SUNDERLAND’S season ended yesterday as it began in August, with a hugely creditable performance in North London.
Unfortunately, it was largely everything sandwiched in between those two games which proved a let-down for fans in a season of under-achievement; a season which left the Black Cats, at its end, just above the relegation spots.
Sunderland supporters though will go into the close season at least buoyed by the gutsy, defiant way in which their team made them proud yesterday.
Hopelessly outgunned in almost every department and reduced to 10 men in the dying stages at White Hart Lane, Sunderland clung on with heroic tenacity.
And they were only unlocked in the 89th minute with one of those goal-of-the-season contenders from Player of the Year Gareth Bale.
Disciplinarian boss Paolo Di Canio had threatened his players with detention if they failed to treat the Spurs game with the respect it deserved. In the back of his mind was the thought of the 6-1 humiliation against Aston Villa in the Black Cats’ last away trip.
He was determined to avoid a repetition.
And the tactic worked, for his players – infinitely inferior to their opposite numbers at White Hart Lane – produced a resilient performance which first impressed and then inspired before it was cruelly ended at the death with a scimitar sweep of Bale’s left boot.
Di Canio made two changes to the side which performed so poorly against Southampton.
With full-backs Phil Bardsley and Danny Rose absent – albeit for vastly different reasons – Seb Larsson and Jack Colback filled in, which meant David Vaughan starting in midfield and Connor Wickham up front.
If ever there was a squad down to the bare bones this was it. Sunderland’s bench contained only one senior professional – keeper Keiren Westwood.
The other half dozen subs were Academy teenagers with just four minutes of first-team experience between them.
There were plenty of jokes around about supplying pop and crisps to the subs’ bench; that they hadn’t had a shave between them; that the bench could have done with a creche-minder; that they wouldn’t be allowed to stay up beyond their bed time.
But the lack of credible substitutes was no laughing matter for Di Canio facing a team of such consequence.
Spurs made one change to the side which beat Stoke the previous week, with defender Steven Caulker dropping to the bench to accommodate Benoit Assou-Ekotto.
Chasing fourth spot, Spurs went into the game having lost only two of their last 21 league games and they started as well as their team sheet suggested they might.
The opening quarter-hour was entirely one-way traffic in the direction of Simon Mignolet’s goal.
But Sunderland started well too in their own way, working desperately hard and constantly looking to harry and close down superior opponents.
The game ratcheted up a level in the 20th minute when Gareth Bale and Seb Larsson entered the area shoulder to shoulder and the Player of the Year went down.
The Spurs attacker, along with the home support, were incandescent when he didn’t get the penalty he was looking for.
Replays suggested the Welsh international was genuinely fouled and deserved a spot-kick.
But he fell victim to his reputation for diving, earning his fifth booking of the season for simulation – having been booked at the Stadium of Light for the same offence back in December.
A converted penalty then would have changed the whole complexion of the game – Spurs were desperate for the early goal which would have forced Sunderland out.
Instead the Champions League hopefuls laboured in front of goal
Tom Huddlestone had a trademark powerful snapshot on target from range in the 24th minute which Mignolet did well to hold, moving to his right.
But, on the quiet, the half-hour came up with battling Sunderland still on level terms and they came desperately close to taking the lead in the 30th minute with the best chance so far.
Wickham, frustratingly inconsistent in this game, started and finished the move, controlling the ball midway inside Spurs’ half and finding Danny Graham on the right.
Graham centred from the flank and Wickham’s run to the near post saw him turn the ball goalwards, only for it to be blocked on his goal-line at point blank range by Hugo Lloris.
Spurs responded in the 34th minute through a bit of magic from Emmanuel Adebayor, who left James McClean on the seat of his pants before forcing a fine save from Mignolet. Then it was Bale, showing lovely movement, drawing another good save from the keeper, again from the right.
Sunderland were managing the occasional foray forward, Wickham seeing another shot charged down in the 36th minute.
Generally though, this was the Spurs show – Bale and Aaron Lennon all darting movement while their team-mates passed well and hit crossfield balls.
