Sunderland’s quick, counter-attacking style under Martin O’Neill is being hampered by a heavy playing surface, argues MATT LESLIE
TRAWL around a number of supporters’ internet forums and you’ll find the following descriptions about Sunderland – “awful”, “shocking” and “a disgrace”, to name but a few choice comments. However, it’s not the team those barbs are aimed at, it’s the pitch.
To say the surface at the Stadium of Light looked as if a farmer had been digging for peat would be an understatement given the ease with which it was cutting up as last Saturday’s game wore on.
Martin O’Neill alluded to it, citing how much harder it has become for his players to play on and now full-back Phil Bardsley has weighed into the debate, labelling his home turf as probably being “the worst in the league”.
Granted there have been some mitigating factors such as the poor weather the region has been having of late but even so, Bardsley and his team-mates are the ones who have to play on it.
He said: “The pitch is not the best at the moment. In fact it’s probably the worst in the English league. But that said we are trying to adapt to it and use it to our advantage because we are used to it. I can’t see too many top teams coming here and playing football on it.”
Some mouse-clicking armchair pundits have even suggested the poor pitch is a cunning ploy by Sunderland to hamper opposing teams.
A charge which Bardsley, with justification, treats with contempt as he believes it would be much more preferable if the club improved the surface instead of letting it decay.
He continued: “They haven’t seen our last three or four games at home then. The pitch has been terrible, I think everybody knows that.
“Somebody needs to get hold of the people that are in charge of it. We’ll adapt to it, get on with it, that’s what we’re all about. We’re professionals and we go about it in the right way and try to play as much football as possible on it.”
Arsenal are back on Wearside for Saturday’s FA Cup tie and Bardsley admits it will be interesting to see how the Gunners will cope.
Last week the Black Cats entered their league game with the Gunners on the back of a gruelling match at Middlesbrough.
Arsenal will be in the same boat having, faced AC Milan last night, and Bardsley thinks they could encounter the same battle-fatigue problems Sunderland had a week ago.
He added: “We had a cup game which went into extra time, so by the time Saturday came around a few of the lads were quite tired and it was a mind over matter situation.
“Arsenal will have the same problem themselves on Saturday having played Milan this week, they’ll come back and come straight up here to play us.
“It’s difficult when you’re travelling that much to focus and come up against a team who are sharp and at the races.
“We won’t give them a minute’s rest when they play us. We’ll be fresh after a few days off, it’s positive here and hopefully we can do the job.
“We were mentally tired with the amount of games we had, going into extra-time at Middlesbrough and all that, but it’s part and parcel for top teams who have European competitions to think about and domestic cups. We’ve got to focus on our job ahead, we have to adapt to the games and we will do that.”
A place in the last eight awaits Sunderland – a target they have not reached since their run to the semis in 2004, leading to the allegation that the Black Cats have maybe not taken the cup seriously enough before O’Neill’s arrival. Not a bit of it, says Bardsley.
He said: “The mentality was always there under previous managers, we just fell short. We want to go a long way in this competition, the manager drills that into us, we’re hard to beat at the minute, we look organised and hopefully we can keep that run going – it would be great to get to the final of the FA Cup.
“We’ve got nothing to fear from Arsenal. We know what they’re all about, they have some good players but we kept them quiet last week and it’s up to us to get into the next round of the cup.
“We need to stay organised and hard to beat.
“We can never underestimate a team that contains (Robin) van Persie, the craft and guile of (Mikel) Arteta and so on. They are always going to be a threat against us but we don’t fear anybody.”