Has Sunderland’s confidence been misplaced after nervy Stoke showing?

Jermain Defoe scores against Stoke City
Jermain Defoe scores against Stoke City

A dark cloud threatening to unleash the torrent of relegation has by and large hovered over this football club for a decade.

Other than the all-too-brief window when Steve Bruce managed to assemble a cast of potent strikers and Martin O’Neill enjoyed a few months of initial joy in the hotseat, the nine-year spell in the Premier League has been dominated by nervy nail-biting.

It’s become as much a part of supporting Sunderland as the replica shirt and the doggedly loyal journeys to fill away ends up and down the country.

But such has been the mood in the Sunderland camp over the last three months, that it would be easy to ignore the prospect of plunging into the Championship and missing out on the £100million cheque from the new television deal.

The body language and sound-bites from the Sunderland players have been in stark contrast to previous years.

However bleak the situation has appeared in the darkest of hours, there has been a persistent confidence that Sunderland would be successful in their survival bid if they maintained their performance levels.

Players have been relaxed and supremely positive over the situation.

Maybe that has stemmed from the contribution both on and off-the-field of the January signings. Maybe it has been Sam Allardyce’s calming, experienced presence. Maybe fighting relegation has just become part of the routine.

However, finally the magnitude and gravity of Sunderland’s situation is taking effect.

Anxiety was evident in the first half of the last Stadium of Light encounters against Leicester and Arsenal, and the nerves were to such an extent at Stoke City on Saturday, that Sunderland were paralysed by them.

In a ‘winnable’ game against an out-of-form Stoke side who didn’t perform much better than Sunderland, the Black Cats were left thanking their stars that at least they came away with a point thanks to Jermain Defoe’s last-gasp penalty.

The nerves have now well and truly set in, and that’s Allardyce’s biggest challenge this week. Sunderland can’t afford to freeze again during one of the final three games. With so little separating them from Newcastle and Norwich, it will be curtains if they do.

It’s arguably a greater concern for Allardyce than whether he changes the starting XI against Chelsea on Saturday.

Allardyce has been able to enjoy some consistency with personnel over the last five games and realistically, Duncan Watmore and Seb Larsson are the only genuine options to alter the make-up of the side.

Certainly, Dame N’Doye again made zero impression from the bench, other than a series of persistent fouls which eventually zapped referee Craig Pawson’s patience and led him to book the on-loan Trabzonspor striker.

The futures of so many Sunderland players rest on which division they are in next season, yet N’Doye is surely one who we can confidently predict to be heading back to Turkey this summer.

However, it wasn’t individuals to blame at Stoke for Sunderland’s worst performance of 2016. It was a collective failure.

There was a lack of energy – almost a lethargy – from a set of players who have previously burst a gut to put points on the board, while errant decision making and powder-puff conviction going forwards made it all-too-easy for rookie Stoke keeper Jakob Haugaard.

At one point in the second half, Allardyce and the 3,000 shivering souls in the away end were almost in unison in angrily shouting at Sunderland to stop surrendering possession cheaply after a succession of ambitious Lee Cattermole passes failed to come off.

Yes, Sunderland could have a grievance against Pawson for failing to spot a handball from Stoke defender Geoff Cameron and equally waving away what appeared a clear push from Peter Crouch on Younes Kaboul in the build-up to Marko Arnautovic’s goal.

Yet Sunderland had to help themselves. The defending for that opener was so soft and they were left having to ride their luck in the search for an equaliser as both Glenn Whelan and then Giannelli Imbula spurned chances to double Stoke’s advantage.

Neither Newcastle or Norwich are immune from anxiety. The Magpies suffered them aplenty against Crystal Palace, before eventually leapfrogging Sunderland through a combination of Andros Townsend’s free-kick and Yohan Cabaye’s penalty miss.

Every soul that Sunderland’s players come into contact with this week will be feeling those nerves too. Short – sat in the stands at the Britannia along with Jimmy Montgomery, Wes Brown and Ola Toivonen – must forever be wondering why he submitted himself to this torment.

But fortune favours the brave and that’s what Sunderland must be now. They showed their bottle at Norwich City and need to do so again during three games which hold such magnitude in deciding the whole club’s future.

When he first arrived at the Stadium of Light, Allardyce challenged his side to get safe well in advance of the season’s finale, yet there was always a nagging feeling that Sunderland’s survival bid would go down to the wire.

Predictably that has come to pass and now Sunderland’s players must demonstrate that their quiet confidence wasn’t misplaced.