Never a dull moment at Sunderland in 2016
Call Sunderland what you like. Many do. They might be poor attackers and generous opponents, but there's never a dull moment at the Stadium of Light.
Sunderland are ending 2016 just as they began it, firmly entrenched in a relegation scrap.
For the umpteenth season on the bounce, simply staying up is the ultimate goal.
And should they achieve that brace yourself for David Moyes dancing and singing his way around the ground on May 13 against Swansea.
Remember where you read it first. But that is May 2017, first hold onto your hats and ‘enjoy’ a roller coaster ride through this year. Make sure the lap-bar is down. Now read on ...
Sunderland went into 2016 in dire straits, having lost five in a row in December to be eight points shy of safety.
January was to prove a turning point, on and off the pitch. Aston Villa, who had applied the death knell to Gus Poyet’s reign on Wearside, threatened to be unwelcome first-foots at Stadium of Light but two late Jermain Defoe goals set up a 3-1 win.
Defoe’s hat-trick in a 4-2 Monday night win at Swansea narrowed the gap further but January heralded Sunderland’s link up with the KKK.
Don’t get touchy about the use of that letter, the KKK in question is Khazri, Kirchhoff and Kone.
Transfer fees are rarely publicised these days but Wahbi Khazri, Jan Kirchhoff and Lamine Koné are understood to have cost a combined total of more than £13 million. The trio subsequently paid that back many times over.
They were first seen together in a 1-0 home defeat to Man City at the start of February in what Sam Allardyce described as the “best performance since I’ve been here”.
The Black Cats, who had conceded more goals than anyone in the top flight had some steel with ‘made in Ivory Coast’ stamped on it in the form of Koné, German midfield efficiency in Kirchhoff and a bit of quality in the Tunisian, Khazri.
With new blood came new hope, and Sunderland came from two down to draw 2-2 at Liverpool, Adam Johnson scoring his final Black Cats goal – and you suspect his last professional goal – before Defoe, who else, equalised.
Better was to follow as Man United were beaten and a run of four draws, including a 1-1 at Newcastle was proof they were now hard to beat and even if they were not winning, these single points would add up, Kone a colossal figure at the back alongside another K, Younes Kaboul.
Indeed, Sunderland had closed to within four points of safety when they visited Norwich City in mid-April for a 17th v 18th contest.
It wasn’t quite a case of winner stays up but had the hosts won, they would have been seven points clear with only five games left.
However, the Cats gobbled up the Canaries 3-0 though Fabio Borini, Defoe and Duncan Watmore.
“A massive result” cood Big Sam. It kicked off a six-match unbeaten end to the season, with a 0-0 draw to Arsenal followed by a last-gasp 1-1 at Stoke, where Defoe won and converted a penalty.
Sunderland were still in the drop zone but how that changed in a breathtaking five-day period on Wearside.
Chelsea led twice at the Stadium of Light but the Black Cats fought back to win 3-2 through Khazri, Borini and Defoe. And the ground was rocking again in midweek when Kone was on target in a 3-0 romp over Everton.
Sunderland were safe and bitter rivals Newcastle were down, which led to scenes of great fervour, with Allardyce celebrating.
After all the elation came the optimism, all and sundry delivering ‘this will never happen again’ vows.
‘But we are back there again’ I can hear you say.
That is true and for that, blame Roy Hodgson. The England coach fell on his sword after the Three Lions skulked out of Euro 2016 like pussycats.
Big Sam was named England boss on July 22, throwing Sunderland’s Premier preparations into disarray. Within 24 hours, Ellis Short installed a boss he had wanted for some time, David Moyes.
But the Scot had 20 days to get Sunderland ready for the league programme. Could it be done? Alas, and not surprisingly, no was the answer.
Either before August, or by the end of it, the Black Cats had said farewell to Johnson, Kaboul, Jeremain Lens, Yann M’Vila and DeAndre Yedlin, all players who had made sizeable contributions to the safety battle and Seb Larsson needed knee surgery.
Moyes rattled through the football equivalent of late-night shopping with a number of late buys and loan deals, spending £20-odd million on Didier Ndong and Papy Djilobodji, and a combined £5.5 million on Donald Love and Paddy McNair, while bringing in Adnan Januzaj and Jason Denayer on season-long agreements from the Manchester clubs.
Given the out and in activity, a difficult start appeared inevitable.
Sunderland had one point at the conclusion of August and the same total at the close of September. Of course, it was still early days, but a dire ‘effort’ at Stoke had the alarm bells ringing and when they conceded a last-kick-of-the-game winner at West Ham.
The only silver lining to what had been a dark cloud was the incredible form of two men – Defoe up top and Jordan Pickford in nets.
Home-grown Pickford was only in the side after an injury to Vito Mannone but he would soon make the No 1 spot his.
October ended with a late collapse to Arsenal and with only two points on the board after 10 matches you did not need to be Rachel Riley to work out that multiplied over the season represented relegation with a record points low.
But the Black Cats have made a habit of turning around their fortunes after the clocks go back and this season was no different.
And the catalyst was a man who was unemployed at the start of the season – Victor Anichebe. His fitness and goal-scoring records were hardly encouraging but what a piece of business by Moyes.
He scored on his first Premier start at Bournemouth where he was brought down for Defoe’s match-winning penalty.
Big Vic inspired the Cats again with a double in the first home win seven days later, 3-0 against Hull.
Soon it was three wins out of four, the powerhouse Scouser man of the match in an exciting 2-1 win over champions Leicester, Defoe revelling in the big fella’s presence with his eighth goal of the season. Sunderland were suddenly third bottom AND a point from safety.
But – there is always a but where the red and whites are concerned – a week later they were back on the basement after conceding three second-half goals at whipping boyos, Swansea.
It was to be a blip as a defeat to title challengers Chelsea provided proof the spirit was there. They proved it in the must-win match against Watford – Patrick van Aanholt’s goal and some great work by Pickford taking them off the bottom.
It was not all good news in December as injuries mounted with Watmore and McNair out for the season and Steven Pienaar, Billy Jones and Kirchhoff crocked, while chief executive Martin Bain admitted there would be no cash to splash in January.
But there is hope. Twelve months ago today, Sunderland were 19th on 12 points going into the Boxing Day game, five points from safety. They finished 17th on 39 points and a repeat would have the fans dancing in the streets - and even a jig from Moyes?!