The Agenda: Sunderland reach a crossroads ahead of survival Sunday

Chief sportswriter Mark Douglas reckons that Sunday is Sunderland's biggest day for years as the Black Cats' fight for their future

Sunderland's home ground, the Stadium of Light
Sunderland's home ground, the Stadium of Light

Lee Congerton was at Carrow Road on Sunday.

Sunderland’s sporting director was pressing the flesh in East Anglia, taking the opportunity to re-introduce himself to some familiar faces in English football. It may have escaped his predecessor Roberto De Fanti – who arrived in one of Sunderland’s most important executive roles with no proper profile among English football’s kingmakers – but he will only be as good as his contacts, so it was a worthy assignment.

It was a nervy one, too. What should have been a routine win for Liverpool turned into a nail-biter as Norwich rowed the champions-elect back at Carrow Road.

This Sunday, he can double the nerves, brace for a tidal wave of adrenaline and prepare to be acquainted with Sunderland’s tendency for doing things the hard way.

Congerton is new to Sunderland but afternoons like Sunday are not. The Black Cats have been involved in more six-pointers than a speeding motorist, but they never get any easier to stomach. Sunday’s clash with Cardiff might just be the biggest of the lot given what is at stake for Sunderland.

Relegation carries huge financial penalties for any Premier League club that slips into the Championship, with Sunderland having to absorb a £40m drop in TV revenue alone if they are demoted.

Add to that the matchday and commercial revenue cost of dropping out of the Premier League and you have the potential to eat away at a balance sheet that was already troubling for Wearsiders.

Sunderland’s woes might be even bigger. One North East football sage, asked by The Journal to cast an eye over the squad, reckons that the Cats are not particularly well-equipped to bounce back.

“There are so many players out of contract in the summer and, while a lot of Sunderland supporters are desperate to see them go, they should take a look at where they all end up at the start of next season,” he said.

“I would be willing to bet that most of them – if not all of them – get themselves another Premier League club. Some might even be playing Europa League or similar next season, which suggests that individually they’re not that bad.

“And what is left? Sunderland’s saleable assets are Adam Johnson, Steven Fletcher, Emanuele Giaccherini and Lee Cattermole, but how much would you raise for them? £20m? Then you start all over again in a division where there are someclubs that have been consistently challenging for four or five years.

“It’s a hard league. You only bounce straight back if you’ve got a common sense of purpose and at the moment, I’m not sure Sunderland do.”

He requested anonymity because he hopes to recommend players to Gus Poyet and Congerton in the summer. He has been told that the budget is still under consideration – and will remain so until their fate is sealed. There is a point here: the future is uncertain for Sunderland whatever happens, but a Premier League campaign next season looks infinitely more appealing than a Championship one does.

Stay in the top flight and Sunderland can retain at least a core of their current squad to add and adapt to. Lose their status and they topple into the Championship facing one of the biggest restructuring jobs in the club’s history while financially hamstrung. No wonder Poyet’s future does not appear so clear-cut.

The good news is that Sunderland have given themselves a chance. The club have swapped the ‘Dare to Dream’ tag for a new one: “Keep Believing”.

That is what they need to do this weekend, ignoring the scars of the last few seasons and channeling their support into a force for positivity.

“I want Sunday’s game to feel like the last day of the season because it’s the game that we need to win,” Poyet said on Wednesday in an appeal to Black Cats to pack the stadium.

“I want the ground to be full, sold out. We all know how important it is.”

It promises to be a tense, nervous afternoon and the hope is that the pressure doesn’t suffocate them.

Poyet had been showing worrying signs of anxiety in recent weeks, curiously appearing to admit defeat after Sunderland’s hefty beating at Tottenham (how they might regret the manner of that collapse if it comes down to goal difference, by the way).

But over the last two games the clarity of thought that helped him initially has returned. Two unchanged sides brought two of their best league results. They will go again on Sunday. Sunderland may benefit from the fact that they have been here before – not least last season, when plenty of the same players managed to extricate the Black Cats from the trouble that they were staring down when Paolo Di Canio was handed the job of keeping the club in the top flight.

Still, the pressure can be absolutely unbearable. Last year, Ricky Sbragia spelled it out in stark terms, admitting that it made his life “horrific” when he was the interim boss at the Stadium of Light during a frantic battle to keep their heads above water.

“We did-n’t win one or two crucial games and the pressure just increased,” he recalls.

“To be honest I never gave a stuff about myself or what it would have meant to my CV to keep the club up. It was never, ever about that for me, it was just that I knew everyone at the club and in every department and I knew that if we went down it would probably mean people losing their jobs.

“That was worse for me. That was the responsibility I felt because I knew the club inside out from two spells there and I knew what it meant to the club, the place and the people who worked there.”

Poyet knows that feeling. The emotion has weighed heavily on his shoulders in recent weeks but he is assured of a united stadium on Sunday and will meet the challenge head on. These are pivotal days.

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer