STAND, or fall. While some supporters at the Stadium of Light on Saturday opted for the former, thus defying house rules and risking suspension of their season ticket, and Gareth Bale found himself accused, again, of the latter, Sunderland somehow managed to, in a manner of speaking, do both.
So though no one told the club DJ – who played ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’; well, it gets earlier every year, doesn’t it – defeat to Tottenham means the Black Cats’ happy Christmas may be over.
But there was and is no shame in that.
After two wins in 15 Premier League games, three from their previous four, not to mention as many clean sheets and further proof of possession of the Indian sign over Manchester City, had restored rude health to Wearside.
Festive spirit, if you like.
Losing to a fine Spurs side has not evaporated the wellbeing.
John O’Shea’s first goal for the club did, admittedly, arrive contrary to the flow of play.
The visitors could and should and, but for Simon Mignolet, would have scored more than the two inside four minutes they did manage.
And while they gave it a good go late on – as they had at Carrow Road and Old Trafford – Martin O’Neill’s men lack, by his own admission, the quality and cutting edge to make good on that go.
The January sales ought to help solve that glaring omission.
And the momentum stirred by victories over Reading, Southampton and City should not be unduly checked by submission to Spurs.
Not that you’d have known it at Saturday’s outset.
Whether it was the effects of an early, televised kick-off, the vegetarian breakfast option – OK, accompanied by bacon, sausage and chips – or a minute’s silence to mark the passing throughout 2012 of those close to the club, the sense during the opening exchanges was one of flatness. And some say standing makes for a better atmosphere.
Fortunately, for sitters and standers alike, events eventually perked up. Unfortunately for Sunderland, Tottenham were the perkier of the combatants.
On 20 minutes, Mignolet clasped a Sandro shot at the second attempt and five minutes later denied Emmanuel Adebayor from a narrowing angle after James McClean, displaying an ongoing propensity for naive decision-making, lost possession attempting to counter attack from deep whilst engulfed by opponents.
Before the half-hour mark Bale headed Aaron Lennon’s cross off target, and just after it Jermain Defoe teased a curling effort goalwards, Carlos Cuellar nudged the ball on and Adebayor crashed it against the crossbar.
If Sunderland were not quite hanging on, Spurs certainly seemed to be turning the screw.
Indeed, sitting deeper and in increasing numbers defensively, the hosts’ only gambit appeared to be brief retrieval of possession before missing out midfield and hoping an isolated Steven Fletcher might retain it long enough for the cavalry to emerge over the horizon.
He couldn’t, and they did not, so neither swift breaks nor gradual construction were possible. Only set-pieces remained, and a good job too.
After Cuellar headed Adam Johnson’s free-kick onto the roof of the net, Kyle Walker’s 40th-minute foul on Stéphane Sessègnon allowed Sebastian Larsson to try his luck. O’Shea helped his dead ball on, Fletcher’s close-range stab at goal was well stopped by Hugo Lloris but O’Shea remained on hand to slot in the follow-up. Almost out of nothing, Sunderland’s seasonal good fortunes lived on. Now, could they deliver another shut-out? Er, no.
Following half-time soup – vegetarian, what’s happening to me? – and some Press Room panto banter featuring vice-chairman David Miliband’s modest assessment of the Customs House’s “truly brilliant” Dick Whittington, Tottenham took centre stage, and stole the show.
Seconds after he was booked, Cuellar headed Walker’s 48th-minute corner past his own goalkeeper, and three minutes later Lennon took advantage of a fortuitous ricochet off Matthew Kilgallon, skipped round O’Shea and slipped the ball beyond Mignolet.
To Sunderland’s credit, however, recently recovered confidence ensured capitulation was avoided. Johnson attempted a repeat of his sneaky City winner, and after Mignolet saved splendidly at point-blank range from Defoe, a huge let-off, O’Neill showed his hand with a tactical switch – the upshot of which saw Fraizer Campbell then Connor Wickham introduced – designed to go for it before it was gone.
The result? Successive Larsson free-kicks and another by Johnson were punched clear by Lloris and, later, Michael Dawson cleared Johnson’s cross with Fletcher poised to convert, Cuellar fired well wide and, desperation spiraling, Sunderland appealed for a penalty when Sandro stood accused of handball.
But while the home side were exerting increasing pressure they lacked the ingenuity to make it pay.
Without a key, they were knocking at the door, but all too gently. Thus, back came Spurs. Steven Caulker, Adebayor and Bale – “He looks like a chimp,” they sang – were denied by Mignolet.
Then on 81 minutes, Bale ran hard at Craig Gardner who, in the area, nudged a knee into the back of the Welshman’s. Down went Chimpy, obviously.
Up went Martin Atkinson’s yellow card, Bale’s third in five games for diving. Now call that a theme, he has previous but may be a victim of reputation.
There is room to manoeuvre this debate to the balance of momentum versus pre-meditation.
Yet on this occasion, contact and velocity were such that Bale might boast justification in a sense of bewilderment. Either way, there was no penalty.
Fallen, Sunderland had already paid theirs.
They are, however, still standing.