Phil Bardsley says Gustavo Poyet has made his Sunderland players believe they can escape relegation. The next step is replicating that confidence in front of goal at the Stadium of Light.
The Black Cats are level on points at the bottom of the Premier League but have only suffered one defeat in their last nine matches and will defend a 2-1 first-leg lead in the League Cup semi-final. Victory at home to Southampton on Saturday will move them up to 15th in the Premier League.
Last week’s 4-1 win at Fulham was the first this season over a relegation rival. But Bardsley believes their fortunes changed much earlier.
“It was a great buzz in the dressing room,” Bardsley reflected. “We’ve felt like that for the last three or four weeks but some of the results have not gone the way we’ve wanted.”
Bardsley says Sunderland felt they would escape relegation as soon as Poyet took over as coach, in October.
“The belief’s been there every game with him, with his philosophy and the way he plays,” he said.
“We probably should have won the Norwich game, and at Villa. For the first 25 minutes at home to Villa I wouldn’t say they didn’t have a touch but their keeper kept getting the ball, kicking it to our keeper and we kept attacking them but we gave a little daft goal away.”
Winning Saturday’s early kick-off would lift the Black Cats out of the relegation zone.
“That’s massive,” Bardsley conceded. “We look at the results when we come off the pitch –everyone does, it’s a natural instinct – but we need to focus on ourselves and win as many games as possible.”
Bardsley was made an outcast by previous coach Paolo Di Canio, whose attempts to sell him were frustrated by a foot broken in pre-season. The pair fell out when Bardsley was photographed on a casino floor covered in money, and the defender later mocked his team’s opening defeat of the season on Instagram.
But the Uruguayan brought Bardsley back into the side as soon as he was appointed.
“It’s been like it has been for the last six or seven years I’ve been here,” Bardsley said of life under Poyet. “I’ve just tried to enjoy my football and let that do the talking. It helps if you’ve got a good manager, doesn’t it?
“He’s brilliant. He’s a really nice guy, a genuine guy. He’s a proper football person trying to get the best out of the lads and I think the lads are buying into that. It shows in our performances on the pitch.
“When he came in we had a point on the board. Since then we’ve had 16 and it should be more really – if we’d put our chances away we could probably be 10th now.”
In contrast to their cup form, Sunderland have scored three times in their last four home league matches, but Bardsley believes that will soon change.
“At home you have to put a little bit more in,” he argued. “It’s like at Fulham – they came at us, we sat back and hit them on the counter-attack,
“If we can just be a little bit cuter at home and put away our chances we’ll be okay. Everyone gets a little bit anxious in front of goal when we’ve not scored.
“People try shooting from everywhere and making wrong decisions sometimes. But if we keep plugging away and creating chances we’re going to start scoring.”