How the pain of relegation shaped Sunderland's £9m January signing

Seasoned veterans of nerve-jangling relegation fights are littered throughout this Sunderland squad.

Friday, 15th April 2016, 9:00 am
Wahbi Khazri

For the likes of John O’Shea, Seb Larsson, Lee Cattermole, Fabio Borini and Vito Mannone, battling relegation has become an annual occurrence at Sunderland, where make-or-break days like tomorrow’s trip to Norwich City are a common occurrence.

But January signing Wahbi Khazri is no stranger to the vagaries of battling against the drop either after experiencing both the joy of survival and the nauseating taste of going down.

Khazri was a 19-year-old coming through the ranks at Bastia, when the cash-strapped Corsican club were relegated to the third tier of French football – a division largely composed of semi-pro and amateur outfits.

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If that was an early lesson in the misery of relegation, then Khazri’s subsequent experiences were more positive after successfully keeping Bastia in the top flight when they surged back up the football pyramid, before he eventually attracted the attention of Bordeaux.

Those formative years as a professional have had an impact on Sunderland’s £9million attacking midfielder, who stresses that actions, rather than words, is what is required now.

Khazri told the Echo: “I went down once with Bastia, but we also managed to stay up twice.

“Bastia was perhaps a little bit like here – we had solid home form, but were often playing down at the bottom of the league.

“Whenever you fail in something, it always helps you for the future to learn.

“We just want to stay in the Premier League and that’s the most important thing that we can do.

“Words are very easy. What we need to do is show that on the pitch.

“We talk about it a lot among ourselves in the Premier League, and we want to stay up for ourselves, but most importantly the fans.

“They follow us home or away every week, and we owe it to them to stay in the Premier League.”

Since the arrival of Khazri and fellow January signings Lamine Kone and Jan Kirchhoff, the mood in the Sunderland camp has been upbeat and a positive feeling that Sam Allardyce’s men will beat the drop.

However, the failure to take golden opportunities to record victories against Southampton, Newcastle and West Brom hit the players hard – not helped by a 2-0 defeat against league leaders Leicester City last weekend.

But Khazri says Sunderland cannot afford to feel sorry for themselves, with so much riding on their meeting with fourth-bottom Norwich.

“Of course, it’s a little bit of a blow when you’re winning the game till almost the end, and go suddenly from one you should have won to a draw,” said the Tunisian international.

“But we can’t dwell on it. We’re all professionals.

“We need to bounce back and that will hopefully be against Norwich.

“We have to make sure we learn from our mistakes in the past.”

Khazri expects tomorrow lunchtime’s encounter to be similar to last month’s Tyne-Wear derby against relegation rivals Newcastle – edgy, frenetic and hostile.

On such a tense occasion, when the outcome could well decide which club is playing Championship football next season, Allardyce has stressed this week that the mental battle is one that Sunderland must conquer.

“It’s up to us to manage the match properly,” added Khazri.

“We need to start well, stop them from getting anything early on and then ask questions to make them doubt themselves.

“We need to defend really well because they have players who can score goals.

“They’re playing at home, so, in a way, it’s up to them to bring the game to us.

“Their home fans will perhaps be putting pressure on them to do that.

“We have to be solid defensively and counter-attack intelligently, and use any space they leave in behind.”