THAT the season is a marathon, not a sprint, will be underlined when Gus Poyet and Steve Bruce face each other across the dug-outs this weekend in very different circumstances from when they first met back in early November.
That was one of the bleakest days of the Black Cats’ campaign, with Lee Cattermole and Andrea Dossena sent off as Sunderland slumped to a 1-0 defeat which left them rooted to the foot of the Premier League table.
“It’s huge for us,” Hull’s former Sunderland boss Bruce acknowledged at the time, reflecting: “We’ve restored a 10-point gap between the two teams with more a quarter of the season now gone.
“It might sound easy to recoup that gap at this stage of the season, but far from it – it is not easy to win three games in a row in this division.
“That means we can look forward to staying ahead of them for some time, which is important – we’re 10 points above both Sunderland and Crystal Palace.
“And one thing I know is that we’ve got to get as many points against the teams which will be in and around us at the bottom as we can.
“The most important thing for me is to keep this club in this division and, with a quarter of a season gone, I’ve got to be happy with where we are at.”
Bruce can still be happy with where he is at. Only less so.
Sunderland and Hull will meet on level terms tomorrow – both sides on 24 points with Palace only a point behind.
And although it is 13th in the table versus 14th, the sides are only two points above the bottom three.
That coveted 10-point gap lasted a season – but the season was only winter.
And if Sunderland do pull off that oh-so-difficult task of winning three league games in a row – adding Hull to the scalps of Newcastle and Stoke City – then the Black Cats will claw their way above the Tigers with a result which will have huge psychological effects on both clubs.
I’m reminded of former Sunderland boss Alan Durban’s thoughts when he watched Peter Reid’s Rokermen start crumbling towards the drop in the club’s first Premier League season in 1996/97 – despite ending January with 27 points on the table.
Durban, who was Reid’s chief scout at the time, mused: “Our problem is that we’ve not been in a relegation scrap all season – it’s always hardest when you get dragged into it late on.
“You’re not used to scrapping for your lives and, all of a sudden, panic sets in – all of a sudden, you wonder where your next point is coming from.”
Bruce’s side have been a bit like that.
After that strong showing up until November, the Tigers are in danger of hitting the skids – losing four of their last five league games and taking just one point from 15.
Sunderland, meanwhile, have produced the sort of form which today saw Adam Johnson voted January’s Player of the Month and Poyet the runner-up for the Manager of the Month Award.
In the battle at the bottom, momentum tends to be crucial and Sunderland have all of it; Hull none of it.
All of which makes tomorrow’s game huge for both clubs.
Sunderland have struggled with their home form this season but have recently revived and, ominously for Hull, their struggles are at their greatest away from home – only one game won away from home all season, and that back in September.
None of this comes as news to Bruce, one of the Premier League’s wiliest campaigners.
He would probably argue that goalscoring is an even more important factor than momentum when it comes to surviving the drop and will have been thrilled to have recruited West Brom’s Shane Long and Everton striker Nikica Jelavic in January.
Both have that wonderful goalscorer’s knack of hitting the target with almost every shot they take, no matter how difficult the angle.
And it gives Hull a great chance of staying up this season.
Once again Bruce, ever the optimist, will be targeting tomorrow’s game as a key fixture.
Sunderland have Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool in their next three league games after this.
Hull’s opponents are much more attractive in terms of potential points-gathering – Southampton, Cardiff and Newcastle – and Bruce might even be dreaming of re-establishing that big points gap between his former and his current clubs in the weeks ahead.
But Hull will face a very different Sunderland side tomorrow at the Stadium of Light than they did in November.
The Black Cats came close to sharing the points at the KC in their last encounter – despite being reduced to nine men in a match which first saw the emergence of Vito Mannone and the rebirth of Wes Brown.
The Capital One Cup finalists will be a far more formidable prospect tomorrow.
The season is a marathon not a sprint and three months can be a long, long time in football.
I would suggest a third win in a row for Poyet’s men tomorrow would finally make their Premier League survival a probability, rather than a possibility.
* Don’t miss your online Football Echo – it’s out tomorrow, around 6.45pm – on sunderland.echo.com and on the Sunderland Echo app