Analysis: Sunderland must now look upwards after another act of escapology

No matter that Sunderland have spent fewer than 40 days with their heads outside the murky waters of the relegation zone.

Thursday, 12th May 2016, 9:05 am
Lamine Kone smashes home Sunderland's second goal against Everton. Picture by Frank Reid

No matter that Sunderland have been engulfed by a series of off-the-field scandals and shambles.

And no matter that this has been yet another campaign of transfer clangers and more managerial disappearing acts.

No, 2015-16 will now be savoured as the season where Sunderland stayed up and relegated Newcastle in the process.

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All those days sweating over the league table, anxiously scanning the fixture list and bemoaning the deficiencies of this side suddenly became worth it during an evening of fiesta celebrations at the Stadium of Light.

Whether Sunderland can now break the annual cycle of leaving it to the penultimate game of the season to secure their Premier League status will pretty swiftly dominate the narrative.

After the warning signs from the previous three escape acts, no-one should count it as a given, even with Sam Allardyce at the helm.

Ellis Short was understandably beaming at the front of the Stadium of Light directors’ box last night, but he cannot waste any time in supporting Allardyce in laying the ground-work for next season, particularly as Sunderland have been able to plan precious little due to their precarious position.

But the focus on the summer overhaul can wait until next week. For now ... well at least until Sunday’s final-day game at Watford, Wearside can revel in yet another act of escapology.

This set of players deserve to celebrate. This has been no fluke; no flash-in-the-pan dash to the finishing line with half-a-dozen games to go.

This has been four months of consistently impressive performances, chock full of character, determination and a fair bit of quality too.

Ever since the January arrival of messrs Kone, Kirchhoff and Khazri, Sunderland have been a side transformed and it has been borne out by the results – 26 points from 18 games since the turn of the year. That’s comfortable mid-table form, not the results of a side scrapping at the bottom.

Sunderland needed such a points tally to compensate for that dreadful start to the season when players simply weren’t fit enough – an issue which Allardyce quickly identified after seeing that they had the worst running stats in the league.

Once that was improved and fresh blood was on board, the only game in which Sunderland didn’t show up over the last four months was at Stoke 10 days ago, and even then they had the character to rescue a draw with virtually the last kick.

If Allardyce can add four, five or six “quality” signings (as Dick Advocaat ironically said) then the foundations are there for a successful team, particularly if Sunderland can land on-loan Yann M’Vila on a permanent basis.

Crucially, the strength of the spirit in the Sunderland dressing room has been evident for months, epitomised by the look on Lee Cattermole’s face during that pivotal win at Norwich last month.

It was Younes Kaboul who took the mantle of Sunderland’s talisman last night in a colossal display at the heart of the defence.

Kaboul’s quality was never in doubt when he arrived at the Stadium of Light last summer, yet his injury record was a major question mark hanging over his head.

But since Kaboul returned from hamstring and ankle injuries in March, he has instantly formed a seamless double act with Lamine Kone, and was utterly imperious in nullifying Romelu Lukaku, intercepting and striding forward out of defence.

Kaboul’s presence gradually began to spread throughout the side after an opening 10 minutes when Everton were able to monopolise possession, albeit without ever really threatening Vito Mannone’s goal.

However, what really helped Sunderland to the victory which secured their Premier League status was the shambolic way in which Everton dealt with set pieces.

Quite what keeper Joel Robles was doing for Patrick van Aanholt’s free-kick, which opened the floodgates, remains a head-scratcher. The Spaniard needed a manager of such unwavering positivity as Roberto Martinez to defend that display.

From that point, as the cloud of anxiety was burst, Sunderland were a juggernaut sensing blood against the hapless Toffees, who will surely dispense with Martinez based on this evidence.

Kone almost took the net off with a quickfire second that handed Sunderland breathing space and then the £5million January signing can’t have believed his fortune at both Robles and his defence’s inability to deal with another Khazri corner to double his tally.

With a little more panache, Sunderland could have even won by a more handsome margin.

There’s no need to get greedy though, with a 3-0 advantage, the Black Cats were able to coast through to the finishing line as the Stadium of Light partied and revelled in Newcastle’s misery.

Allardyce even threatened to rip off his jacket in an impromptu strip during a post-match lap of honour which – for once – was attended by the majority of the crowd.

The Sunderland boss deserves enormous credit for what he has achieved, when on several occasions, all seemed lost.

Ever since Allardyce arrived on Wearside, he has stressed the importance of averaging a point per games played.

Last night was the first occasion on which Sunderland have managed that mathematical equation. What a time to do it.