner managed to get forward far more successfully than Oviedo in an impressive substitute performance.

Man of the Match: Ethan Robson – Took his goal well, got stuck in and just generally impressed. Will be pleased, having shone in front of the onlooking Grayson.

Match Preview (For Roker Report): Bryan Oviedo set for a return to action this evening for the U23s v Spurs

Sunderland U23s face Tottenham U23s in the opening game of Premier League 2 tonight – what can we expect from Elliot Dickman’s side?

Sunderland under-23s host Tottenham Hotspur this evening in the Premier League 2 as the lads start their league season at Eppleton Colliery Welfare (kick-off 7pm).

The young Black Cats, under the tutelage of Elliot Dickman, have faced four non-league sides as well as a conditioning trip to Austria with the first team in a tough pre-season campaign.

Speaking to Dickman explained how the preparation work has gone for his young side:

We have shown a really good attitude and without the ball we have been quite good. The messages have been consistent about their work ethic and we have to work very hard as a team. We have to make sure we are very competitive and without the ball we want to make sure that we don’t panic, we look after it and we play sensibly. 

It will be the same messages we have been using for the last six weeks. The good thing was that we played against four men sides which was terrific for us and I thoroughly enjoyed it. 

There were different challenges for the lads physically, plus the fact that these teams have been around that level on a regular basis. They are a bit more street wise so they know the game a bit better and the tricks that can be used to their advantage. 

Bryan Oviedo looks set to feature having missed Costa Rica’s opening game of the CONCACAF Gold Cup, injuring his leg during training. Scans revealed muscle damage and the Costa Rican has been out of action since early July.

Tottenham Hotspur v Sunderland - Premier League 2Photo by Stephen Pond/Getty Images

The defender has only played ten games for Sunderland but his return will be welcomed by Simon Grayson, who needs rotatable options at left back. With 31 international appearances and Brendan Galloway failing to convince against Derby and Bury, Oviedo’s experience could prove valuable in the Championship.

Other first team players expected to play this evening are Robbin Ruiter, Jack Rodwell, Donald Love and Papy Djilobodji, with the Sunderland manager stressing the need to give his squad players game time whenever it is possible.

Opportunities to progress to the first team are there for the U23s if they capitalise on chances like tonight. The path of progression to the first team has been paved by Duncan Watmore, Lyndon Gooch, George Honeyman, Josh Maja and Joel Asoro in recent times as Grayson attempts to construct a hard-working and energetic side.

Jack Diamond could be the one to watch tonight. Able to play on each wing and upfront, the youngster was fast-tracked into the U23s a year early. The attacker has pace and regularly contributed to the U18s with goals and assists last campaign.

Could he be the next starlet to break through into the first-team?

Entry is free for season ticket holders, if you don’t have a season ticket the game is a steal at £3 for adults and £1 for over 65s and under 16s. Cash sale tickets are available on the door.

Sunderland 1 Derby 1; Reasons why we should feel optimistic following our season opener

While a draw isn’t the best case scenario on the first outing of Grayson’s men, it certainly isn’t the worst. Let’s see what positives we can take going in to the next match.

In the lead up to Friday’s opening day clash with Derby, I, like many other fans I’m sure, felt extremely pessimistic. With the match being televised on Sky and the footballing world watching I was terrified of another humiliation. I’d predicted a lacklustre defeat following the drubbing by Celtic a week previously. Much to my surprise, Sunderland’s performance actually helped instil a little bit of a feel-good factor back in me. I left the stadium feeling rather positive for the first time in a long while.

Before the game I had predicted that Sunderland would crumble if they went a goal down. With the thrashing by Celtic and the Darron Gibson debacle still raw, I imagined morale must have been quite low.

The game kicked off and Sunderland started well. However, despite dominance in the first ten minutes it seemed to me that Derby scored completely against the run of play.

Galloway was caught out by a cross-field switch and was then skinned on the byline allowing Johnny Russell to get past him and pick out Bradley Johnson in the middle for the goal.

