The return of a fixture popular among exiled Sunderland fans in the deep south, Southampton away; I recall seeing lots of our supporters on the Isle of Wight ferry when heading for a short break after one match. Eugene McManus, a Southampton fan since boyhood, is the gaffer at The Saints**, a pub named after the team more than half a century ago and welcoming to “housetrained” away followers (though it’s in Millbrook, about five miles from St Mary’s stadium) …
Salut! Sunderland: As I write, we both hover perilously above the drop zone. Has the season gone more or less as expected for Saints or did you think you could be a lot higher?
When the fixture list was first released it was clear the first month was going to be tough, some good performances failed to bring us the points. However, those points picked up in recent weeks were more than welcome but it came as no surprise that we would be in the bottom third of the table at this stage.
And does our predicament, and the resulting pressure on Martin O’Neill, surprise you?
We have been in a similar predicament with Nigel Adkin facing the same questions and pressure now being heaped upon O’Neill. It comes with being in the Premiership, as well as Chairman & The Press raising eyebrows as many fans do too. Both are great managers and I sincerely hope (but not until after Saturday) that Martin can turn things around.
Is Nigel Adkins the man to keep you up and build on that or do you need a change?
I am not an advocate of change. We experienced back to back promotions and I believe we have the right man to keep us in this League and to progress to Europe!!
When you last went down, and then down again amid terrible financial woes, did you fear the worst or were you always confident of climbing back into the Premier?
It was a terrible period for us but what helped was our infrastructure, so with the right investment it was clear we would get back to the top flight. Little was known of Markus Liebherr but what he has done for our club should never be forgotten; to see him at the Johstone Paints Final with his camera taking photos of the crowd and himself at Wembley is a memory that will stay with me. He became a fan of our club and we all became a fan of his, his passing saddened us all and we are thankful that his wish for us to be in the Premiership has been fulfilled.
See also: Monsieur Salut talks all things Sunderland at ESPN FC: http://soccernet.espn.go.com/blog/_/name/sunderland?cc=5739
When you consider the riches available to a select few, what can a club like yours realistically hope for (I realise most neutrals would feel much the same question could be put to us)?
As we feature in the Premiership top 10 Rich List our position compared to other clubs could be considered one of luxury. However, our chairman believes our club should be self sufficient so we will not see extravagant purchases any time soon. Money has been made available for the manager and I hope those signings will gel but if the manager feels more is required, we can only hope the Chairman gives him further financial support.
On which players does your survival depend and where does the side cry out for strengthening?
Llalana getting injured is a bit of blow but we do not seem reliant upon one source for our goals. Puncheon is on form and Lambert hasn’t really got started but I believe he will be up there at the end of the season. Defensively we look unsettled but again this may be due to new players needing to settle in. Personally I would like to see us strengthen further in that area.
Looking back, what were your thoughts on Gareth Bale and Theo Walcott when you had them – were they always self-evidently destined for the top?
When Walcott had the ball you expected things to happen. Although Bale was good for us he has come on leaps and bounds in the last two seasons. I remain of the opinion both we and Theo could have done with a few more seasons here but with our finances what they were we had little choice, it is inevitable in this day and age that clubs like ourselves cannot hold on to such talents.
Mick Channon, Kevin Keegan, Peter Osgood, Matt Le Tissier – or others I have missed: who are the greatest players you have seen or wish you’d seen in Saints colours and who should have been allowed nowhere near them?
I was lucky enough to see Channon and Keegan play together and during that era we played some fantastic football but the skill, the goals of Matt Le Tissier make him stand out above the rest. His loyalty to our club and this town goes a long way to keeping him in our hearts and minds and I don’t believe we will see another talent like him; great goals are scored but not as often from one man.
Do you have any thoughts, good or bad, on Sunderland – the club, the fans, the region?
Due to my Irish heritage Martin O’Neill was someone I watched as a child and his success at Celtic was welcome. Sunderland like ourselves could be categorised as a neutral’s favourite, little is done to evoke negative emotions and away fans travelling the distances that they do deserves respect.
And what about players and staff associated with both clubs. I seem to recall Lawrie McMenemy did rather better for you than for us, there was Kenwyne Jones of course and didn’t you once have a full back called Kevin Phillips?
Lawrie did do good things with us, the FA Cup win in particular and signing the European Player of The previous Year in Keegan was a major coup. Phillips gained iconic status with yourselves but never repeated the same form here and statements made upon his departure left a bad taste in the mouths of a lot of fans. Kenwyne Jones put in some good performances but seemed to complain about the cold a lot which was why it came as a surprise to some when he went up North.
What will be the top four in order, and who is going down?
Top four in my opinion will be Man U, Man City, Tottenham and Chelsea … going down Reading, Villa and Wigan although would like to see QPR one of the three but no doubt their manager will get lucky, again.
Where, if not already mentioned, will our two clubs finish?
Am hopeful of a 12th position finish for us with Sunderland not too far behind
Is it time to stop worrying about all the cheating in the game and accept it as part of modern football? If not, which form most annoys you, who are the worst culprits and how do we stamp it out?
I think the cheating should be highlighted at every opportunity and punishments handed down to the offenders and should never be accepted in Football; some players’ reputations precede them and they have fallen victim at times due to this but more accountability for their actions is the only way to eradicate it.
The club versus country debate: who wins for you and why
Why not club and country? Pride in playing for both should be paramount to all players. But I accept that when certain competitions are played during our season it can be costly to clubs and difficult for those not of those nations to accept their leaving at what, for some, are pivotal times … no player should refuse to play for their country.
Will you be at our game and what will be the score?
Work will keep me away this week but I see a 3-1 win for us.
** Eugene McManus on himself: As landlord for the last three years of a pub named after our club back in 1961 – visit The Saints pub’s website by clicking here – I have done all I can to be closer aligned to the club. We are in partnership with the Saints Foundation and have regular fund raising events for them, footage can be viewed from the city tour back in the summer 1976. When the teams open top bus came past the pub with the FA Cup hundreds were gathered in the car park and on the roof… few pubs in the town could match the atmosphere here for live games.
I have supported Saints since I was a kid and to take Bush Hill, the senior football team that I manage, to a local cup final at St Mary’s last year was a great experience. As for Saints I hope we will see successful periods in the future including trips to Europe.
Interview: Colin Randall