Friday spotlight: Rebirth of gallant Sunderland

Sunderland fans at Old Trafford celebrate a famous success
Sunderland fans at Old Trafford celebrate a famous success
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AFTER an incredible evening at Old Trafford on Wednesday night, the worldwide media focused on the fact that one game can change the whole perception and direction of a football club’s season.

They were right of course – David Moyes’ last realistic hope of silverware in his first Manchester United campaign evaporated the moment Vito Mannone held on to Rafael’s unconvincing shot in a dramatic penalty shoot-out.

And what the future holds now for the Red Devils, their fans and the former Everton boss is going to be genuinely intriguing.

It was just a shame that most analysts stopped there.

For had they extended their gaze into the other half of the field, they would have seen an equally fascinating and emotive turnaround.

United’s season may be crashing and burning, but Sunderland’s is threatening to be a phoenix from the flames.

Back in October, after the 4-0 drubbing at Swansea in Gus Poyet’s first game in charge, the mood among Sunderland fans could not have been more miserable or pessimistic.

And understandably so.

After only one point taken from the first 24, things could hardly have looked more bleak. The big question was not “will” Sunderland would go down, but “when”. And the biggest worry was: might this be another humiliating 15-point or 19-point relegation?

In such a context, the cup competitions seemed an utter irrelevance.

Even when Southampton and then, memorably, Chelsea were beaten in successive Stadium of Light cup ties, the achievements seemed little more than a distraction from the main event: the continuing concerns at the foot of the Premier League.

But the main event itself was changing – subtly if not spectacularly – with Premier League progress being steadily made.

A record of two wins and four draws in their last seven league games – a run which lifted the club from bottom to second bottom – hardly seemed much to write home about.

But that masked a wider revival – on Wednesday, Sunderland went to Old Trafford with a record of just one defeat in their last 10 games, having won three of their last four.

Poyet’s patient, passing style of football had been warmly embraced by Sunderland’s players and was paying dividends, with their defensive and attacking records improving.

And, last week, the head coach felt confident enough to say that the thing he took most satisfaction from in his first few months in charge was that when he arrived everyone was taking it for granted Sunderland were down, whereas now, no-one was.

All these things were reasons to be cheerful.

But the events of Wednesday night took things to a whole new level.

It was a night that no Sunderland fans will ever forget as 9,000 away supporters took hold of the atmosphere at Old Trafford and made it their own.

After a season of almost unremitting disappointment they filled their hearts with passion and lungs with noise, sang their hearts out for the lads, and they dared to dream.

What a fantastic advert they were for Sunderland Football Club.

Down below them, on the field of dreams, Poyet and his players matched the fans’ enthusiasm and belief in a game which probably approached only the 1998 play-off final against Charlton at Wembley for late drama and tension.

It was an evening when all at Sunderland were united.

Black Cats’ chairman Ellis Short continually flicked admiring glances over to the red and white army on his right, on a night when the true stature of his club must have been driven home to him like never before.

The club, so often accused of PR own goals, has played a blinder in recent weeks – the burst “bubble” of the forthcoming Tyne-Wear derby, being the obvious and biggest victory.

But its subsidised tickets and transport aid for the Old Trafford clash meant Sunderland’s support marked the biggest away following anywhere in English football this season and the club deserves enormous credit for that.

The game itself – certainly the first 90 minutes – might not have captivated the neutral’s interest, but it was a personal triumph for the visitors.

While the worldwide media focused on the fact that Manchester United did not play like Premier League champions, many failed to acknowledge that Sunderland did not play like relegation candidates either.

And the combined, joyous celebrations of Sunderland’s players and fans at the final whistle were something to behold. Something that, it’s no exaggeration to say, felt like a rebirth; like a fresh start.

The bonds between club, players and fans – so sorely tested by so many different knocks and setback in 2013 – had been healed and strengthened, as that wonderful, collective triumph was marked.

In its own way, Sunderland’s rise at Old Trafford was every bit as compelling as United’s demise.

And although (this being Sunderland) the scope for shooting oneself in the foot or looking a gift horse in the mouth cannot be under-estimated, it’s hard to see it happening under the leadership of Poyet, whose quiet dignity and deep intelligence continues to impress by the week.

Now you wonder whether the win at Old Trafford might mark not only a high point for Sunderland but a turning point too..

Opportunities for Poyet’s players lie ahead with Kidderminster tomorrow, Stoke on Wednesday and even the trip to Newcastle next Saturday.

There’s every chance, should momentum be maintained, that Sunderland fans will be talking about BSF – before semi-final – and ASF – after semi-final – when they look back on Poyet’s efforts this season.

The first period would be characterised by a realistic pessimism; the second by unbounded optimism.

Sunderland’s defiant anthem this season has been: “Things can only go better.”

After Wednesday, they might think about searching for a new one.

Because things already have.

Twitter @sunechograeme