Instead of crumbling, Simon Grayson’s side didn’t panic and remained composed and hard-working, continuing to play well. Grayson praised his team:

(I’m)Disappointed we conceded the goal but the biggest thing was we didn’t crumble. Maybe this time last year the team might have gone under but they got back on the front foot and asked lots of questions.

Although Galloway was at fault for the opening goal and looked uncomfortable in pre-season, he grew into the game and gained confidence as events unfolded. The left-back also looked decent going forward in support of Aiden McGeady.

McGeady looks very good at Championship level and could prove to be a very astute signing given the small fee Sunderland paid for the Irishman. The winger managed to both cut inside and travel down the wing with the ball whilst throwing a few fan pleasing tricks for good measure. His crossing also looked exceptional and he proved a handful all night. He faded towards the end of the game but hasn’t played much in pre-season. A full ninety minutes will have done McGeady the world of good, I’m looking forward to watching his silky skills this season.

Another of Grayson’s new singings, Lewis Grabban, equalised for Sunderland from the spot just before half-time. Fully deserved too, given the Wearsiders dominant play. Grabban hit the woodwork in the second half with a good shot, his general work rate pleased many in the crowd.

Sunderland v Derby County - Sky Bet ChampionshipPhoto by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images

The Grabban chance was created by Lee Cattermole who worked his socks off and put in man of the match performance. The skipper forced an excellent save out of Scott Carson in the first half. Cattermole, alongside his midfield partner N’Dong, did very well to break up Derby’s play and nullify the threat of Tom Huddlestone.

George Honeyman also presents another reason for Mackems to be positive; the little lad worked and battled on the right wing all night. The midfielder has his detractors but proved that he has potential to develop into a good player for Sunderland at this level and, given enough playing time I can envision real quality payoff from his terrier-like approach.

Chris Martin and David Nugent had chances to win it for the Rams and we must remember that Derby are an experienced Championship team with some good players at that level: their side included Andre Wisdom and ex-England international’s Scott Carson and Tom Huddelstone. To take a point from Derby in a game in which we trailed early on and knowing Sunderland had real chances to win the game, has to be seen as a positive. As Grayson put it in his post-match interview:

It is going to be a slow process but we’ve got to take positive steps and tonight we gave ourselves the platform to build up.

I haven’t got a magic wand, I can’t suddenly turn this club into a real positive, happy-go-lucky club playing free-flowing football – they’ve got to earn the right but it’s about taking those small steps.

Sunderland v Derby County - Sky Bet ChampionshipPhoto by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images

My only real criticism of Grayson on the day is that he failed to use any of his three substitutions. In the closing stages it could be argued that Sunderland could have done with added quality and energy, Gooch and especially Khazri could have provided this in abundance. But he can perhaps be forgiven for his refusal to upset the balance of an already fragile team, when to go for a point could have seen us lose everything we’d worked for. Above all though, it was refreshing to see that Grayson was genuinely mortified when Sunderland conceded. There was no Moyes-esqe bravado.

The game against Derby represents a small step forward – the players’ good graft and grit proved that they are responding to Grayson and his attempts to implement a clear pattern of play and assert his own tactics. As fans we must give Grayson time to work, and accept that things aren’t going to change overnight. Add in to the equation that Sunderland still have Watmore, Oviedo, McNair, Maja and Rodwell to return and there’s the makings of a good Championship side there. So far Grayson appears to be ideally suited to making them tick.

Bobby Kerr: The Little General – The history of Sunderland AFC’s 1973 cup-winning captain

He’s here – he’s there, he’s every-fu*king-where… Bobby Kerr, Bobby Kerr!

1947 in Britain – Labour’s visionary government, lead by Clement Atlee, nationalises the coal industry and the countries first post-war baby boom reaches peak. In football, a 28-year-old centre-forward, Tommy Lawton, becomes Britain’s first £20,000 footballer in a move from Chelsea to Notts County. Charlton Athletic, who lost the FA Cup final the previous season beat Burnley 1-0 at Wembley to become the 1947 winners. Amidst all this political and footballing drama, Robert ‘Bobby’ Kerr is born in Alexandria, West Dunbartonshire, Scotland.

