Chris Young’s big-match verdict: Poyet and players deserve huge credit for Sunderland’s incredible feat

Sunderland celebrate at the end of the match
Sunderland celebrate at the end of the match
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THE GREAT, good and indifferent members of the dug-out union will button up their dickie bows on Sunday night for the League Managers Association’s annual shindig.

The favourites for the Manager of the Year accolade have been well-touted – Brendan Rodgers, Manuel Pellegrini and Tony Pulis.

All have their respective merits, but surely now Gus Poyet must come under consideration for that accolade too.

It’s impossible to over-state how big of an achievement it is to keep Sunderland in the Premier League, particularly with a game to go and the possibility of rising as high as 12th.

Sunderland were in a shambolic state when Poyet took charge last October. That’s no exaggeration.

One point on the board.

A squad composed of dubious new signings.

And team spirit which was “beyond dead”, as Phil Bardsley put it earlier this season, following the iron-fisted rule of Paolo Di Canio.

There was no clear strategy, little hope and only one way this club were heading – downwards... and at some speed.

Perhaps it was inevitable that Sunderland would receive a bounce from appointing a new manager though. What was the real test of Poyet’s mettle was when the forward momentum stopped.

It was halted abruptly after March’s Capital One Cup final.

Players looked to have downed tools and barely a soul believed Sunderland would survive when they were seven points adrift of safety with six games to play – three of which were at Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea.

Sunderland’s chances of becoming only the second side in Premier League history to avoid relegation after being bottom at Christmas looked next to nil.

The inquests were already beginning – inside and outside of the club – into what had gone wrong and what would change in the Championship.

By necessity, new technical director Lee Congerton was facing a baptism of fire by compiling lists of possible transfer targets for the second tier.

But after a dejected Poyet claimed it would take a “miracle” to beat the drop, following a thoroughly dispiriting 5-1 rout at Spurs last month, he has indeed overseen one.

The sight of the Uruguayan punching the air and conducting the orchestra of supporters after the conclusion of last night’s 2-0 win over West Brom, showed a man who was almost pinching himself at the magnitude of his achievement.

These players must take just as much credit as the manager for this extraordinary turnaround though, after Sunderland registered four successive top-flight victories for the first time since the winter of 2000.

No-one would have been taken aback had Sunderland rolled out the flags of surrender.

The place was so dispirited that it seemed almost inevitable.

The theories will abound on what prompted such a dramatic change.

Was it players grasping how dire the situation was?

Was it the lack of expectation and pressure which accompanied trips to Man City and Chelsea?

Was it players looking to impress to secure a move elsewhere?

Was it Poyet’s philosophy clicking?

Or was it simply the introduction of a goal threat up front in the shape of Connor Wickham?

Regardless of what has re-ignited Poyet’s side, something has unquestionably changed in these players over the last three weeks.

There has been a dogged determination which wasn’t previously apparent, other than on a one-off basis.

There has also been a fair share of quality, particularly as confidence has flown through the players as the wins have racked up.

That was evident in the first half last night, as Sunderland utterly dominated a horribly lacklustre West Brom side, who clearly had half an eye on the beach after Norwich’s failure to beat Chelsea secured their survival last weekend.

Sunderland were first to every ball, dominated midfield through an extra man in the middle of the park and kept possession effortlessly.

The Baggies didn’t help themselves by their lacklustre pressing or the vulnerability of their defence. In truth, Sunderland could not have hand-picked better opponents to get their noses over the line.

But the Wearsiders made their pressure count by scoring at the crucial moments.

Jack Colback’s stabbed shot gave the Black Cats the early goal which they were desperate for, while it was a sublime conversion from Fabio Borini to Seb Larsson’s mouthwatering pass to give Sunderland that comfortable two-goal cushion.

But while Colback and Borini took the headlines, Lee Cattermole was Sunderland’s chief conductor.

The ankle injury which forced Cattermole off in the dying stages is likely to keep him out of Sunday’s final-day visit of Swansea, yet the Teessider thoroughly deserved the standing ovation he received as he made his way to the touchline.

The midfielder has personified the greater determination in Sunderland’s ranks over the last three weeks.

Last night, he was wonderful – winning the 50-50s and spreading the ball around in a manner which has owed much to Poyet’s influence.

The manner in which he charged backwards before executing a perfect slide tackle on Stephane Sessegnon in the first half perfectly demonstrated Cattermole’s hunger.

Sunderland’s dominance over the middle of the park was tempered at the start of the second half after Baggies boss Pepe Mel introduced Youssouf Mulumbu as an extra man in midfield; ensuring the visitors were no longer outnumbered in the engine room.

West Brom pressed Sunderland far better and enjoyed a 10-minute spell where they looked marginally improved.

The introduction of Liam Bridcutt into midfield, with Colback moving to the flank, returned that element of control to Sunderland though.

They could – and should – have added to their advantage, with Santiago Vergini and particularly Jozy Altidore spurning glorious opportunities.

The extra goal wasn’t needed though.

As the game drifted away to its conclusion, the Baggies’ resistance faded to nothing and those on the terraces were able to revel in a party atmosphere.

The celebrations then shifted up a gear at the final whistle, with Poyet relishing the sense of occasion as he repeatedly punched the air and directed those in utter ecstasy.

He made a point of ensuring his players stayed on the pitch to experience the sense of occasion too.

The Uruguayan was quite right to.

The contract talks, new signings and offloading the deadwood now come to the top of the agenda and CANNOT be swept away.

But for the moment, Wearside can celebrate and revel in this greatest of escapes.

Poyet and his players thoroughly deserve to too.

Twitter @youngsunecho