FA Cup: Round Three
Capital One Cup: Round Three
It has become an annual occurence for Sunderland to look like relegation certainties, change the manager and kickstart a revival by defeating arch rivals Newcastle United in the new man’s second match in charge. It is a case now of lightning striking four times, and on this occasion it was the wily Sam Allardyce who defied the club’s league position when he took over in October to lead them to safety, while reminding everyone of his managerial ability.
After guiding the team to safety in 2014-15 Dick Advocaat was persuaded to stay on as boss by a combination of adoring supporters and owner Ellis Short, despite having announced his intention to retire. Among the summer signings the Dutchman brought in were Tottenham defender Younes Kaboul, midfielder Jeremain Lens and striker Fabio Borini, while former Arsenal target Yann M’Vila arrived on a season-long loan.
The main man was unquestionably striker Jermain Defoe, a seasoned goal poacher in the Premier League, but despite registering on the opening day of the season he was powerless to prevent defeat as they went down 4-2 at Leicester City. A show of awful defending saw them 3-0 down in 25 minutes of that match, and it was even worse the following week at home to Norwich City as the fans left in their droves having witnessed a shockingly passive performance.
Draws against Swansea City and Aston Villa at least got them up and running but further poor displays after the international break led to considerable speculation over Advocaat’s long-term future. He duly left after Sunderland squandered a two-goal lead to draw at home to West Ham United, leaving them in a sorry position at the bottom of the table.
It was mid-October, but already it seemed an irretrievable situation. They were playing like the team that Aston Villa became, caught in a permanent state of stupor and showing next to no desire to help the club achieve results. This is why Allardyce thought long and hard about accepting the job, but was eventually tempted to the Stadium of Light after being attracted by the challenge of being tasked with keeping them up.
He lost his first game in controversial circumstances at West Bromwich Albion, but it was surely no coincidence that his second match was against Newcastle. They won 3-0 amid joyous scenes, but that was only a temporary reprieve as six goals were conceded at Everton and then they lost to a dominant Southampton side, so there was clearly plenty of work to be done and many areas within the side to address.
Two straight wins came to end November, only for the following month to be a disaster as they lost each of their five matches, albeit against difficult opponents, but Allardyce’s work to strengthen the defence was not yet achieving the desired results. The New Year began impressively, however, with crucial victories over fellow strugglers Villa and Swansea, with Defoe instrumental along with marauding wing-back Patrick van Aanholt.
The Black Cats were now just a point from safety, and now it was time to bring in the reinforcements. Defensively they were still vulnerable, so Allardyce brought in the powerful Lamine Kone as well as Bayern Munich youngster Jan Kirchhoff, whose role was to shield the back three. Meanwhile, livewire winger Wahbi Khazri also joined. It was this transfer business that eventually proved to be the difference between staying up and going down, as all three played a vital role in the run-in.
All the same, only one win arrived in the next 11 matches, over the course of which it became clear that Sunderland were embroiled in a three-way battle with Newcastle and Norwich to avoid filling one of the final two relegation places. The performances were of a very high standard in the main, but the team had a tendency to throw points away by conceding late goals, or fail to take the chances that came their way.
The run of Tyne-Wear derby victories finally came to an end in March as the game at Newcastle finished one apiece, so the potentially decisive encounter came at Norwich on April 16. For once, they handled to occasion brilliantly and emerged as convincing winners to really put themselves in the box-seat in the race for survival as Defoe and Borini both found the net.
For all of that, they were still in the bottom three going into May, although crucially they had a game in hand over Newcastle while Norwich were beginning to look down and out. Chelsea were the opponents and despite a stunning goal from Khazri, led twice. But by now there was a spirit about Sunderland that suggested they would be safe, and they responded accordingly to win 3-2 to leave Wearside on the brink of the ultimate celebration.
Now only an ailing Everton stood in their way of not only confirming top-flight status for next season, but sending both Newcastle and Norwich down on the same night. Once a free-kick from van Aanholt put them ahead it was never in doubt, as the excellent Kone then scored twice to make it a thoroughly convincing success. Allardyce had achieved something that looked notional at best when he took over.
Given the team’s form over the final weeks of the season and the presence of Allardyce, it seems unlikely that Sunderland will again be battling against the drop next term, particularly if Allardyce continues to be shrewd in the transfer market. In Defoe they also have something that most teams crave – a natural goalscorer.