How Sunderland Could Have Done a Leicester

Leicester City are champions of England. Well done to them, although I'm not sure how many people want to see Mr Lineker down to his pants. We look back at a time when Sunderland could have done the same.

24 October 1999. Sunderland had lost one of their previous ten in the league and sat in third place. This included a famous win on enemy territory in the pouring rain as Gullit and Shearer went head-to-head, as well as a 5-0 thrashing of Derby at Pride Park with Kevin Phillips tearing the Rams apart. In fact, the strike force of Phillips and Quinn had the finest defences in the world shaking with fear.

But, back to that Sunday afternoon in October. Manchester United had lost 2-1 to Tottenham the day before, while Leeds and Everton fought their way to a 4-4 draw earlier that day. It meant that Sunderland could go top with victory at Upton Park. Despite Steve Bould being dismissed for a headbutt early on, Kevin Phillips struck again to give Sunderland the lead. It wouldn't last. With the 10-man Mackems clinging on in the last minute, Danny Dichio's mistake let in Trevor Sinclair to level the scores, and Sunderland stayed third - but still within touching distance of the league leaders.

Four wins out of the next six games, including a famous 4-1 home thumping of Chelsea, meant that Sunderland were still third at Christmas and still had Manchester United and Leeds in their sights. Then came the visit to Goodison on Boxing Day. Deprived of the services of Kevin Phillips through injury, Sunderland capitulated. Everton's Don Hutchison, a future star in red and white stripes, grabbed two early goals, and then it was just a question of how many for the Toffees. Five was the answer, and it was a fatal blow. Sunderland would not win again until the end of March - ironically, at home to Everton. Despite a late-season recovery, Sunderland were still stuttering and ultimately finished seventh, missing out on the UEFA Cup on goal difference. 

Now back to Leicester. Every pundit and every fan was confident of their implosion, but it never happened. Leicester continued to confound expectations, grinding out wins until the bitter end. They did this partly by having a resolute, well-organised team, by frustrating the life out of opponents defensively, and by having a lethal attacking trio who thrived on counter-attacking football. Their success is an amazing one, and they have rightly been the best team in the league, but they have also carried the most luck.

Luck matters in football. Statisticians believe that the luck factor can turn an average mid-table team into anything from relegation candidates to Europa League qualifiers. This luck can take several different forms - penalties being awarded (or not), injuries to key players, or even scoring when the ball strikes a beach ball on the pitch. The experts at TEAMtalk's Ref Review believe that Leicester have benefitted from an astonishing nineteen incorrect decisions so far this season, far more than any other team. Their win at the Stadium of Light may have been one point, or none, if Robert Huth had been penalised for stopping Patrick van Aanholt's cross with his hand in the box. Leicester have also been awarded 11 penalties this season, a league high, despite a counter-attacking style which means that they don't spend all that much time in the opposition box.

Of course, there's no suggestion that anything untoward is happening in the Premier League. Merely that a perfect storm of decisions going their way, having a capable manager, and the bigger teams in the league performing horribly, have all come together to see Leicester crowned Premier League champions. But what if the same thing happened back in 1999/2000? What if, instead of being in the midst of their golden era, Manchester United were limping along under someone other than Sir Alex? What if decisions went Sunderland's way every week, draws became wins, defeats became draws? What if Kevin Phillips was even more prolific than in real life? Then,  maybe, the fairytale could have happened on Wearside.
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