It felt less like a post-match press conference and more like a shared therapy session.
With his shoulders hunched low and the spark noticeably missing from his bruising assessment, there was a definite sense that Gus Poyet’s trademark effervescence had been drained by a home performance as poor as anything Sunderland have served up in this dismally disappointing campaign.
Although he denied it, the stark reality of the task he has assumed at the Stadium of Light might finally have been hammered home by this wanton display of self-destruction.
“On that performance we would not get enough points to stay up. On a normal day – and had Spurs come here with confidence – we would have lost 5-1,” he stated, glumly.
It was a message underscored with realism but to hear Poyet – a man who has been almost the last bastion of red-and-white confidence at times since his appointment – turn pragmatist so swiftly after an appointment that brought hope was worrying. One way or another, this was the afternoon that brought the honeymoon period to an end.
As disconcerting as Poyet’s words might have been, they were a fast-track to the truth of Sunderland’s perilous predicament. There was another atrocious decision that robbed Sunderland of a penalty here but a point would have masked failings that are in danger of becoming terminal. Man-for-man there are worse starting XIs in the division but none have exhibited the kamikaze streak or lack of diligence that Sunderland reprised on Saturday.
Poyet was frustrated and might well have been contemptuous of the performances in private. In public, he made sure he included himself in the criticism. The reality is, however, that they are sinking fast and in danger of being cut adrift at the bottom of the Premier League – and most of the problems are of the club’s own making.
The manager decried the five own goals that Sunderland have put through their own net this season – two more than their leading scorer Phil Bardsley – but really this has been a calendar year of calamities from the Black Cats. The botched “revolution” of Paolo Di Canio, the decision to hand the keys to a director of football who looks hopelessly out of his depth and selling three of their best players in the summer without adequate replacements are the reasons why they are in such a dire state.
But the inquest and mea culpas will have to wait: Sunderland are marooned at the bottom of the table and if there have been signs of fight recently, they have been undermined by the most basic of errors. Poyet likened his approach of repeating the mantra of the footballing basics to being a human “hammer”. “It either gets through to you, or you get a hole in the head,” he surmised.
As he held his fingers to his temples on Saturday night, it was obvious how he was beginning to feel. “The hammer means we keep hammering, hammering, hammering,” he said.
“If you tell me something three times and I get it, the next time I will say stop it, don’t tell me anymore, I got it. But we haven’t yet because still these things are happening.
“To score an own goal you need to be in a position. It is very difficult for a striker to score an own goal from the other side of the pitch so when you are in the box defending you need to be in (the correct) position. One, two, three (own goals) are unlucky. Five I don’t think so.
“It is not individuals who are not getting the message, it is the group. If it was one player it would be easy for me, because you drop him. It is the group that need to get it, the players altogether because they have to learn if one person makes a mistake their team-mates need to react.
“To play football is not just about running up and down and kicking it because the more we kick it, the more open we become and the more the opposition has the ball and there were a few breaks today when we could have conceded.
“Playing that was doesn’t save you, I promise you. All the teams who have played like that in the last 10 years have gone down, the only one who did not were Wigan, somehow, playing football, passing the football, being difficult for the opposition and dominating the game. The rest they didn’t.”
You wonder if the urgency message is necessarily getting through to the players. Adam Johnson, who opened the scoring with a searing finish after Hugo Lloris had inexplicably punched Ondrej Celustka’s cross, bridled afterwards when it was put to him that West Ham was a “must-win”.
It is not fair to single out the winger but his post-match comments spoke of hope about the home games to come: “West Ham is definitely not a must-win game. Next year we have got the bottom 12 teams to come here, so I wouldn’t label that particular game as must-win.
“It’s a big game. You see all these other teams, Crystal Palace, Stoke, playing teams around them at home, we have got that all to come.”
As Poyet rightly claimed, play anything like they did on Saturday and none of those games are a given. Tottenham’s superiority was writ large by the shots statistic: Sunderland had 11 while the visitors had 22. Their incision and movement blew the Black Cats away, despite taking the lead with a well-worked goal.
Poyet was also right to admit his own culpability. Sunderland went with two strikers against Spurs but the consequence of that was that they always looked out-numbered in the engine room. For all of his qualities, Ki does not have the industry to cover the sort of ground that Lee Cattermole might. Too often, the visitors had the run of that area of the field.
It meant that Tottenham’s leveller was inevitable. Again it was poor defending that led to it, with Phil Bardsley and John O’Shea too hesitant. Their second, a fifth own goal of the season, raised further questions about their out-of-sorts skipper.
The run of tough home fixtures is, at least, over. Poyet: “Does the season start here? If it doesn’t start today we have got a massive problem. A start means a win? Because all the other teams win somehow but we don’t. I am the first one responsible, it is up to me now – and the players.”