MOUTH too often overrode the mind of Gus Poyet in the fractious final days of his Sunderland reign.
Amidst regular scapegoating, there were three separate occasions in post-match press conferences at the start of 2015 when Poyet lambasted what he perceived to be a damaging nostalgic air among Sunderland fans, who still hankered for the glory days of Niall Quinn and Kevin Phillips.
It was an odd stance to take, and not one which was misinterpreted. Poyet genuinely thought it.
Now, Poyet had a point that such a brand of high-intensity football, with a big ‘un and a little ‘un up front may not cut it these days. Sunderland do need a modern, distinctive and successful brand of football that they work towards in the coming years.
But successful teams who play a passing style can still maintain some intensity, some pressing and play the odd long balls into the strikers.
It was a balance Poyet was never able to strike.
Perhaps it was telling then that one of THE great derby goals had a classic Quinn and Phillips flavour to it, and secured a first Sunderland win under Poyet’s successor Dick Advocaat.
Steven Fletcher, as excellent in the first half as he was at St James’s Park in December, flicked the ball on and Jermain Defoe unleashed a worldie; a goal which heralded the greatest half-time interval in the Stadium of Light’s history.
It was a goal borne of Advocaat’s ploy of simply getting the ball into the front three in good areas, where they could link-up with each other. It’s a basic footballing principle which Sunderland rarely achieved under Poyet.
The technique Defoe demonstrated is why Sunderland bought him in January. For all Poyet struggled to find the right balance with the 32-year-old in the starting XI, he is a match winner.
When Defoe arrived, the lofty investment for his signature was always going to be worthwhile if he managed half-a-dozen goals which secured the necessary points for Premier League survival.
He’s halfway to that target now, with Sunderland’s position in the dogfight immediately looking infinitely better after just one win.
It was nice to see it mean so much to Defoe too. It’s a sight not often seen enough from modern players.
Speaking to Defoe last week, he was clearly licking his lips at the prospect of participating in this one, and his emotions in celebrating his wonder strike were genuine.
But the Quinn-Phillips comparison was not the only flashback.
This was an old-fashioned ‘up and at them’ Stadium of Light encounter, where Sunderland utterly dominated against an abject Newcastle side and the crowd responded.
Rather than ripping up the Poyet blueprint and attempt a revolution for his nine-game spell, Advocaat has simply gone back to basics, with a more compact version of the 4-3-3 pioneered by his predecessor.
But what Advocaat has crucially done is set a light to those lackadaisical, sluggish, sideways and backwards passing displays under Poyet.
Pressing, hunting in packs, midfield bite, going direct when necessary, winning the 50-50s. None of these elements are rocket science, but they were ingredients badly missing for too much of this season.
Most refreshingly of all, Sunderland started on the front foot; a corner won within the first minute and 70-odd per cent possession enjoyed throughout that first half.
When playing in front of 40-odd thousand, that fan power has to be harnessed by setting the tone and yesterday, it was.
Yes, a few light ales in the Bank Holiday sunshine won’t have done any harm, but the crowd responded to the one-sided game they were seeing and the atmosphere was white-hot.
It helped of course that Newcastle were utterly abysmal.
Plenty has been levelled at this set of Sunderland players both this season and in previous years. More flak will continue to fly, of course, if yesterday proves to be a false dawn and the Black Cats are sucked into the bottom three by May 24.
But the current dressing room with its strong characters of Lee Cattermole, John O’Shea and Seb Larsson etc undoubtedly grasp the importance of the derby and rise to the occasion.
Newcastle’s players don’t.
Once more, the Magpies wilted on the big occasion – Costel Pantilimon only making one save and Ayoze Perez wasting their sole clearcut chance late on, when he should have grabbed an ill-deserved equaliser.
There was no-one among John Carver’s side who deserved any praise. They were as wretched an opposition side as Sunderland have faced this season.
By contrast, all of Sunderland’s players won their individual battles.
Jordi Gomez produced arguably his best performance in red and white; making more successful passes than anyone on the pitch, working up and down, and crucially putting a foot in.
Patrick van Aanholt was Sunderland’s main attacking threat in the second half, as Newcastle singularly failed to track him back, while Billy Jones’ inclusion was justified on the opposite side.
Lee Cattermole and Seb Larsson won every 50-50 ball in the middle of the park, with Newcastle dangerman Moussa Sissoko utterly anonymous.
Fletcher held the ball up brilliantly at times – even if he should have made more of a couple of half chances – while Connor Wickham rampaged down the channels.
Inevitably, there were question marks afterwards over why Sunderland have not performed like this every week.
It’s only right that should be asked. This is a team that performs brilliantly in the derby, but regularly under-achieves in the bread and butter games.
But if Advocaat’s men produce this same level of commitment and intensity in the final seven games, they will be fine.
Will they though?
Considering the post-derby slumps following the previous three wins over Newcastle, there will be jitters when Alan Pardew’s Crystal Palace visit the Stadium of Light next Saturday.
But that is another day.
For now, Sunderland have achieved what they desperately needed to do.
Had they lost – or even drawn – yesterday, then it could have been curtains in the relegation scrap.
Advocaat needed to build some momentum and create some belief that his experience could steer Sunderland to Premier League survival, rather than this being another Felix Magath-esque short-term fix that would fall flat.
The former Holland manager will now be forever remembered as the Sunderland manager who led the Black Cats to a fifth win in a row over Newcastle.
It will be even more memorable if, like Poyet and Paolo Di Canio before him, he can complement that with Premier League survival.
SUNDERLAND: Pantilimon 7, Jones 8, O’Shea 7, Vergini 7, van Aanholt 9, Cattermole 8, Larsson 8, Gomez 8, Wickham 8, Defoe 9 (Johnson 80 6), Fletcher 8. Subs not used: Mannone, Bridcutt, Reveillere, Graham, Coates, Buckley. Booked: Vergini (39), Gomez (61), van Aanholt (66), Wickham (77), Larsson (81)
NEWCASTLE: Krul, Taylor, Williamson, Janmaat, Colback, Gutierrez, Sissoko, Gouffran (Riviere 58), Ameobi (Armstrong 87), Cabella, Perez. Subs not used: Elliot, Anita, Obertan, Abeid, Kemen. Booked: Taylor (41), Colback (62)
Man of the match: Jermain Defoe: One moment, one very special goal. Contender for the best derby strike in history.
Goal: Defoe (45).