Chris Young: Old heads needed again in the annual repeat of the Sunderland soap opera

In the purgatory of watching Sunderland these days, it is often a struggle to remember a time before there was a desperate annual scrap to the survival line.

Wednesday, 14th December 2016, 1:00 pm
Updated Thursday, 15th December 2016, 1:00 pm
A majority of the Sunderland squad have been in this perilous position  too many times  so the experience may work in their favour as they fight the drop for yet another season

Those halcyon days of finishing in the top half under Steve Bruce (Sunderland ended up 10th in 2010-11, you know) are a distant, vague memory; replaced by the constant unease and nausea of battling tooth and nail for every precious point.

It’s one of the many reasons why the club struggles to move forwards.

Every slump or every false start to the season prompts a mentality of ‘here we go again’ among both supporters and players, and it’s difficult to shake that pattern.

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It won’t be until Sunderland eventually nestle themselves comfortably above the drop zone, that the fear factor goes and a more positive energy akin to the one in the Peter Reid glory era begins.

However, on the flip side of the coin, the hefty experience of what it takes to avoid relegation does have its benefits.

Over the years, Sunderland’s players have generally bristled at questions asking whether they can channel the memories of previous survival battles and use that as an advantage over their struggling peers.

It’s been a consistent brick wall in interviews, no matter the persistence of the interrogator.

They don’t want to be known as relegation fight specialists (even though they clearly are) and neither do they want to count any chickens at hailing previous success stories, when this could be THE year when it all goes wrong.

But what recent years has created in the Sunderland dressing room is a sense of avoiding panic, however perilous the situation becomes.

Sunderland clearly lacked composure in a dreadful second half display at Swansea, when there was a head-scratching defensive surrender after going 1-0 down, despite the conditions creating such a feasible opportunity to get back in the game.

It’s undoubtedly a blow to fall to the basement again, when a victory at the Liberty Stadium would have left Swansea with half-a-foot in the Championship.

But nothing’s decided in December.

There will be plenty more twists and turns over the next five months, and it’s over the home straight – where Sunderland traditionally boast a Mo Farah-esque kick – where it matters.

Yes, Sunderland probably need one win from this week’s back-to-back home games, when David Moyes’ men realistically require at least 15 points by the midway point of the campaign.

Yet as Wearside knows all too well, dejection, euphoria and anxiety all interchange during the weekly emotional rollercoaster of the relegation battle.

Composure is the key attribute.

Just look at the ominous state of both Hull and Swansea this time last week.

Hull were utterly rancid in their defeat at Middlesbrough, where the absence of even a hint of attacking threat was horrifyingly exposed.

Then they scored three times against Crystal Palace (who increasingly appear to be genuine contenders for the drop) and were only a whisker away from victory.

Equally, Swansea waved the white flag at Tottenham in a 5-0 thumping, but then received Sunderland’s festive tradition of early Christmas presents to leap two places in the table.

Moyes was let down by his players in south Wales, yet he didn’t help proceedings either with his conservative decision to replace Duncan Watmore with Seb Larsson.

Neither Adnan Januzaj or Wahbi Khazri possess the pressing abilities of Watmore and Larsson, but they are far more natural wingers than the Swede at this stage of his career.

Moyes negatively altered the balance of the side and despite Jermain Defoe’s three spurned opportunities at 0-0, Sunderland still failed to find the net against a defence, who at the start of the day, were the worst in the Premier League.

However, perhaps now is the time when the likes of Larsson, Jan Kirchhoff and Fabio Borini are needed in the starting XI.

Jason Denayer and Didier Ndong were excellent in the previous four games, but they were riddled by anxiety, errors and imprecision at Swansea and never established base camp in the middle of the park.

Older heads, who have been there, done it and got a whole wardrobe of T-shirts, are going to be required now to cope with the weekly soap opera of scrutiny which surrounds proceedings at the bottom.

They are the ones who know all too well how history can repeat itself.