The Little General was brought south of the boarder by disciplinarian, Alan Brown – having been spotted by scout, Charlie Ferguson. Ferguson was responsible for discovering nine of the ‘73 team.

Bobby was selected for his debut in December 1966 by new manager Ian McColl in a team which included John O’Hare. Bobby was an instant hit scoring the only goal of the game in a 1-0 win over Manchester City.

The young Kerr went on to net seven goals in his first 11 games, including a double against Newcastle! A fact that is rarely touched upon.

But it wasn’t always plain sailing for the hardest little professional the club has every seen. After hitting this rich vain of form Kerr broke his leg in a reserve match, an injury which back in the 1970s could have been career threatening.

Sunderland v Stoke City - Premier LeaguePhoto by Stu Forster/Getty Images

Brian Clough ran Sunderland’s youth team while the young Kerr was attempting to recover from his horrific leg injury. Commenting in the The Scotsman, Kerr explained:

We played together in the reserves, beat Halifax Town 7-1, Cloughie scoring a hat-trick. 

However, testament to Kerr’s drive and determination is that he fought tooth and nail to return to Sunderland’s starting eleven. The tireless Bobby bounced back and in between the 1970-71 and 1977-78 seasons he never made less than 40 appearances in a single campaign. A truly phenomenal achievement.

He even recovered from a break in the same leg further on in his career, illuminating Kerr’s tough mentality.

Kerr played more than 400 games for Sunderland but joked in the Sunderland Echo that he only “really played one” referring his captaincy of the Second Division side that – against all odds – won the 1972/73 FA Cup Final against First Division Leeds United.

An amusing anecdote comes when Kerr changed his very broad Scottish accent when introducing the players to the Duke of Kent before the FA Cup final kicked off. In The Times,  Kerr recalls introducing the usually named ‘Richie Pitt’ as ‘Richard Pitt’ in a very posh accent.

In the words of ITV commentator Brian Moore, against Leeds, Kerr “ran and ran and somehow found the energy to run some more.” Not bad for the the smallest person to have captained an FA Cup winning side and to have lifted the cup on his team’s behalf.

Bobby describes in his book, The Little General, that far from becoming sick of discussing the ‘73 victory he revels in it. The Scot describes the run as “Something I’ll cherish until the day I die”. 

Sunderland v Southampton - FA Cup Fifth RoundPhoto by Paul Thomas/Getty Images

Such fond memories of Kerr have developed because he formed a key part core of the ‘73 FA Cup winning side. Bobby Kerr played in every every minute of the FA Cup run that shocked the world, without his steely determination could Sunderland have won the cup? I suspect not.

Only Raich Carter and Bobby Kerr have thus far captained Sunderland to FA Cup glory, placing the Little General in the highest echelon of club legend. Kerr ranks alongside the likes of Gurney, Clough, Quinn, Phillips and Hurley as one of the immortals of Wearside.

The Scotsman, although synonymous with Sunderland’s greatest ever triumph, should be remembered for his huge contribution and impact, something that spanned virtually his whole career.

Kerr helped drag the Rokerites to promotion to the First Division three years after the FA Cup triumph.

The Scot endeared himself to the Mackem crowd, his footballing ideals mirroring Wearsides. Kerr commented in The Scotsman that he:

Didn’t want to be a world-beater; I knew who I was. I was a grafter. I could run all day. A guy might go past me but I’d always chase him. That was the one thing about me.

That is why Bobby Kerr’s name is still sung on the terraces in the Stadium of Light.

Kerr broke off his 16 year affiliation with Sunderland when he chose to link up with old manager Bob Stokoe, then the new manager of Third Division Blackpool. 31 at the time, Kerr moved to Bloomfield Road on a free transfer – a reward for his loyal service to the club.

