Chris Young: Sam Allardyce reaping the rewards of a fully fit Sunderland side

Younes Kaboul
Younes Kaboul
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Amidst the raffle prizes at the North East Football Writers’ annual awards on Sunday night, was a signed copy of Sam Allardyce’s autobiography.

Who was fortunate enough to win it? You guessed it, Big Sam himself.

Duncan Watmore

Duncan Watmore

Mercifully, one very generous Sunderland fan shelled out £200 to the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation to take Sam’s book off his own hands in the impromptu auction which followed.

But it was symbolic of the run of good fortune Allardyce is enjoying in these formative days of his Sunderland tenure that’s he even triumphing with raffle prizes.

Other than Martin Atkinson’s failure to penalise a foul on Costel Pantilimon in Allardyce’s opening game in charge, the 61-year-old has got the breaks for a team which desperately needed them.

The dismissals against both Newcastle and Stoke could easily have been waved away by other referees, while the visitors benefited from a Sunderland-esque calamitous mix-up in the win at Crystal Palace last week.

Sam Allardyce

Sam Allardyce

It’s far from a matter of pure luck which has seen Sunderland win in those three games.

Hard work, much-improved organisation and a determination from Sunderland players have been the integral factors behind the Black Cats moving out of the relegation zone.

But a slice of good fortune is still a key factor to beat the drop, particularly when there is so little between a dozen or so sides in the Premier League.

Crucially though, is Allardyce benefiting from the rub of the green in the conditioning of Sunderland’s players? Is he benefiting from a fitness boost which completely hamstrung Dick Advocaat efforts?

Think back to the Autumn and Advocaat made Sunderland’s plight crystal clear.

His publicised priority was for Sunderland to avoid being cast adrift of their relegation rivals by December.

By that time, those rusty players who signed during the summer would have rediscovered their match sharpness and give Sunderland the chance to seal their Premier League status by the second half of the season.

It was hardly optimistic stuff, yet Sunderland were clearly nowhere near ‘properly’ fit in those opening few months.

There were several reasons behind that.

The trans-Atlantic demands of pre-season left players severely under-cooked when the Premier League got underway - noticeably so in those harrowing first two games against Leicester and Norwich.

And far too many of the summer signings arrived on Wearside at the end of pre-season having been ostracised or used minimally by their former clubs last season.

Games were the only cure to that inactivity.

For instance, just look at the transformation of Younes Kaboul over recent weeks after the Frenchman made just two FA Cup appearances for Spurs in the second half of last season.

In his opening Sunderland games, Kaboul was a liability; his performances littered with mistakes. Now he looks a commanding, confident centre-half.

Fellow new boy Fabio Borini is yet to really undergo that same transformation and get himself properly up to speed.

Is it acceptable that a Premier League outfit is not at peak condition for the first two to three months of the campaign?

In this era of such heavy emphasis on sports science, the simple answer is ‘no’, even if there were mitigating factors for Sunderland.

Upon taking charge at the start of October though, Allardyce’s bid to launch Sunderland’s resurgence was unquestionably helped by players being closer to reaching those fitness requirements.

Even then, Allardyce felt the output from some players was “below average”.

That’s one of the benefits stemming from Allardyce and performance director Mark Taylor’s use of statistical analysis. Anyone not covering sufficient ground has no hiding place.

Sunderland have been pro-actively working on their fitness levels since Allardyce took charge and the proof of that is in the pudding - three goals in the last two games arriving in the last 10 minutes.

It’s Allardyce’s training ground regime which has produced that upturn, rather than mere luck.

But inheriting fitter players partway through the season has allowed Allardyce the chance to spark a turnaround. Advocaat never had that platform.

Advocaat confidently predicted that if Sunderland were still in contention by the start of December, then they’d be okay.

Perhaps the Dutchman will be proved right on that score. Perhaps these players are only now beginning to show their worth.