A REARRANGED relegation battle played out on a cold December evening may just turn out to be the most vital game of Sunderland's season.
WITH the best will in the world, Tuesday evening at the Stadium of Light was not a game that jumped out of the fixture list at you.
Third-bottom Sunderland, with two league wins to their name all season, took on Reading, the team directly below them in the table, who could boast a record of just a single victory.
Neither side had played at all well up to that point and both managers, Martin O’Neill and Brian McDermott, had spoken in recent times about being in a relegation battle.
And it was really, really cold. Unless you were a supporter of either club, it’s a fair assumption that few around Britain cared who won the rearranged match.
However, for O’Neill, his players and the Sunderland supporters, this bottom-of-the-table clash, forgotten about by almost everyone else, was the biggest and probably most important game of this season.
If Sunderland had lost, or even drawn, all talk would be about the manager’s future, no matter what he or owner Ellis Short said.
The men in red and white, however, produced a fine performance full of character, determination, some decent football and three good goals into the bargain.
A tired-looking O’Neill ended his post-match Press conference by admitting he had lost his trail of thought as he started to struggle for words. You couldn’t blame the man. It has been a trying time. However, one thing he does know for certain is that the players are behind him 100%. That has never changed.
Simon Mignolet was asked whether there had been any talk about O’Neill’s position as the weeks rolled by and the defeats kept coming.
The Belgian goalkeeper said: “Nobody thought even about those kind of things in the dressing room and I think the gaffer’s done a great job last season – he’s doing that still.
“He gives all the players a lot of confidence to go out and play and even in awkward situations like the other night we can do that.
“All the lads were confident stepping out on to the pitch and that’s the main thing when you are in that position. We were very confident we were going to win.” Sunderland didn’t dare lose on Tuesday. It was as simple as that. And in all fairness they never looked like doing anything other than winning following James McClean’s opening goal after two minutes.
In fact, had they won by four or five then nobody, certainly not Reading who look doomed, could have complained. Not that it was a night for mass celebrations. Mignolet said: “Relief probably sums up the feeling in the dressing room. There were some pretty tired legs in there afterwards because the lads got through a lot of work. We’d forgotten how to win so we didn’t know how to celebrate afterwards! On the other hand, we were very happy.”
Is this a turning point for Sunderland? Only time will tell. Their next six Premier League matches are Manchester United (away), Southampton (away), Manchester City (home), Tottenham (home), Liverpool (away) and West Ham United (home).
It’s not going to get any easier, despite getting into 15th place, one behind Newcastle, thanks to this win.
But let’s concentrate on the positives.
Steven Fletcher was excellent, again. Danny Rose excelled in midfield, while Stéphane Sessegnon was dangerous whenever he got on the ball. Captain John O’Shea should also be praised for the way he dealt with anything that came into Sunderland’s area, while Mignolet made two fine saves, as he always does. The keeper said: “I’m pleased for all the lads. The main thing when you play at home is that everybody does the basics, and when that happens you’ve always got a chance to win the game.
“With all the games coming thick and fast over Christmas, this was a massive game at home. We knew it was important.”
Sunderland have been poor this season. Please forget all the talk about taking positives from defeats. That isn’t papering over the cracks, that is the equivalent of attempting to cover the San Andreas Fault with a hankie. And a home win against a side that will more than likely be relegated proves nothing.
However, the players coped admirably with the very real pressure that hung over them and performed with a real sense of freedom.
While nobody expects them to take anything from Old Trafford on Saturday, play as they did against Reading and they can cause the Premier League leaders problems.
And at least they travel to Manchester with some confidence.
Mignolet said: “Before Tuesday, we knew it was going to be a massive game. We knew there was a lot of pressure on it. We scored the early goal, which made it a bit easier for us and meant they had to come at us and we could defend our lead and to score the second goal just before half-time was the perfect scenario.
“Three goals, a clean sheet and three points; you can’t ask for anything more. We all knew how important it was, and we’re professional enough to deal with that. Scoring the early goal made things much easier.
“We made sure we didn’t concede the goal and earned the three points, which are the most important things. We did our job.”