As Lars Knutsen says, the season’s not over yet, writes John McCormick. But we’re all walking just that bit taller and smiling just that bit wider. The reason, according to Lars, is that we have a manager who is not just up to the job of keeping us up but who is also capable of taking us forward …
Although we are not safe yet, things are looking much more hopeful for our beloved club after Saturday’s sensational comeback against Chelsea. If our main rivals Newcastle do not beat Spurs on Saturday, they are toast. The same is true for Norwich if they do not win against Watford on Wednesday night.
So what is the verdict on Big Sam? The media have generally lauded Allardyce’s impact on the team, after a frankly embarrassing first half of the season, praising the intensity and desire of Sunderland’s performances, with some commentators even saying that we have been the best team in the bottom half of the table since Christmas.
Sam accurately assessed the weak points of the team in a pretty short period, and then cleared out some underperforming stars during the mid-season transfer window, before proceeding to make some very important signings.
Koné, Kirchoff and Khazri have been pivotal to making us into a team which has become the epitome of “hard to beat”, but not just playing defensive football. Khazri has misfired at times recently but his goals helped us beat Man. Utd. and Chelsea at the SSOL.
I am a self-confessed Allardyce fan, and have been for a long time. He knows the Premiership well, and demands a lot from his players, who have responded to him. He understands a club like Sunderland and the passion of the fans. Ellis Short rightly identified him as the best candidate after the departure of Dick Advokaat. Big Sam is a pragmatist, and was accused of playing “meat and potatoes” football when at Bolton, but he has shown little of that while at Sunderland. There was real style and substance in that win over last season’s champions on Saturday.
Looking back on our 2016 performances, we have certainly been competitive, passionate and intense in every game since the new signings bedded into the team, and the manager has definitely got his message across to the players. The only real disappointment since the turn of the year has been the number of draws, notably those at Southampton and Newcastle. If we had had the steel to get three points in those games my rather too bold prediction that “Sunderland will be clear of relegation…after the away game at Norwich on April 16th” might have come true. But we are in a place where a win on Wednesday guarantees the Black Cats their tenth successive season in the best league in the world. This comes at a time when staying in the league is truly lucrative financially.
As fans we can legitimately ask if we can now end this ongoing pattern of late escapes from the bottom three, provided we survive this time, of course. “Exciting” it may be, but Sunderland should be capable of much more with the fan base we have. The team has changed much since we won at Man. Utd. two years ago as part of the “miracle” escape, with only Mannone, Cattermole, O’Shea, Larsen and Borini surviving from the squad of 21 utilized for that game. So it’s not just down to the players, although recruitment has clearly been patchy at times. This could be the third year in a row we may end the season on 38 points; we hit the heights of 39 points in 2012-13. 38 points may be seen as a success after our time in the bottom three this year but as a club we need to be aiming much higher. Frequent changes of manager have to stop, I believe we now have the man in charge who we can make plans around.
Sam is giving the distinct impression that our struggles of the last few seasons can end and that we can make a long term plan around a management team who will deliver the goods. My next and final prediction for this season – we will indeed survive, and finish above mid-table next season in the Premiership.