I will never forget the feeling of being relegated from the Premier League.
I was playing for West Ham with a team that, man-for-man, should have been challenging for Europe. From one to 11 we were packed with quality – David James in goal, Glenn Johnson at right-back, Christian Dailly and Thomas Repka centre-backs and Nigel Winterburn at left-back.
The midfield was even better – Michael Carrick and Steve Lomas in the centre of midfield and Trevor Sinclair and Joe Cole on either wing. Up front we had Freddie Kanoute and Paolo Di Canio, with me in the number ten or centre of midfield. Oh, and Jermain Defoe coming through as well.
But on a cloudy May day in Birmingham, with 6,000 West Ham fans behind us and giving us unbelievable support, we went down. I felt sick to the pit of my stomach and it was made worse by looking around at all those players and thinking: “How have we managed to get relegated?”
We all had those big characters in the dressing room but we were all numb. It was just quiet in there. A whole year’s work had come down to this – failure. We were all in disbelief.
It was an awful feeling – the fans were angry and upset and I felt it all summer. It was like a dark cloud hanging over me the whole close season. We were guilty that we went down with that team and, bad as it sounds, you know that you’re swapping all the Premier League benefits, the brilliant stadiums and the world-class players for midweeks at Doncaster and places like that. You feel it.
That is what Sunderland’s players need to confront now. We left it too late to get out of that season – we believed in our talent too much. They’ve still got time but it’s running out.
Did they realise how big the game was at Norwich? Chris Hughton’s team definitely did but I don’t know about Sunderland. They made a slow start and again it was two of their best players making the mistakes – Wes Brown with a clearance that he should never be making and John O’Shea making the wrong call.
They got a few wins, played well at Wembley and then from the manager down started making the wrong decisions. It’s almost April now and the excuses have run out: they are 18th in the Premier League because they’re one of the three worst teams in the division. The table doesn’t lie.
With West Ham one week we went to Blackburn and got beaten 7-1. We stayed in the North West and conceded five in the midweek. We were playing off the cuff: we’d forgotten how to be a team, believing that we had enough to win games on ability alone.
Three weeks is a long time in football. I watched them push Manchester City all the way at Wembley and was so confident they’d stay up playing that way but they’ve not done anything right since really.
Gus Poyet seems to have lost his way a bit as well. He made a double substitution on Saturday after 38 minutes and I thought ‘Uh-oh’. Why did he do that? Was it a bit of a message to the fans? From a tactical point of view and a team selection standpoint it didn’t really do much. You took off a creative player and put Lee Cattermole on: was he protecting the goal difference? Or was it to try and get a reaction from his players?
Good players are letting him down but Gus isn’t immune. Every week it’s three or four changes and as a player sometimes you’re scratching your head at that. I’d like to see him sit down an XI and say ‘You’re getting three or four weeks to prove yourself’. One week Jozy Altidore isn’t in the squad, the next he’s up front.
Cattermole is out of the team, then back in. Players are getting substituted early in games. He looks like a man trying to find a solution but he’s getting no closer. Now he’s got the equivalent of the managerial mission impossible on Merseyside tomorrow.
No team in the land would want to face Liverpool at the moment. I watched them against Cardiff and they were awesome.
For 20 minutes, Cardiff played really, really well. Liverpool were all over the place. But they have such good players going forward that they can score at will. They are right in that title race and Gus’ worry will be that his team might go there and get hit for four or five.
So his choice is a tough one: he knows they need to spring a surprise and get something unexpected in the run-in, but Liverpool are so good. I would be tempted to just abandon those football principles for one night and scrap it out.
They have to make life as difficult for Liverpool as they can – chase, harry, close the space. I’m not Cattermole’s biggest fan, as anyone who follows me on Twitter will know. But whatever his limitations he’s the perfect man for this kind of game: chase everything, put the tackles in, unsettle Liverpool. They need to frustrate them.
It’s all about one thing for Gus – get to half-time still goalless. Then anything can happen. If you’re 2-0 down by half-time then you’re finished.
The good news for Sunderland is that I think Fulham and Cardiff are gone. It’s three teams for one position and Crystal Palace and West Brom are in among it as well.
But just as we found out at West Ham, good players don’t mean anything. Fulham had Dimitar Berbatov, Stekelenberg from Roma, Steve Sidwell, Scott Parker. They’re still going down.
They need to pull three points from somewhere and still have games but time is running out.
Believe me, none of the players in that squad want to experience the feeling of relegation.