With Gus Poyet at the helm, Sunderland pulls off a miracle survival

Thursday May 8th, 2014

Manager Gus Poyet (center) has led Sunderland to Premier League safety after a disastrous start.
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

SUNDERLAND, England -- There are times when football doesn't make any sense. By the time the final whistle blew on a blustery and wet night at the Stadium of Light on Wednesday, the atmosphere was one of raucous celebration. The raw facts of a 2-0 victory over West Bromwich Albion that lifted it to fourteenth come nowhere near capturing what Sunderland has achieved in the past month, touching rock bottom before responding with the most gloriously improbable of resurgences. This is what it must have been like at Lazarus' wake.

"Even the rain looks lovely," said a delighted Sunderland manager Gus Poyet. "I'm absolutely delighted, proud of what we achieved, pleased for the players, the fans, the club. I was brought into the club to do one job and one job only and we've done it in a certain style. It's going to be remembered forever. People will say in years to come that even if you're seven points behind you can do it. This is the biggest achievement of my life for sure, today is one of the happiest days of my life."

When Sunderland lost 5-1 at Tottenham on April 7, Gus Poyet said his side would need a miracle to survive. It seemed not merely to be slipping to relegation but going down in the most abject, gutless fashion. Sunderland fans are used to disappointment -- the club has won nothing since 1973 and has been relegated six times in the past 29 years.

This, connoisseurs of the drop said, would be the worst since 1985, featuring neither the record-breaking awfulness of 2003 and 2006, nor the doomed last-gasp heroics of 1987, 1991 and 1997. Sunderland was seven points from safety and floundering badly, having taken a point from its previous seven games. When Wes Brown scored yet another own goal -- Sunderland's seventh of the season -- in a 1-0 defeat to Everton, it seemed a formality that its eight-season stint in the top flight was coming to an end.

And then the miracle began. First there were Connor Wickham's two goals against Manchester City, turning a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 lead before Vito Mannone's late gaffe gifted Samir Nasri an equalizer. But this was a miracle with legs -- appropriately, perhaps, given Poyet's first win as manager came against Newcastle in September, three days after the club's chaplain had taken a shirt to the Vatican to be blessed by the Pope. Could it only be coincidence that Fabio Borini, the player who scored to end a run of six months without a league win had moved to Britain from Rome?

Sunderland went behind at Chelsea, who had never lost at home in the league under Jose Mourinho. But a goal from Wickham and a Borini penalty gave it the most unlikely of victories. When Cardiff were thumped 4-0, Wickham scoring two of them to take his tally to five in three games having got one in his previous 37, Sunderland was out of the relegation zone. A week later, it won at Old Trafford for the first time since 1968, which was enough to relegate Fulham and Cardiff City as they lost to Stoke and Newcastle respectively.

Against West Brom, it played with confidence and, at times, a swagger. There were a couple of nervous moments in the second half when the prize came within range, but once Jack Colback had stabbed in Marcos Alonso's cross after 12 minutes, it never looked like losing. The second goal, after 31 minutes, was majestic, Seb Larsson scooping the ball over West Brom's defensive line for Fabio Borini, having made a perfectly judged angled run, to finish with a falling volley.

For the first time since 2000, Sunderland had won four games in a row in the Premier League. Such a run has rarely been so timely. Even the -- extremely distant -- threat of legal action from Norwich over the fact Sunderland was fined rather than docked a point for failing to reapply for international clearance for Ji Dong-won when he returned from a loan spell at Augsburg has been rendered academic: Sunderland can lose a point with impunity now.

West Brom, perhaps, provided quiescent opposition; although it is only three points clear of Norwich, it would take a swing of 17 goals on the final day for it to be relegated. But City and Chelsea were fighting for the title, Cardiff scrapping for their lives (albeit not particularly well) and United looking to confirm some narrative of renewal under Ryan Giggs. This has been a ridiculous run.

Can it be explained? Not really. "It happened when..." said Poyet, sounding deeply uncertain, presumably well aware how it sounded as though even he had given up after the Tottenham defeat. "You need time. I know all managers ask for time and sometimes you don't get that."

Wickham, still only 21 and perhaps having suffered in the past from being promoted too soon, suddenly found a burst of form at precisely the right time, which gave Sunderland a focal point to its attacks and a goal-scoring thrust. Lee Cattermole, reassuming his role in front of the back four from Liam Bridcutt -- who initially stood down only because his partner had gone into labour -- has been superb, bristling and sapping with a discipline he too often has lost.

Santiago Vergini, a fish out of water at center back in the Premier League, has thrived since moving to right-back to cover for the suspended Phil Bardsley. Ki Sung-yeung's injury opened the way for Colback's return, and his calm passing and purposeful movement have been a boom. To say Sunderland has been lucky would perhaps be stretching it, but there has been a serendipitous air about the past three weeks.

Yet it had shown this form before this season, often in the Capital One Cup -- in which it beat Chelsea and Manchester United on its way to losing to City in the final -- and in a spell in January. Sunderland has merely rediscovered that form. Is it too simple to suggest that all that has happened this season is that it's undergone the usual vicissitudes of fate, but with the usual ebbs and flows separated into two fairly distinct piles?

As Niall Quinn, the former Sunderland forward and chairman put it, "It's been a bad season with a lot of highs."

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