GUS POYET delivered a hospital pass in the direction of Phil Bardsley and Jack Colback on the eve of Sunderland’s latest tip-toe towards the Championship.
The manager’s decision to go public with the news that the out-of-contract pair will leave the Stadium of Light this summer was an odd one.
It was born of the frustration stemming from Sunderland’s impending relegation, the frustration at the squad he inherited and the frustration of having to wait to undertake the root and branch reform which is so clearly needed.
But it was hardly conducive towards either Bardsley or Colback, back in the starting XI for the first time since last month’s limp loss at Norwich, gaining any encouragement on the terraces.
With supporters understandably looking for scapegoats for Sunderland’s current plight, it could easily have turned poisonous towards the pair. That it didn’t, was a credit to the Premier League’s largest crowd of the day, who were magnificent throughout.
The impending departures of the duo didn’t stop Poyet picking them either, and it shouldn’t do. While the image of rats fleeing the sinking ship is an easy assumption to make, it’s not necessarily an accurate one.
The sticking point in Bardsley’s contract negotiations has been his desire for a longer stay, while Sunderland are paying the price for messing Colback about with their initial offer last summer.
Regardless of how little patience fans have for the current batch at the Stadium of Light, both players are making purely business decisions.
It happens. After all, the pair are likely to be playing Premier League football next season. Sunderland can’t say the same.
Certainly, the commitment of Bardsley and Colback could not be questioned on Saturday.
Bardsley defended well, particularly in preventing Leighton Baines offering an overlap down the left flank, while he also offered effective support going forwards in support of Adam Johnson.
Colback, meanwhile, was ceaseless in his pressing, nipping away at the ankles of Everton’s midfield and restricting the space for the Toffees to play the one and two-touch passing which has seen them leapfrog Arsenal in the race for the Champions League places.
As the most advanced of the midfield trio, Colback struggled to be an effective attacking foil for Connor Wickham, yet that is the challenge for whoever oversees the next stage in the academy product’s career. That could, of course, be Roberto Martinez, with the Everton manager among the 24-year-old’s admirers.
The hunger demonstrated by Bardsley and Colback was reflected in the whole team, as Sunderland produced their most convincing display since the Capital One Cup final.
Ki Sung-Yueng and particularly Lee Cattermole controlled proceedings in midfield as the game wore on and mopped up the 50-50s.
As a bare minimum, Sunderland deserved a share of the spoils against an Everton side, who were relatively subdued considering they had enjoyed five previous wins on the spin.
Yes, Steven Naismith spurned a couple of glorious opportunities, yet it was only really the exceptional Gerard Deulofeu who notably worried Sunderland – the on-loan Barcelona winger twice skinning Marcos Alonso before making it third time lucky as his cross cannoned in off the unfortunate Wes Brown for the visitors’ 75th-minute winner.
Sunderland’s dogged determination to maintain the fight for survival – however unlikely that seems – was admirable.
Other than a handful of occasions – most notably, and fatally, at Norwich three weeks ago – that has generally been the case under Poyet.
That’s not the problem.
It’s that extra bit of quality in the final third to convert pressure into goals. It’s just not present in this squad.
Perhaps Poyet should have looked at alternative strikers in the January transfer window, rather than splashing out £4million on an out-of-condition Nacho Scocco.
But Sunderland’s lack of finesse in the final third is a long-term problem; it stretches right back to Steve Bruce’s striking options of Darren Bent, Danny Welbeck and Asamoah Gyan being decimated.
The old adage of strikers winning games still apply.
That is the difference between teams in a distinctly average bottom half of the table – in fact any side outside the Premier League’s top eight. Just look at how Newcastle have fared this season when Loic Remy has been missing.
Reverting to 4-1-4-1 certainly helped Sunderland’s attacking purpose, despite Poyet bizarrely insisting before the game – and again in his programme notes – that the players were enjoying the 5-3-2 system.
The 4-1-4-1 has always seemed the best fit this season. After several weeks of surprise selections and formations, this was about as good a side that Poyet could put out.
Using Wickham as the battering ram in that system worked well too.
The 21-year-old is clearly still developing and his touch occasionally lets him down, but he is an awkward customer for defenders.
He gave Sunderland an attacking platform with his muscle and never let Everton’s centre-halves enjoy an easy ride. Both Steven Fletcher and Jozy Altidore have struggled to always say the same this season.
The one aspect which let Wickham down was his inability to gamble on any loose ricochets or Tim Howard spilling the ball – which the Everton keeper did on a couple of occasions.
Whether Wickham can learn that striker’s instinct is open to conjecture. Old pros would argue it’s a natural trait.
But Saturday was only Wickham’s 12th Premier League start.
Poyet will hope the England Under-21 striker can develop through greater opportunities and be Sunderland’s trump card in the Championship.
Perhaps a little fortune wouldn’t have gone amiss for Sunderland in the penalty area after Everton scrambled several balls away off the line, including a superb last-gasp interception from John Stones after Fabio Borini had rounded Howard.
Yet Poyet was right in his post-match comments that luck alone is not responsible for Sunderland suffering this scenario time and again this season – play well, fail to score and get hit by a freak goal at the other end.
His subsequent suggestion that an underlying factor at the club was to blame was more intriguing.
Poyet is right. Long-term mismanagement has been at the heart of Sunderland’s fall from grace and a losing mentality has developed. It was a problem immediately seized upon by Paolo Di Canio.
But to air it after a far more positive showing from the Black Cats, shows Poyet realises the magnitude of the job in turning this club around.