THE postponement of Sunderland’s game against Manchester City at the Etihad has increased concerns about a fixture pile-up for the Black Cats.
Obvious comparisons are there to be drawn with Wigan Athletic last season – they also reached a cup final, only to be relegated, with the finger of blame pointing at a crushing fixture list which saw them play Arsenal three days after winning the FA Cup.
And mention has also been made of 1985, when Len Ashurst’s Sunderland suffered top-flight relegation after also reaching the League Cup final.
Nor were the flutterings in Sunderland chests becalmed by Victor Anichebe’s 87th-minute leveller at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday night – a goal which earned West Brom a point at Chelsea and saw the Baggies boing, boing their way out of the bottom three at Sunderland’s expense.
With the Black Cats back in the relegation zone and now facing away games to Champions League sides Arsenal and Liverpool, the prospect of them getting out of the bottom three any time soon has to be regarded as slim.
Meanwhile the games are mounting up.
Sunderland’s home match against West Brom at the start of next month has already been postponed because of the date with destiny in the Capital One Cup final; Wednesday’s cancelled league game at Manchester City has now been added.
And should Gus Poyet’s men progress in their fifth round cup tie against Southampton tomorrow, their game against Liverpool on March 10 will have to be rearranged as well.
Even worse, if the Black Cats draw with the Saints tomorrow, there’s a replay to be factored in there too!
Let’s not start fearing the worst before it happens, though.
As things stand, Sunderland’s fixture list remains manageable – there are only two games to alter.
And the Black Cats do have the squad to cope, after chairman Ellis Short and head coach Gus Poyet enjoyed an effective January transfer window.
Heart can be taken, too, by the way that Sunderland have already dealt with a pretty horrendous packed series of games in the last few months.
In the first 10 weeks of the season, Sunderland played 11 games.
In the last 10 weeks they have played an eye-watering 18 times, yet their recent record is much better than their earlier one – successfully making progress in the league and both cups.
And Sunderland’s efforts in January – in which eight games were played – was so good that not only did they get off the bottom of the table and out of the relegation zone but Adam Johnson won Barclays’ Premier League Player of the Month award and Gus Poyet was short-listed for the Manager of the Month prize.
Poyet himself says he could do without the headache of a fixture pile-up, but admits that three games a week is do-able, if undesirable.
It means that for coaches there is limited training time for preparation and to work on things which will improve the team.
But he also admits that, for many players, it is preferable – footballers love playing football games; not so many love training.
So, in the short term, the fixture list may be something to keep an eye on, but not (yet) something to lose sleep over.
Sunderland’s league position is precarious, but so much better than it was before the turn of the year.
And while Anichebe’s unlikely equaliser was a setback in the midweek games, it was just about the only one among the 10 teams who remain relegation candidates.
Elsewhere, there were draws for Stoke, Swansea, Cardiff and Aston Villa and defeats for Hull, Fulham and Norwich – which has to count as a favourable set of results.
Now attention has to be turned to yet another cup game on Wearside – the Black Cats’ EIGHTH at home this season.
The odds may be against them progressing in the FA Cup tomorrow, with very impressive Southampton likely to play their strongest possible side while Poyet is set to field some of his fringe players.
Should Sunderland lose, there will, of course, be an upside in terms of fixture congestion not worsening.
But with the Black Cats’ cup form so outstanding this season, a victory should not be discounted.
And if Sunderland do progress to the last eight of the FA Cup, this campaign will truly begin to start shaping up for the club as possibly the most remarkable and the most memorable so far of the 21st century.