AFTER back-to-back wins – unthinkable a few weeks ago – Sunderland suddenly look capable of saving their Premier League status once again.
Indeed, the current Premier League table and the final-day fixtures on the horizon have a familiar feel to them.
On the final day of the season in 2008/09, Sunderland, Newcastle United and Hull City were left to duke it out in an attempt to avoid the filling third and final relegation spot. Sunderland faced Chelsea at home, Hull took on Manchester United at the KC Stadium, while Newcastle travelled to Villa Park.
On a memorable afternoon for Sunderland and Hull supporters, all three teams lost and Newcastle United dropped to the Championship.
Phil Brown sang on the pitch after his side lost 1-0 to the champions, leaving the football world to watch and cringe, while Newcastle fans embarrassed themselves with an array of bed sheets and banners proclaiming their doom. We celebrated a defeat as if we’d just won the league.
This time around, Dick Advocaat takes his squad to Chelsea, while once again Hull face Manchester United on home soil. Newcastle, meanwhile, who only just managed to halt a run of eight straight defeats by drawing with West Brom at the weekend, take on a West Ham United side with nothing to play for.
However, Hammers boss Sam Allardyce – who way well leave East London this summer – would undoubtedly love to exit with a bang, sticking the boot into a club who unceremoniously pushed him out of the door in 2008.
The picture may, of course, be very different by the time this round of fixtures is played. There’s still a weekend of football to come, plus Sunderland’s game in hand, albeit away to Arsenal.
Sunderland and Newcastle could effectively relegate Hull by winning against Leicester City and Queens Park Rangers this coming Saturday, should the Tigers fail to win away at Tottenham Hotspur.
Things rarely work out that simply, as highlighted particularly by Leicester’s current run of form, which brings them to the brink of securing a second successive season of top-flight football; unthinkable a month or two ago.
The fixture list and current table is an interesting quirk nonetheless, more so for Sunderland and Newcastle than Hull, regardless of who eventually succumbs to the drop.
Sunderland have, if anything, declined since the days of Ricky Sbragia. A couple of decent seasons under Steve Bruce aside – they feel like halcyon days with hindsight – it’s been a constant battle against the drop.
Newcastle, meanwhile, after returning to the top flight the season following relegation, have been unable and arguably unwilling to try and build anything substantial on the pitch, despite making profits off it.
Steve Bruce is another intriguing element in this season’s race to beat the drop, given that he was “hounded out” of Sunderland (he wasn’t) because of those “Geordie roots” (he was born in Corbridge) he’s so obsessed with.
Given his preoccupation with the time he spent on Wearside and, more pertinently, his removal from the Stadium of Light, I’m sure he’d love nothing more than to relegate his former employers. Similarly, I’m sure we’d find time to celebrate a Steve Bruce flop almost as much as a Newcastle collapse.
Football has a funny habit of throwing these scenarios up and it’s easy to forget another side relegated in 2009 was Middlesbrough, who, after winning the first leg of their promotion play-off semi final, have a great chance of finally returning to the Premier League.
While there is coincidence involved in the fixtures, and the way the season has panned out, Sunderland’s position, the one we’re most concerned about, is very much not.
It’s also something that must be addressed this summer, finally, regardless of which division the club finds itself.
If Middlesbrough do return to the top flight, it will be with a solid base and a plan.
It’s taken them sometime to get there, but they look a settled, well-run outfit.
Sunderland have changed to stay the same during the same period of time and now must follow suit, otherwise we’ll be looking at the same situation, if not worse, in another six years.
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