SUNDERLAND have made a habit of shredding the nerves of their supporters over recent years.
For the third season in a row, the Black Cats are about to enter April with their Premier League future still up in the air.
My feeling is the same as it has been every season for a few years: I’m nervous and have got no fingernails left!Gary Bennett
While Paolo Di Canio and Gus Poyet both did enough to galvanise their troops across the line, now the task is trusted to the vastly-experienced Dick Advocaat, who has eight games left to save his new side.
It’s an all too familiar scenario, and one that Sunderland legend Gary Bennett has admitted has again left him with no fingernails.
Bennett still kicks every ball from his vantage point as a commentator for BBC Radio Newcastle, and is ready to again go through the full range of emotions over the coming weeks.
The former defender, who made 443 appearances for the Black Cats in his playing days, feels Sunderland have been “getting away with it” over recent weeks, with three of their relegation rivals still unable to clamber above them.
However, with the Wearside club just a point and a place above third-bottom Burnley heading into next Sunday’s crunch derby against Newcastle United at the Stadium of Light, followed by another home game against Crystal Palace, Bennett says Sunderland need to take control of the situation.
They can not afford to rely on other teams failing for any longer.
He told the Echo: “My feeling is the same as it has been every season for a few years: I’m nervous and have got no fingernails left!
“The next eight games have got so much riding on them.
“It’s typical Sunderland to keep everyone so nervous until the very end.
“The next two games are certainly winnable, and an opportunity for Sunderland to move away from the bottom three, but we’ve been talking about these kind of games for weeks now, and about how important it is to turn draws into wins, and they haven’t been doing it.
“We’ve been getting away with it, and the results have been going our way elsewhere, but we can’t keep relying on that and can’t just keep drawing games. We need wins.”
Sunderland will be hoping to make it a remarkable five wins in a row against their fierce rivals in the Easter Sunday derby.
Bennett feels the result could prove crucial to the Black Cats’ chances of avoiding relegation, as they look for the “kick” needed to stay above the drop zone.
He added: “The Newcastle game is going to be very important.
“If Sunderland get a win, all of a sudden there will be an extra three points on the board.
“Also, the confidence you get from winning a derby should give you a bit of a kick.
“There’s always pressure going into derby games, no matter what. They always have that edge.
“Everybody wants to come out on top, and form goes out of the window.”
On paper, Newcastle are the ideal next opponents for Sunderland.
As well as their recent wretched record in the fixture, Newcastle have won just twice in the 12 games John Carver has taken charge of since taking over from Alan Pardew.
They will go into the game at the Stadium of Light without suspended captain Fabricio Coloccini and top scorer Papiss Cisse, as well as a host of other players, including Steven Taylor, Cheik Tiote, Siem de Jong, Massadio Haidara and Paul Dummett.
Bennett is wary of predicting another Sunderland success against Newcastle, though, particularly after the Magpies pushed Arsenal all the way last week after falling 2-0 behind, eventually losing 2-1.
He added: “Sunderland will gain confidence from winning four derbies in a row, but on the other hand, you think you can’t keep winning them.
“Newcastle will desperately want to make sure it doesn’t become five in a row, so it’s going to be as hotly contested as ever.
“Newcastle haven’t picked up too many points recently, but last week they showed they can still be dangerous.
“They were supposed to be down to the bare bones against Arsenal, and they performed well in the second half.
“On their second half performance, they probably deserved something out of the game. It’s going to be down to the players to produce the goods, and it’s up to Sunderland to take the initiative.
“If they can get the win, it could prove vital, because I think if Sunderland can string two wins and a draw together, they’ll stay up.”