Six months previous to Kerr’s move to Blackpool he had vowed to stay at Sunderland in order win back his place. It soon became clear that Kerr was a way down the pecking order. Kerr explained to the Shields Gazette:

It’s clear that there’s no chance of that now. I’m sixth or seventh choice for a midfield place. I’m Going to Blackpool to prove there’s life in the old dog yet.

After finishing is career at Hartlepool, Kerr ran pubs in Sunderland and has struggled financially having been declared bankrupt in 2008. The death of his second wife, Kerr’s own health problems and his grappling with alcoholism make that titan in the pantheon of Sunderland greats seem all the more human.

However, the fans love, appreciation and respect for our Little General shall never cease.

Video Assistant Referees: Good or Bad?

Footballing decisions are often dictated not by fact, but interpretation. Nevertheless, could Video Assistant Referees be a force for good in the fight to make elite football truly fair?


The Video Assistant Referee (VAR) reviews decisions made by the head referee, with the use of video footage and a headset for communication. VAR’s are not, at present, part of the Laws of the Game but their use is currently being trialled by the International Football Association Board in several different competitions, including the Confederations Cup and various youth tournaments.

There are four types of call that can be reviewed:

  • Goals and potential rule violations during the build up;
  • Penalty decisions;
  • Red card decisions (note that second yellow cards are not reviewable);
  • Mistaken identity in the awarding of a red or yellow card.

Interpretation & Debate

Fans across the globe have all witnessed the same scene; the centre back is the last line of defence, he throws himself into a tackle as the pacey forward rushes towards goal, both fall to the floor in a tangle of arms and legs, the ball is lost and the attack is halted. The decision not to award the foul and allow play to continue is controversial, splitting fans and pundits alike despite dozens of cameras having instantly replayed the incident from varying angles and in slow motion. Footballing decisions are often dictated not by fact, but interpretation.

I believe that debate regarding key decisions is essential in forming part of the beauty and appeal of football. J.B Priestley agreed in his book The Good Companions (1929).

Priestley wrote:

To say that these men paid their shillings to watch twenty-two hirelings kick a ball is merely to say that a violin is wood and catgut, that Hamlet is so much paper and ink. For a shilling the Bruddersford United AFC offered you Conflict and Art; it turned you into a critic happy in your judgement of fine points, ready in a second to estimate the worth of a well-judged pass, a run down the touchline, a lightening shot, a clearance by your back or goalkeeper…Moreover it (football) offered you more than a shilling’s worth of material for talk during the rest of the week. A man who had missed the last home match of ‘t’United’ had to enter social life on tiptoe in Bruddersford.

VAR’s have at times seemingly worked well. In an U20s match between Argentina and England for example, an elbow missed by the on-field referee was spotted and dealt with within a few minutes using the VAR.

Yet debate still raged around whether the act was punishable by a red card – had the Argentine player deliberately committed the foul? Was there intent? These are questions that are extremely difficult to answer even with the benefit of multiple angles and replays.

Similarly, the VAR system provided a farcical moment to forget after scenes in Cameroon’s Confederations Cup clash with Germany. The Africa Cup of Nations holders were trailing 1-0 against the World Cup winners when Mabouka caught Emre Can with a high studs-up challenge. Referee Wilmas Roldan initially brandished a yellow card before VAR was used to reassess the incident.

The punishment was upgraded to a red card on review but Roldan mistakenly showed this to Mabouka’s team-mate, Sebastien Siani.

Cameroon’s players were understandably irate and protested their case to the Columbian referee, who eventually sent off Mabouka following a second look at the video replay.

Germany v Cameroon: Group B - FIFA Confederations Cup Russia 2017
Cameroon protest a case of mistaken identity – Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images

Although the VAR helped to eventually identify the correct offender, debate still continued as to whether the offence was even punishable by red card.

VARs have the potential to correct incorrect decisions. But, they also have the potential to make incorrect calls, much like a regular referee. VARs in their current format are fundamentally flawed. Football is a game of opinion and interpretation after all.

Refereeing Authority & Continuity 

One major concern is that the on-field referee would be continuously undermined. To be a referee you need to be authoritarian, which allows for conviction in the decisions you make. But with two referees, authority and conviction have the potential to be critically compromised.

To fix this it is essential that the on-field referee and the VAR remain part of a continuous and unified team; working on multiple matches together, therefore allowing communication lines, understanding and a strong relationship to develop.

The relationship between referees and linesmen has developed as footballing history has progressed. Examples of miscommunication in referring decisions on the biggest stage are ten a penny – in the 1974 World Cup Final the English referee, Jack Taylor, was assigned two linesmen who didn’t speak the same language as each other or Taylor!

Similarly, in the 1966 World Cup Final a linesman from the USSR had an infamous conversation, in god knows what language, with a referee hailing from Switzerland. In modern day football referees and linesmen operate as a collective; referees operate with the same linesmen, allowing relationships and understanding to build.

This path must be followed when looking at VAR’s. Just as it is beneficial for the same referee to operate with the same linesman, it is also essential that the same VAR operates within the same team.

Could a VAR have solved this oldest of footballing debates? –

It may be an idea to ensure referees are fully equipped with the latest communications hardware as to employ a little more transparency and clarity to players and fans alike; much like the system in Rugby Union. For the Rugby Union TMO (Television match official) system to be successful in Football, players and managers would have to endeavour to treat referees with greater respect, allowing referees to make decisive decisions without being coerced.

Rhythm & Flow

The flow of the game is essential to the beauty of football. The most successful teams display a fluid, rhythmic pattern of play – think Barcelona under Guardiola and the AC Milan team of 2003-2008.

Often VAR-lead decisions can take up to five minutes in which players can do little else but stand around and fans wait. This can take away from the normal rhythm of the game, not to mention detracting from the excitement and drama. Uncertainty when deciding whether a goal should or should not stand even takes away from the purist footballing emotion – the goal celebration.

Just how retrospective a decision will the VAR consider? Thirty seconds? A minute? How long is too long and will this effect the flow of the game in a negative manor? I suspect it will.

Many have argued for the implementation of the challenge system, as seen in tennis, as a potential way forward for the VAR system, a system which allows players three challenges per set.

I find this potentially worrying. Challenges could be used as a resource to help to disrupt the oppositions flow; all coaches want to be victorious and it is difficult not to see the likes of Mourinho using challenges to disrupt the games rhythm. Managers already utilise substitutions in a similar way, another time-wasting resource is not necessary.

The dynamism of the game is one of the primary reasons as to why football is so adored by millions the world over, from China to Brazil. If the introduction of VARs causes the parameters to shift drastically then a vital part of the games aesthetic and raw emotion could be lost forever.


Among the greatest aspects of the beautiful game is that football is governed by the same set of universal rules; from the Willow Pond FC to Manchester United. If technology evolves it leaves a huge gap between grass roots and the games upper echelons, both financially and culturally.

Besides, why does football need to be clearcut at all times? Why now all of a sudden when Rugby Union has had its TMO system since 2001? What has motivated FIFAs introduction of VARs? The rhetoric surrounding VARs rarely centres around reaching clarity for fans; rather, a decision being ‘worth hundreds of millions’ – a sad indication of where the beautiful game finds itself in the 21st Century.

Even FIFA big-wig Massimo Busacca has recognised flaws in the VAR system, stating that…

In general we have really good results but for sure… many aspects should be improved,

It is essential that Busacca and FIFA treat the VAR system with the utmost care as to ensure that theatre, beauty, and flow remain key cornerstones of our much loved game. VARs currently create more problems than they solve but they could become a useful tool, given time to develop into a smoother operation. A serious culture change in the way football treats and scrutinises its referees – both on and off the field – may also be key to any potential success.

Opinion: After one year as Sunderland CEO, has Martin Bain been a success or a disaster?

July 1st marks a year since Martin Bain officially assumed his duties as Chief Executive at Sunderland AFC, replacing the disgraced Margret Byrne. Has Bain been a good, strong and stable puppeteer? Or, like his predecessor, has Bain reduced Sunderland to a circus with weak and wobbly leadership?

In reality, Bain had already begun to make his presence known at the club in the weeks leading up to his ‘official’ appointment – with the Scot having a hand in brokering a couple of Sunderland’s outgoing transfers. Deals which in hindsight seem disastrous.

Bain adopted a relatively low profile upon his move to Wearside; initially remaining silent, choosing not to release a statement to the Mackem public.

The Scot was confronted with a less than smooth transition from his former role at Maccabi Tel Aviv, quickly finding himself unable to persuade Sam Allardyce to remain at the Stadium of Light. Sam’s move to England was unavoidable and rendered Bain powerless, a problem he could do little to rectify considering Sam was always nailed on to leave for England once the Football Association had registered their interest.

Bain’s first month was spent haggling over compensation with the FA before eventually reaching a fee of around £3m which allowed Allardyce the chance to leave the club – around £1m more than the FA had initially been willing to pay. A decent deal, which Bain deserves a modicum of credit for brokering.
England Training Session
The Allardyce fiasco was handled relatively well by Martin Bain. – Photo by Alex Morton/Getty Images


Chairman, Ellis Short, instructed the Scot with the task of cutting Sunderland’s debt whilst simultaneously improving relations with supporters and the media. A task in which the elusive Margaret Byrne had proved an enormous disappointment.

Encouragingly, the former Rangers man managed to instil a sense fan engagement and interaction between club and local community during his time at Maccabi Tel Aviv where supporters were encouraged to “buy into the badge”.

The same can not be said about his time in the North-East.

In February, whilst survival in the Premier League very much a possibility, Bain announced redundancies amongst staff at the club in order to cut costs. Large numbers of staff were generously offered the option to take voluntary redundancies via email – not exactly an astute move on Bain’s part.

The announcing of staff redundancies came in the same week as Bain sent Sunderland’s players off on a all expenses paid trip to New York. This undoubtedly cost a club in financial peril a fair wack whilst eventually doing nothing to improve Sunderland’s on-field performances. Another unwise move.

Bain fostered ill-feeling and a defeatist attitude with the timing of the redundancy announcement. And while the club has a deep rooted connection with its fans; instead of utilising and nurturing this relationship, it certainly feels as though there has been a complete disregard for it, leaving many hardcore fans feeling increasingly isolated.

So much for the mantra of improving fan relations. What makes the trip even worse is the fact that Sunderland managed only one Premier League win following the ill-fated jolly over the Atlantic.

Furthermore, Sunderland’s Chief Executive also deserves criticism for sticking with an unbearably pervious managerial custodian. David Moyes was reportedly persuaded to stay by Bain on several occasions when in reality he was doing absolutely nothing to better the club.

Farcical, especially when considering the way in which Moyes’ side did everything in their power in order to achieve relegation to the Championship. Even more frustrating when Moyes was allowed to resign following the season’s end.

If Bain had acted decisively and ditched the under-performing Moyes mid-season – when it was evident to every footballing mind on the planet that he wasn’t up for the job – then the club would have undoubtedly had a better chance of survival.

Rotherham United v Sunderland - Pre-Season Friendly
Two down, one perhaps to go in the coming weeks? 
Photo by Lynne Cameron/Getty Images

To be fair, Bain managed to negotiate decent profits when the likes of Jordan Pickford and Patrick Van Aanholt were moved on; however, this skill is the least Sunderland should expect from a Chief Executive. But how much credit can we actually afford Bain, though? Especially given the fact that Pickford is widely acknowledged as a future star, and PVA is a Dutch international. Even Bain’s positive dealings are fraught with an undertone of mediocrity.

Take into account the fact that Bain was also recently unable to woo Derek McInnes to Sunderland. The failure to secure a manager, before the appointment of Simon Grayson, was in part down to the speculation regarding new ownership; however, the fact that Bain was unable to appoint a manager who had displayed limited success at Aberdeen is a worrying sign.

