Soccer Saturday host Jeff Stelling believes the battle for Premier League survival is going right down to the wire.
Hartlepool United-mad Stelling has a passion for all things blue and white but he “desperately” hopes the Black Cats can pull off another great escape for the good of the North East.
Richard Mennear caught up with Hartlepool-born Stelling to discuss the relegation picture, the brilliance of Jermain Defoe and why keeping Sunderland up would be one of David Moyes’ greatest achievements.
Every Saturday afternoon, Jeff Stelling brings football fans every kick, cough and splutter from matches across the UK.
Flanked by Matt Le Tissier, Paul Merson, Phil Thompson and Charlie Nicholas, Stelling’s passion for the game shines through in his own humorous style.
He is well placed to offer his expert opinion on the Premier League relegation battle and Sunderland’s chances of survival.
On that score, Stelling believes Sunderland are in a strong position to escape the drop for three key reasons; Jermain Defoe, Jordan Pickford and manager David Moyes.
With just five points separating Sunderland and Swansea City in 15th, Stelling expects the relegation scrap to go to the wire.
“I see the relegation battle going all the way,” said Stelling.
“All of the sides at the bottom are capable of the occasional fantastic result, but doing that on a consistent basis is the issue.
“Swansea have done that over the past few weeks and now have daylight between themselves and others.
“It is what Sunderland have done season after season. Can they do it again this season? They have a better than decent chance.
“There is no sign yet of a Crystal Palace revival, Leicester City are in a downward spiral which is very hard to pull out of and I think they will both be in trouble at the end of the season, which would leave one place to fill.”
Sunderland’s chances of climbing out of the bottom three rely heavily on the shoulders of 14-goal top scorer Defoe and the evergreen 34-year-old has won praise from Stelling.
“Jermain Defoe is an example to every other footballer,” added Stelling.
“He keeps himself fantastically fit, is a brilliant ambassador, a great goalscorer and when he looks back on his career he will say he made the absolute best of his ability.
“From a Sunderland perspective, they have a goalscorer.
“Compared to the teams around them, Middlesbrough are solid at the back but can’t put the ball in the back of the net regularly, that leaves them very vulnerable.
“Hull don’t have a goalscorer, Leicester haven’t, Bournemouth are sliding into it and they don’t have a goalscorer.
“The only team down at the bottom who have a lethal finisher is Sunderland. The problem would be if he gets injured.”
With Defoe banging the goals in at one end, Sunderland have been boosted by the return to full training of Jordan Pickford at the other.
The England Under-21 international is expected to return against Everton on Saturday after recovering from a knee injury sustained at Old Trafford in December.
Stelling added: “You can’t help but be impressed by him – he is brilliant.
“I remember after the Southampton game earlier in the season when he came in [for the injured Vito Mannone] and made a mistake and David Moyes said you sometimes get that with an inexperienced goalkeeper. I thought the writing was on the wall for him.
“I thought Moyes may want a more experienced goalkeeper, but then he made himself undroppable.
“He has just been brilliant. I have a friend who is a Preston North End fan and they thought he was fantastic on loan there and he has proved it at Sunderland.
“Goalkeepers don’t reach their peak until their early 30s either, so God knows how good he will be then!”
His return provides manager Moyes with a much-needed boost given the chronic injury problems suffered this season.
The Scot has endured a difficult time since taking charge, with Sunderland going 10 games without a league win at the start of the season, coupled with the injury problems and financial situation limiting the transfer business.
But Stelling is a huge fan of ex-Everton and Manchester United boss Moyes and he believes keeping Sunderland up would be one of his greatest achievements in management.
“David Moyes did brilliantly at Everton, he built a team that got into Europe eventually,” added Stelling.
“I think this would be right up there with any of his other achievements.
“He has been fighting with one hand firmly behind his back in terms of bringing players in.
“In the summer there was little movement until late in the window, partly down to Moyes coming in late.
“In January, they sold Patrick van Aanholt to allow him to bring in a couple more but haven’t done the same level of business as Crystal Palace did, for example.
“The injuries they have had too, long-term injuries to the likes of Lee Cattermole makes it very difficult.
“You need someone like Cattermole when you are battling relegation, you need players like him.
“If Moyes does manage to keep Sunderland up then it will be a fantastic achievement, but I wouldn’t be surprised because he is a good manager.
“I genuinely believe that and from a Sunderland perspective I desperately hope they stay up, it would be great to have three North East teams in the Premier League.”