Sunderland’s predicament is the stuff of shredded nerves. Sam Allardyce talks of needing perhaps four wins and a draw from eight games and many of us doubt we are capable of producing anything like such a haul.
This, as we approach yet another weekend without “our” football, is how the bottom half + one of the Premier League looks:
And this, not even taking account of our deputy editor Malcolm Dawson’s important point about the effect beating Norwich City at home instead of losing 3-1 would have had, is how it ought to look after the last four Sunderland games:
There you have it. A five-point safety cushion, a much improved goal difference and a game in hand over two of the bottom three – if only we’d done what was so well within our reach and drawn at West Ham, then beaten Crystal Palace, Southampton and Newcastle.
Add Malcolm’s grievance to the mix and while we would still be in 16th place on goal difference, we would be no fewer than 11 points above third bottom.
The comparison of real and might-have-been is enough to reduce us to tears. The wasted opportunities in those four most recent games and the abysmal display against Norwich create the difference between a relaxed canter to the end of the season and the nailbiter we now face.
Big Sam cannot be blamed for the disgraceful start to the season long before he arrived from the Costa del Sol on his white charger. I do not especially blame him for the 1-0 defeat at the Boleyn. The team he sent out would have won had Defoe, Rodwell and Patrick van Aanholt converted their chances; they wouldn’t have scored but for PvA’s error.
But I do hold him accountable for the squandered points at Southampton and Newcastle, since his substitutions failed in each case, though the defensive deficiencies against Palace were more telling than the loss of Jan Kirchhoff, subbed between 1-1 and 1-2. I accept there is a disturbing question mark over Kirchhoff’s fitness to last an entire game but the difference we have seen in successive away games, once he departs, is there for all to see.
It leaves us in another desperate and, if my maths stand up to scrutiny, unnecessary scramble for survival. We now need not only our own results – there are five home games among the last eight – but for others to help us out, starting with April 2, when we absolutely must beat WBA at home and hope for a draw between Norwich and the Mags.
Since three of the four SoL games that will then remain are against Leicester, Arsenal and Chelsea, the need for those famously improved performances of late to produce, finally, wins cannot realistically wait.
And then there’s the small matter of Norwich v SAFC on April 16. It’s our next away game and defeat is now unthinkable and perhaps unmanageable.
The players have been talking a good run-in. Their fighting words will mean nothing unless matched by points on the table.