Battling with Newcastle for survival only heightens the emotional stakes
24 April ~ For a brief period in the late 1990s there was a Sunderland fanzine called It’s The Hope I Can’t Stand. That sentiment is probably familiar to the supporters of virtually every football club, anywhere in the world. But there’s nothing like the sharp end of a relegation battle that makes fragile and foolish optimism so excruciating.
With five games remaining, Sunderland sit in the bottom three and take on Arsenal at home today. They face dropping into the Championship after failing to reach 40 points for a fourth successive season, or may win another chance to rebuild with yet another huge increase in Premier League TV money next year. Sunderland’s survival would relegate Newcastle, and vice versa. Having our fierce local rivals equally embroiled at the bottom makes the emotional stakes much, much higher.
With Aston Villa succumbing to the drop last week, the remaining relegation places will be filled by two of Norwich, Newcastle or Sunderland. Black Cats fans witnessed one of those bright flickers of hope last week, with a 3-0 win at Carrow Road. That was soon dulled as Newcastle caught up the points with a win over Swansea and a deserved point against Manchester City on Tuesday.
Newcastle’s comeback draw at Anfield made sure that Sunderland have to win to keep a clear points gap. And Norwich don’t play until next week. So now is a vital time for the Black Cats to get three points and increase pressure on the other two teams.
But victories have been Sunderland’s problem this season. While performances have been much improved since January, wins have remained rare. In a recent run of four consecutive draws in April and March, important points have quietly slipped away. Against West Brom, the team just couldn’t find a winner. In the derby at St James' Park, Sunderland sat back, invited pressure and conceded a late equaliser. Before that, at Southampton, we couldn’t see out the last 30 seconds of the match and gave away a sickening leveller, and drew with Crystal Palace with a late goal of our own after losing a lead.
Today, we play an Arsenal side fresh from a convincing win over West Brom on Thursday. On paper this seems like another simple game for the Gunners but Sunderland deservedly beat Manchester United and narrowly lost to Manchester City at the Stadium of Light in February. In our last home game we didn’t disgrace ourselves in a 2-0 defeat to league leaders Leicester. Any match at this stage of the season is very difficult to predict — which only encourages that fond sense of hope.
Sunderland still have Stoke, Chelsea, Everton and Watford yet to play. As many connected with the club keep repeating, Sunderland’s fate still lies in our own hands. That’s true, but we’ve had it in our own hands all season and haven’t done much with it. Yet in just a handful of games, possibly less, everything will be decided, and we can start to deal with the fallout. The Championship begins again 15 weeks from now, and the Premier League restarts seven days after that. Once this season has finished we’ll start hoping all over again. Roll on August, I suppose. Ed Upright
Photo by Paul Thompson/WSC Photography: Outside Sunderland’s Stadium of Light