The little banner at the Sunderland end of Stamford Bridge looked rather forlorn. “Miracles Happen, Gus” it said. If Gus Poyet didn’t believe it before, he must surely believe it now, as Sunderland added to their most unexpected point from the Etihad with an even more unexpected three points from Stamford Bridge.
In the course of away games with two of the main protagonists in the title race, the Mackems had given themselves a realistic chance of Premier League survival and had a major say in the destination of the league title itself.
Having watched Sunderland in their recent defeat at home to West Ham, their abject second half capitulation at Spurs and their demoralising home defeat to Everton, it was impossible to believe they had these two results in them. And after the White Hart Lane humiliation, when a number of players appeared to have thrown in the towel, Gus Poyet clearly didn’t believe it either:
I’m very honest and I know where I am. If you look at the table and the games we have got left to win, we need a miracle…We need something unique. A shock. I cannot see it coming.
But instead of one shock, Sunderland got two – with serious ramifications at both ends of the table. The fact that the manager could not see it coming hardly speaks volumes for his abilities. But at the same time, Poyet probably deserved a change in fortune. The Uruguayan took over a club rooted to the bottom of the table with just the one point taken from the first eight games and a set of problems that stretched back beyond Paolo di Canio’s tumultuous reign and into Martin O’Neill’s tenure. Poyet was engaged in a desperate game of catch up from the off, and he made some decent initial inroads into preserving the club’s Premier League status.
The early part of his reign suggested they might smoothly play themselves out of trouble. Poyet preaches an attractive and proactive vision of the game, demanding his players be brave and get on the ball, and the early signs were largely positive. But as the heat was turned up in the fight for survival, their debilitating failure to make the most of their attractive and progressive build-up play saw belief and confidence gradually leach away. That loss of confidence critically undermined Poyet’s approach to the game – players who lack confidence generally don’t want the ball.
Given that context, how do we make sense of this Sunderland team drawing at Manchester City and winning at Chelsea? Can any explanation be offered?
Well, here’s my tuppence worth. Perhaps, just perhaps, the acceptance after the Spurs game that all hope was lost saw the players relax, removing the tension that had slowly strangled the self belief so critical to the Poyet method. And perhaps that easing of tension saw the players enjoy playing their football again – a shedding of inhibition that may have derailed the title pretensions of Manchester City and Chelsea and that has given Sunderland a real shot at redemption.