EASTER is traditionally when football sorts the men from the boys in its various promotion, relegation and title races. This year, with it falling so early in the calendar and with the Premier League choosing not to work on today’s Bank Holiday, its significance has been reduced.
But Sunderland’s win at Aston Villa had the feel of a defining point in their scrap against the drop. Forget the predictably over-hyped “Grand Slam Sunday”, this was a major Saturday for Roy Keane’s men.
A 1-0 win over a team looking hungover from an end-of-season party which could have taken place a fortnight ago did not dramatically reshape the Premier League table. But the effect on the Black Cats’ morale cannot be underestimated.
Michael Chopra’s 83rd-minute goal was hugely important, and not only because it was the striker’s first of 2008 and only his second since the opening week of the season (the other was a penalty). It was his club’s first in 458 minutes of football, sealing their first top-flight win since returning victorious from the west Midlands in January 2006. And to top it all off, it was achieved without the man some thought they could not win without, Kenwyne Jones.
When Kieran Richardson crossed from the left and Chopra slipped, Grant Leadbitter was presented with a wonderful opportunity to open the scoring. His shot went out for a throw-in. It looked like official confirmation this was not to be Sunderland’s day.
The lengthy list of missed chances had no effect on Chopra, though, when Richardson picked him out from within his own half five minutes later. The Geordie – aided and abetted by the hesitancy of Scott Carson, who seemed intent on proving why Fabio Capello has had to return to the failed David James as England’s goalkeeper – calmly lifted the ball over the Cumbrian.
The finish made Chopra look like the predator he is – sometimes – and emptied the visiting bench like the start of a good fight in an ice hockey match. At the final whistle Sunderland’s players to a man headed to the away section for scenes reminiscent of a title win, not extending the gap to the relegation zone to four points with seven games left.
The win owed plenty to Chopra’s finish and the crafty link-ups between Andy Reid and Richardson, who tossed his shirt into the throng. But it also had an awful lot to do with the away fans.
The last time they were at Villa Park, most wore fancy dress and formed conga lines through the 90 minutes, “celebrating” the end of perhaps the club’s most embarrassing season. Whereas in May 2006 many seemed blissfully unaware of what was happening on the pitch, this time they were painfully conscious of it, but no less noisy.
The tension was obvious, as was the feeling that referee Howard Webb was out to get their team. But it manifested itself in vocal encouragement, not nervy silence, and lifted those in red-and-white more effectively than anything the brooding Irishman could do from the opposite touchline.
Leadbitter’s miss was by no means Sunderland’s first. Daryl Murphy’s cross from the left was slightly behind Roy O’Donovan but not so much that it excused his failure to head it on target.
Reid’s classy pass to release Murphy deserved no less. It was the third chance O’Donovan passed up in the opening quarter, having been frustrated by Zat Knight’s block and the bobbly Villa Park pitch.
Webb failed to punish Carson for handling outside the area as he tried to recover a spilled cross, though it might have been too close for Reid to curl the free-kick in as he nearly did 10 minutes later when his low strike hit the side-netting. It was a textbook away performance, Sunderland keeping it cagey but producing regular moments of class mainly through Richardson and Reid. The latter out-Yorked Dwight Yorke in a central midfield performance which nudged the soon-to-be-out-of-contract play-maker a step closer to the exit.
Tepid though Villa were, as the game went on it looked as though they might snatch something undeserved from a long ball once Marlon Harewood was introduced. Nyron Nosworthy let the substitute get goal-side at one point, then presented him with another chance by turning into trouble after robbing John Carew. As with a later chance, Harewood shot wide.
When Craig Gordon was called upon, a minute after the goal, he saved to his right from Gabriel Agbonlohor.
In 60 seconds, Sunderland’s season seemed to have taken a turn for the better.