It is time for Sunderland to make capital in the Capital.
Gus Poyet’s message is clear, his methodology defined: he argues that the Black Cats need to shed the defeatism that may have clouded their efforts in recent years as they approach a potentially transformative seven days. That process needs to start today at the Emirates as they bid for a dream London double.
The last time a Sunderland manager talked about ‘mentality’, the word was fired with machine gun frequency and the same malevolent intent. Paolo Di Canio used it as a stick to beat a group of players and a cover for his own man-management inadequacies as he suggested that the red-and-white squad he had inherited were burdened with loser DNA.
Poyet knows that the situation is more nuanced than that. It is not just Sunderland who have headed to places like Arsenal half-expecting defeat over the last few years: it was something that used to trouble his team when he was playing for Tottenham. Successive Sunderland sides have suffered for this deficit of belief. Not since 1983 have the Black Cats gone to North London and come back with three points and it will take an almighty effort for them to do it today, in spite of the Gunners’ problems germinating after their midweek defeat to Bayern Munich. In common with plenty of other Premier League clubs outside the top six, Sunderland’s experience of winning on the turf of top-flight heavyweights is limited.
In recent years their away-day defeats of Chelsea (in the Steve Bruce era) and Everton on Boxing Day stand alone.
Indeed the last time they won at Arsenal was in 1983, on the day Tony Adams made his debut for Arsenal. Reminded of that fact, Poyet expressed mock indignation.
“Wow, Tony has already retired!” he said.
“I have been on both sides (of expecting to win and not expecting to win). I went to Old Trafford a few times with Chelsea and we did exceptionally well and I went to Old Trafford with Tottenham and we didn’t have a chance. That’s a different mentality, and I’m not blaming Tottenham.
“We couldn’t win. There was the famous goal for Pedro Mendes which didn’t count. They won once afterwards and it changed but we couldn’t and that’s a mentality. There’s players that go into a game with a certain mentality and you can win or you can lose.
“Some players go into a game with a mentality that ‘it’s impossible’. You are half beaten already if you think like that and I don’t want that. If that happens, we will throw away five games now. We’ve got Man City, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea... We have proven it already. We beat Everton but we can’t beat the teams down at the bottom. You never know.”
So far, so hopeless. Poyet, however, argues that Sunderland have to start believing in the coming weeks. That means that Arsenal have to be treated in the same way that Manchester United were in the second leg of the Capital One Cup semi-final.
Granted, that game ended up as a defeat in normal time but there was something about Sunderland’s attitude to the fixture – their bold, never-say-die spirit that permeated their performance – that has been missing in their league meetings with the big guns.
Sunderland’s game at Arsenal, according to Poyet, is an excellent dress rehearsal for the Wembley fixture. He said: “I think this is a perfect preparation for Wembley and the perfect time to play them.
“I think the pitch is similar for the players that haven’t been at Wembley. The pitch is practically similar. The opposition play similar – not exactly the same way but they pass the ball, they make the pitch big and they make you run. They play with you a little bit, they are similar teams. They are better than us according to the league positions and we need to be spot on in both games to get something.
“We can win both games. I’m not saying we will but we can. We need it to be a day when there is no deflected shot, no own goal, no sending off, no mistakes, you’re solid and you have a chance.”
It is, of course, not quite as simple as that. A possible reason for Poyet’s determination to take the Arsenal game so seriously is that his team have fallen back into trouble since their derby win.
Indeed the Black Cats have only played once in the league since their Tyne-Wear derby win – a disappointing home loss against a Hull City side that seemed there for the taking. That dumped them back into the Premier League’s bottom three, which is a position they could occupy until the middle of March if they fail to take something from Arsenal today.
If it is a question of mentality, how does residing in the bottom three while the club play two important Cup games count? And will it have a damaging effect on Sunderland’s mindset when they eventually resume league duties (nominally) on March 15 against Crystal Palace.
“It doesn’t help. I’m still believing because two months ago it looked very, very difficult. Now it’s looks difficult but after what we’ve done it would be a shame if we didn’t stay up. I wouldn’t change it for anything. We will try to win the Cup for sure.
“But I wouldn’t change this game for anything: we’re playing Arsenal, what a week we’ve got. Then the final, then a game with a chance to go to the semi-finals and Wembley again. It could be an unbelievable year – it was terrible and now it could be unbelievable!”