Although I am fully supportive of Simon Grayson – who must be given a chance – his appointment can hardly be deemed as a coup. Bain has appeared unimaginative in his quest for fresh management at the Stadium of Light. Historians of the club are no doubt unaware that Sunderland AFC was founded in 1879 by a Scot, James Allan. Martin Bain seemingly wished to take the Scottish connection to new levels after appointing Walter Smith to assist him in his search for a new gaffer.

Smith hasn’t worked in football management for six years since leaving Rangers. Redundancies and relegation are still very raw amongst fans, so having a footballing dinosaur as Bain’s “unofficial adviser” will do little to reassure anyone connected with the club. It is very difficult to see Smith’s appointment as anything other than “jobs for the boys” and blatant cronyism.

Such shortsightedness has the potential to further harm the club in an irrecoverable manner.

40th Anniversary Memorial of Ibrox Disaster Held In Glasgow
Walter Smith (front left) and Martin Bain (front, second from right). – PHoto by Martin Shields – pool/Getty Images

Yes – Bain is acting on Short’s orders. And yes – Bain has managed to negotiate a smattering of decent transfers. However, the way in which Bain has mercilessly and culled ground level Sunderland staff without remorse has left a massive stain on his tenure thus far.

Add to this the unwavering support of Moyes, his hesitancy over the appointment of a new manager in addition to the continuous stream of PR disasters, and you will find that many fans will be praying Bain does not reach his second year anniversary.

I, for one, had sincerely hoped that if the reported German consortium managed to complete their takeover, that Martin Bain would be one of the first out of the door. But that hope appears to be lost. The club cannot afford to repeat mistakes made in recent years, and it’s fair to say that Martin Bain has been guilty of making multiple mistakes of his own.

Len Shackleton: ‘The Joker of Roker’

Shack learned his trade at Arsenal & Bradford, became a footballer at Newcastle, but it was Sunderland that got under his skin – Shack loved Wearside.

Shack –

Leonard Francis ‘Len’ Shackleton was born in 1922 and came from very modest beginnings. The 1920s are sometimes referred to as the ‘roaring twenties’ over in the United States. However, back in Britain, the 1920s were defined by depression, deflation and a steady decline in the great Britain’s former economic pre-eminence.

By the time Shack was beginning to play football, Britain’s economy was struggling. This was particularly apparent in the coal industry. The declining industry led to lower wages and increasingly bitter trades disputes causing a general strike in 1926. Miners went on strike to gain better pay and conditions and were joined by other trade unions. However, the general strike was only partial and led to the defeat of the miners. During the general strike, the middle class enthusiastically filled in for jobs helping to break the strike and increase a sense of class and social division.

Shackleton would eventually come to be among these miners when he first came to the North-East, working as a Labourer in Hazelrigg Colliery – ‘the clown prince’ knew what it was to be a working-class man in the North-East, and it was this as well as flamboyant playing style that endeared him to the predominantly working class community in Sunderland.

Like most kids in his generation, Len’s parents felt this economic instability in Britain. His parents couldn’t even afford to buy him a proper football kit. Shack commented upon being unable to afford ‘real football boots’ his Uncle John ‘bought some studs and hammered them into an old pair of shoes.’ This gesture would stay with Shack and gave him a deep love and appreciation of football and a drive to do well.

The Joker of Roker –

Shackleton could play at both the inside and outside forward positions. He scored 134 goals in 427 league and cup appearances in just over 11 seasons in the Football League, and before that scored 171 goals in league and cup 209 appearances during wartime football. His individualistic style was a joy to watch and his gift at controlling a football made him one of the most technically gifted footballers of his generation.

After a brief youth spell with Arsenal, he re-joined his former youth team Bradford Park Avenue in 1940, only to have his footballing career interrupted by the Second World War. Following Allied victory. Shackleton signed for Newcastle United for a record fee of £13,000 in the October of 1946.