McClean went into the book for a poor challenge on Huddlestone in the 38th minute. More importantly, that allowed Bale a shot at goal from the resulting free-kick – Mignolet parrying the ball away diving to his right.
But all that good work was almost undone by a comical error in the 40th minute when John O’Shea headed over Mignolet, but the flag was up for offside as the Belgian flapped the ball clear under huge pressure.
In the end, Sunderland successfully got to half-time having been outplayed but demonstrating great discipline in keeping Spurs at bay.
For the Wearsiders, there was a glimmer of light; Spurs, for their part, looked increasingly frustrated.
The frustration grew in the 48th minute when Wickham sparked an excellent attack from which Graham tested Lloris.
And it reached its peak in the 50th minute when an Adebayor shot from 18 yards clearly struck Cuellar’s hand near the penalty spot, but referee Andre Marriner failed to see it.
Spurs could have done with that helping hand, because, despite regaining their earlier domination, they were struggling to create clear-cut goalscoring chances.
The hosts needed to rely on the fact that several Sunderland players were carrying knocks and Di Canio did not have genuine reinforcements to call on.
Unforced errors started to creep into Sunderland’s game as fatigue began to play its part. But the visitors were redeeming themselves every time they sinned – every mistake atoned for by desperate defending.
And that applied to no-one more so than Jack Colback who, in the 64th minute, having needlessly conceded a corner, twice blocked goal-bound shots, the second one coming off him and onto the post before being cleared.
It was this sort of “they-shall-not-score” mentality which was threatening to win through and Spurs manger Andre Villas-Boas acted, bringing on Mousa Dembele – a player of a quality not available to Di Canio.
And as the game stretched towards the final 20 minutes, and their Champions League ambitions falling short, Spurs took an absolute stranglehold on the game.
Mignolet produced top-class saves from Bale and Kyle Walker as the pressure intensified on the Sunderland goal.
Spurs turned to the last rolls of the dice – Jermain Defoe on for Clint Dempsey in the 73rd minute, attacking midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson replacing defender Assou-Ekotto 10 minutes later.
Sunderland’s options were less impressive.
Off went the unhappy-looking McClean and the marginalised Graham to be replaced by Billy Knott, (latterly on loan at Woking and making his debut here), and Mikael Mandron, (building on his previous four first-team minutes to date).
It was a vote for youth over experience, but it was all Di Canio could do in the circumstances.
Even that though, was not enough of a handicap for the manager to have to contend with – in the 75th minute mild-mannered David Vaughan receiving a second yellow card – a clear booking for a foul on Lennon to go with a 51st-minute foul on the same player.
Reduced to 10 men with more than 15 minutes remaining, Sunderland simply upped their efforts, giving the sort of display that Paul Newman would have been proud of in Cool Hand Luke.
Spurs kept coming, Bale kept shooting, Mignolet kept saving and the game entered the last 10 minutes.
Youngster Adam Mitchell – the rawest of the three subs – came on for Wickham in the 87th minute and by then Sunderland had survived another couple of corners and close shaves and had got within a whisker of the finish line when Bale produced yet another wonder goal.
The 18-year-old midfielder was the closest player to Bale as the Welsh international cut in from the right in the 89th minute looking for that space he relishes for a long-range pop at the target.
But it would be harsh to condemn the Sunderland teenager for the goal that resulted.
Bale is unstoppable when he produces THAT shot – smashing a left-foot strike which looped over a crowded area from 25 yards and flashed into the inside side-netting of the far corner of goal.
Mignolet, otherwise unbeatable, was finally defeated by a goal from the Gods.
It was unfair on the Belgian – the only Sunderland player who would not have looked out of place in Spurs’ side – but it underlined the quality required to be successful in this division.
Ultimately, Sunderland have lacked that quality this season.
Di Canio has proven since his arrival – and demonstrated in this game in particular – that he can at times motivate teams to produce an almost super-human effort in pursuit of the cause.
But he cannot make silk purses out of sows’ ears.
And if Sunderland are to improve on their 17th-place finish next season, it will be less about man-management or motivation and more about recruiting genuine quality players – the sort of players the club faced in abundance yesterday.