Phil Smith’s SAFC Analysis: Can David Moyes keep Sunderland on the front foot in the final few matches?

Billy Jones and Didier Ndong combine to deny West Ham possession. Picture by Frank Reid
Billy Jones and Didier Ndong combine to deny West Ham possession. Picture by Frank Reid
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“Yes, I would do the same.

“If I was a fan and I saw my team perform like that, I would probably react in the same way.

James Collins nods home West Ham's second goal, early in the second half.

James Collins nods home West Ham's second goal, early in the second half.

“It’s nothing to complain about, I have to take it. It is about being professional, performing, standing up.”

Not the words of David Moyes, on the day that fan ire became audible for the first time, but the themes were similar.

Those were the words of Gus Poyet, on the day that his position became untenable – the day Aston Villa, a woeful side, were 4-0 up by half-time at the Stadium of Light in 2015, and the fans confronted Poyet as he stood in his dug-out, despairing.

He would be gone by the start of the next week.

Jermain Defoe rides a Jose Fonte challenge

Jermain Defoe rides a Jose Fonte challenge

The same fate will not meet David Moyes.

Moyes struck much the same tone as Poyet when asked about the fans’ chants, saying they were to be expected, not an issue, that he would take it on the chin.

For a while, it felt as if he may be subjected to the kind of toxic atmosphere that Poyet endured that day, and Steve Bruce before him in 2011. The anger as the latter’s side fell 2-1 to Wigan was so visceral it is not easily forgotten.

Sunderland’s equaliser, and it must be said, much improved attacking performance, saved him from that kind of treatment.

The irony was lost on no-one that it was Wahbi Khazri, whose exclusion has been such a lightning rod for discontent this season, who hauled the atmosphere back from the brink and earned his manager some breathing space.

Khazri was, quite frankly, superb.

It was not only that he scored direct from a corner, important though that was. It was that his performance comprehensively silenced any doubts about fitness, work-rate and commitment.

In fairness, Moyes has always said on the record that it is not, and never has been, about work-rate.

If it is about ball retention, Khazri answered that question. His vision and bravery on the ball drove his side on, gave them an outlet that they have so often lacked.

It also sparked a reaction out of Fabio Borini, brought on from the bench. To say that is long overdue is an understatement.

Once the dust settles, Khazri’s performance is likely to harden the sentiment that sparked ironic cheers, then boos, when Moyes made his way to the touchline in the 20th minute.

In the second half, the mood was calmer, a good game and a stirring performance generating a real atmosphere.

Moyes felt his players did much of the right things, which was true, even if it counted for little given that they conceded two soft goals, meaning just two points have been taken from a string of four eminently winnable games.

That lift spared Moyes, with anger in the second half only ever coming out in murmurs.

There were boos when he caught the ball in stoppage time, and the new gallows humour song ‘Championship football, it’s on it’s way back’, which is not flattering, was given an airing.

How it unfolds now will be instructive.

Unlike with Poyet and Bruce, Sunderland have been clear and consistent that the path is set.

Yet if fan ire reaches levels seen previously, and it threatens to create a toxic mood spilling over into the start of the next campaign, it will test that mettle.

Sunderland have two home games this season, against fellow struggles Bournemouth and Swansea City.

Defensive frailties reared their head against West Ham again, meaning those two matches will matter little in the context of the season.

What will matter is whether Moyes can keep his team on the front foot for those games, and how the fans respond to it.