After bringing the love back to Wearside, wiping away the nightmares of Steve Bruce’s reign of terror, Martin O’Neill’s first full season didn’t go to plan. Despite going unbeaten until an October defeat to Manchester City at the Etihad, albeit with only one league win in that time, Sunderland found themselves in the relegation mire throughout the year.
When O’Neill was axed by Ellis Short at the end of March, with Sunderland only a point above the relegation zone, Paolo Di Canio’s revolution swept in to save the day. With Aston Villa on a run of form that would see them collect 11 points in the final seven games and Wigan expecting yet another great escape, the times were worrying on Wearside. Back-to-back April wins over Newcastle and Everton lifted the club to the lofty heights of 14th, and the job was ultimately wrapped up with a midweek Wigan defeat before the last game of the season.
When Di Canio departed almost as quickly as he came, Gus Poyet’s task at hand was a big one. Despite being in charge since October, Poyet’s side found themselves rock bottom, seven points from safety in an April that started with a 5-1 thrashing at White Hart Lane.
For most of the season Sunderland had been wrote off. 1 point from the opening eight games. Bottom at Christmas. Away days to Chelsea and both Manchester giants to come. Yet the story of the greatest escape will live long in the memory of those on Wearside.
13 points from five games and Sunderland had officially relegated the trio of Cardiff, Fulham and Norwich before the final day.
Dick Advocaat’s escape act had a slight head start on his predecessors. Taking charge of the defeat to Sam Allardyce’s West Ham at the end of March, the Dutchman took over a side in freefall just a point above the relegation zone. With Leicester gaining momentum, Sunderland had an anxious final two months ahead.
Yet when Advocaat steered his troops to another derby win, and nine points from the next six games, Sunderland were left to enjoy the celebrations at Stamford Bridge on the last day, with a gleeful eye on proceedings at St James’ and Old Trafford as Newcastle and Hull fought it out.
Like Poyet, Sam Allardyce has warmed the Stadium of Light hotseat since October. While this year’s escape has been more of a slow burner, with three draws out of three in March keeping the tally ticking over, Sunderland still began April in the bottom three. Four points behind Norwich, yet the race for survival looked too close to call.
Halfway through the golden period of Sunderland’s seasons, however, and Sam Allardyce’s side are entering uncharted territory.
After rising to 17th with the goalless draw against Arsenal, Sunderland are tipped by many as the favourites to survive. While Newcastle’s form has pundits divided, Sunderland’s game in hand seems set to offer them the lifeline once again.
Michael Gray, during BT’s build up to the Norwich clash, was arguing he’d rather be in Sunderland’s position at the time, chasing down those in front, rather than anxiously looking over your shoulder. As mad as it might sound, the former left back might have a point.
With Newcastle facing a likely six points from the next two games, Sunderland cannot afford any more dropped points, with the psychological blow of falling back down at this stage too dangerous to contemplate. Of course, there’s plenty of twists and turns left, Newcastle playing Villa when Sunderland host Chelsea will probably mean the leapfrogging will continue. Yet with struggling Everton and Watford sides to come, Sunderland will fancy their chances of coming out on top on the final day.
For the veterans of years gone by, with Lee Cattermole, John O’Shea and Seb Larsson involved in all four escapes, their calm heads and experience will be crucial, but come 5 o’clock tomorrow we’ll know how well Sunderland can handle the pressure of being favourites.