Yes, you read correctly. The Len Shackleton, Our hero, Shack, donned the black & white stripes. Of course, the Wear-Tyne rivalry was not as nearly as bitter as it has become in modern times. Nevertheless, Shackleton was on course to become a Geordie Messiah by scoring six goals against Newport County upon his arrival at the club.

The greatest of all Geordie legends, Jackie Milburn, described:

On his debut against Newport County he scored six goals, a Division Two record, and put the last one in off his backside. Ever the showman, Shack always preferred to get applause for some daft trick rather than scoring a straight-forward goal.

Shack was no ordinary player, and the fact that a man as respected as Jackie Milburn was thought to single him out for praise tells you just how magnificent he was with a ball at his feet.

Milburn also quipped:

Len Shackleton was a master craftsman and thanks to him I got among the goals. I clicked with him because I expected the unorthodox. If he ran one way, I ran the other, and sure enough the ball always found me. On the other hand, Len’s quick-witted humour often caused me to laugh outright and lose control of the ball.

There you have it – by Milburn’s reckoning, Shack was equal to him. His quality was indisputable.

As much as I respect the words of such a talented footballer, it would be loathe of me to allow a Geordie the last word on Shackleton. But fear not – the praise for Shackleton was universal.

The legendary Stoke City and Blackpool outside-right Stanley Matthews was widely regarded to be the best British football player of his generation – his words carry much weight and his opinion of footballing matters of the day was undisputable. Matthews stated that Shack was‘unpredictable, brilliantly inconsistent, flamboyant, radical and mischievous; in short, he possessed all the attributes of a footballing genius which he undoubtedly was.’

Matthews placed more value on Shack than the short-sighted Geordies. Following a row at board level and after just two years in Newcastle, Shack was sold to their bigger rivals Sunderland in the First Division for the record fee of £20,050 and is said to have taken an illegal backhand payment in doing so. He had scored 26 goals in 57 appearances for the Tynesiders.

Shackleton was one of many big-name players signed by the club for a total outlay of around £250,000 during the post-war era, earning Sunderland the nickname of the ‘Bank of England’ club. And Len – regarded by the Mackem faithful as ‘the joker of Roker’ – stated that ‘joining Sunderland was the best thing I ever did’. He proceeded to become the shining light in the flickering embers of a Sunderland side in decline.

The Clown Prince failed to win silverware in his time on Wearside but featured in two FA Cup semi-final sides and narrowly missed out on a First Division Championship medal in the mid-1950s.
An ankle injury in 1957 eventually brought Len’s flamboyant career to an abrupt end. He made 348 appearances for Sunderland and scored 101 goals.

Much like Bobby Gurney, Raich Carter and Brian Clough – Shackleton was overlooked for international honours by the England selectors, despite being universally acknowledged as a player of international quality. Len made only 5 caps for England, the most famous coming against the then World Champions, West Germany, in 1954. Sadly, his style was dubbed too individualistic by the historically-conservative and southern-centric Football Association.

Len Shackleton shakes hands with the Duke of Gloucester at Wembley-

Shack opened a barber’s shop in the town during his time in Sunderland, illuminating his entrenchment in our culture and history. On retirement, he became a sports journalist. He moved to Grange-over-Sands, in Cumbria.

Shack’s autobiography, The Clown Prince of Soccer, became celebrated for its ninth chapter, entitled ‘The Average Director’s Knowledge of Football’. A blank page lay underneath. Such distain towards directors endeared him to another Sunderland legend, Brain Clough. It is written that Shack even helped to fix Clough up with his first forays into football management.

Len Shackleton passed away November 28th 2000. He was aged 78. Testament to his talent as a football player and skill as a journalist, Shack received obituaries in The Telegraph and The Guardian. A true Sunderland great.

 I leave it to Shack himself to round off:

Even though I was born in Bradford and now live in Cumbria, I still consider the North East to be home. I love the place and the people are smashing. Newcastle people always tell me that I’m biased towards Sunderland but really I’ve nothing against Newcastle – I don’t care who beats them.