The winner takes it all

WE can now say, with a degree of certainty, that Roy Keane’s idea of a hellish night out would be an ABBA concert introduced by Jack Warner with a prawn sandwich buffet. At least, though, the Sunderland manager’s relationship with his own supporters has been well and truly repaired.

That much was clear at Villa Park yesterday, where 3,000 noisy visiting fans chanted “There’s only one Keano” to the tune of Blue Moon in the build-up to kick-off.

Keane has always been one to speak his mind – as his diatribe at Manchester United’s prawn sandwich brigade eight years ago proved. But he does seem to have gone into overdrive over the last two-and-a-half weeks.

First he branded Warner a “clown” over the FIFA vice-president’s claim that Keane had pulled Dwight Yorke out of a Trinidad and Tobago World Cup qualifier.

Then he revealed his despair at discovering his players listening to ‘Dancing Queen’ in the dressing room before a game at Ipswich early on in his Sunderland reign.

Finally, he branded a handful of his supporters “idiots” for abusing him during Sunderland’s lucky Carling Cup win over Northampton in midweek. (Keane, though, did go out of his way to make clear that he thought the vast majority of Sunderland fans were “bloody brilliant”.)

For Keane and Sunderland, the perfect end to a testing week would have been to win at Villa and move closer to the Premier League’s top four. But football doesn’t work like that.

I was just glad to be at Villa Park yesterday. When I learned at the start of last week that I would be covering Aston Villa versus Sunderland, I felt a certain sense of trepidation. It was nothing to do with the thought of facing Keane in the post-match press conference, and everything to do with the nightmare journey I had when covering the same fixture last season.

The journey from Manchester to Birmingham can, depending on the mood of the M6, take anything from 90 minutes to several days. One day, Michael Palin, Charlie Boorman or those cocky so-and-sos from Top Gear will forsake their adventurous races against time in the exotic corners of the world and make a documentary about trying to get from the North West to the Midlands by road without having a nervous breakdown. When they do, I look forward to watching it.

Last season’s Villa-Sunderland game was played on Easter Saturday. Already, you can probably tell where this is leading.

That day, I set off from home around 11am, with the aim of getting to Villa Park for 1pm, two hours before kick-off. Almost as soon as I hit the M6, I was faced with a wall of traffic. Not the sort that crawls along very slowly. The sort that doesn’t crawl at all.

To cut a long story short, I spend the next two-and-a-half hours winding through the back streets of Cheshire and Staffordshire without a map or Sat Nav. Every time I thought I was getting somewhere, I hit another wall of traffic.

Meanwhile, I listened to lots of radio traffic reports telling me that there had been a five-car pile up on the M6, that a section of the motorway had been closed, and that anyone was even thinking of travelling that way should turn around, go straight to their doctor and seek psychiatric help.

After screaming and raging in a manner reminiscent of Basil Fawlty (fortunately, I was alone in the car), I eventually managed to rejoin the motorway beyond the accident, and get to Birmingham without causing another one.

The closest I could park to the ground was at a car wash a mile away. I got out, ran as quickly as my unfit body would let me, and reached Villa Park, sweating and gibbering, 15 minutes before kick-off.

The first three stewards I asked didn’t have a clue where the press entrance was. The fourth – to whom I’m eternally grateful – led me through a short-cut gate to where I was supposed to go. I crashed into my seat five minutes before the game started, and spent most of the first half getting my breath back.

I used to tell this story in an exasperated, self-pitying manner. Then, a few weeks later, I recounted it at great length to a friend of a friend, who then told me that a mate of his had been involved in the M6 pile-up that caused all the delays, and was still in hospital with serious neck injuries. I thought I had been unlucky. It turned out I had been lucky.

My journey to yesterday’s game, by contrast, was entirely stress free.

Villa and Sunderland even helped me by ensuring that all the goals were scored in the first half – an absolute dream for a journalist who has to file a match report bang on the final whistle.

Djibril Cisse, who has added bright yellow boots to his long list of eyecatching sartorial choices, gave Sunderland an early lead.

But despite playing a five-man midfield, with Dean Whitehead patrolling the space in front of the back four, Sunderland never looked that solid in defence.

They conceded two goals before half-time from free-kicks. The first was floated in by Ashley Young after El-Hadji Diouf caused the wall to split. That wall stood firm for Young’s next free-kick, but the outstanding Stiliyan Petrov collected the rebound and drove across goal for John Carew to score with a clever flick of his heel.

Gabriel Agbonlahor said last week that the only player he would swap Carew for was Pele. With a touch of skill like that from Villa’s No 10, it was possible to see what Agbonlahor was getting at.

After all his eye-catching recent quotes, Keane kept his post-match comments focused firmly on the game.

“We know Villa are decent at set-pieces,” he said. “The first goal we conceded was very sloppy. We gave away a free-kick with a needless tackle, and the wall could have done better.

“For their second, we had decent possession and gave it away. We invited trouble, and they took full advantage.”

That’s the thing about football, Roy. The winner takes it all, and the loser’s feeling small. Not that I’d ever say that to your face.

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