Cats will have to do it the hard way

PRESSURE ... Gus Poyet stands at the end of his dugout.
PRESSURE ... Gus Poyet stands at the end of his dugout.

WELCOME to Sunderland, the bountiful land where the down and outs can always find sanctuary.

Not registered an away point all season? Never mind, take all three.

The familiar sight of the Championship abyss looms large

Sunderland writer Chris Young

Not bothered about registering a shot? Never mind, take a useful point back home with you.

Not scored an away goal since early December? Never mind, double your tally on the road all season in less than half-an-hour.

Sunderland are the gift that keeps on giving. Three successive chances against fellow strugglers have been presented at the Stadium of Light and three times, the Black Cats have pitifully failed to add to their pathetic haul of two home wins from the entire season.

The familiar sight of the Championship abyss looms large.

Here we go again.

On afternoons as embarrassing as Saturday, you almost wonder whether it would actually benefit a club that has lost all direction over recent years to fall out of the Premier League and start again.

Financially, of course, it would be catastrophic for Sunderland to be relegated and the subsequent blood-letting would perversely see good, diligent behind-the-scenes staff lose their jobs, rather than necessarily affecting those responsible for the drop.

Relegated players invariably find themselves new homes back in the Premier League.

It might take years, even a decade, for Sunderland to return to the top flight too. Just look at how Fulham and Wigan have struggled in the Championship relegation dogfight this season.

But Sunderland are in a recurring Groundhog Day pattern that has gone on for the last four seasons, and it shows no signs of halting.

A new man comes in. He initially does well. Recruitment is poor. Team struggles. Manager abandons principles in desperate search for wins. Pressure starts to tell. Fans turn.

The only thing missing from the sequence at the moment is Ellis Short relieving Poyet of his duties.

The club’s hierarchy are not completely ignorant about this Sunderland malaise and they have tried to bring some stability by keeping Poyet at the helm.

But since the turn of the year, and certainly since the week in February when the Black Cats took four points and secured FA Cup progression, Sunderland have fallen into the same old habits.

Whatever their managerial failings, Paolo Di Canio and Poyet tellingly both identified the need for root and branch reform within weeks of being in the hotseat.

Sunderland need to rediscover a clear direction, a clear way of playing and a clear strategy for improvement.

That’s a monumental problem and by no means is it solely down to the manager.

However, in the short-term, Short has to worry about the club remaining in the Premier League.

Certainly, there are clear similarities between the situation Sunderland are in now and the one they were faced back in 2013 when Martin O’Neill was dismissed with seven games to go.

There is that same feeling of ‘sleep-walking’ to relegation after weeks of gradual decline.

But while there have been whispers in footballing circles for several weeks that Poyet and Sunderland may part company in the summer, there has been no indication of a severance before then.

The suggestion from Sunderland sources recently has been that the club is wary of embarking back upon the managerial merry-go-round yet again, despite the pressure growing on Poyet.

From Short, Lee Congerton and Margaret Byrne’s viewpoint too, there are no obvious candidates to take over the reins now.

Do you really want to hand someone a long-term contract that is a default option?

Inevitably, Kevin Ball’s name has been mooted by supporters as a stop-gap measure, yet the Black Cats legend has been shoehorned into an ambassadorial role this season after being relieved of his position in charge of the Under-21s.

And while Ball played an under-estimated role in stabilising the dressing room last season after the divide and conquer rule of Di Canio, it is understood that the ex-Sunderland skipper was never genuinely in the running to be handed the job on a permanent basis.

Ireland assistant Roy Keane’s presence at the Stadium of Light on Saturday prompted some tongue-wagging, but he hardly parted on the best of terms with Short last time, to put it mildly.

However, if Short does make his move now, then there will have been far more surprising managerial departures.

Poyet somehow kept Sunderland in the Premier League last season, took the Black Cats to their first cup final in 22 years and has presided over three successive derby wins. It’s not a bad CV.

But managers are inevitably judged by recent results, and Poyet has presided over just four wins this season, while there has been no progress made in his desire to implement a possession-based strategy.

Sunderland haven’t been in the relegation zone all season, yet that is more to do with the deficiencies of the teams below them.

Since the January capture of Jermain Defoe, all sense of team shape and balance in the side seems to have disappeared too, as Poyet has tweaked and changed things to accommodate the England international.

Sunderland’s goal return hasn’t improved, while they have lost that solidity and resilience which was at least present during the bulk of the first half of the season.

Yet again on Saturday, an opposition side took advantage of Patrick van Aanholt’s defensive naivety and the lack of protection in front of him. Steven Fletcher worked hard, but he’s not a left winger.

Villa right-back Leandro Bacuna ripped Sunderland to shreds; setting up two of the goals and almost creating a third, only for Scott Sinclair to produce a howling miss from four yards out.

In fairness to Poyet though, can any manager legislate for the kind of defending produced by Sunderland on Saturday?

Van Aanholt was a liability, Wes Brown was constantly dragged out of position to cover for the left-back, Anthony Reveillere played like a leggy 35-year-old and John O’Shea produced a catalogue of mistakes.

O’Shea has been one of Sunderland’s most consistent performers this season, but he had a nightmare; typified by a head-scratching attempted intervention (or not) for Gabby Agbonlahor’s crucial second goal.

It wasn’t just the defence that was the problem though.

Like Fletcher, Ricky Alvarez offered minimal protection for his full-back, while Villa were afforded the luxury of being able to find space at almost walking pace in the middle of the park.

And up front Defoe just looked lost. Why go on and on about needing to play the England international in a strike double-act, and then ultimately go back to using a lone frontman?

Defoe needs to be making runs off people or darting in behind. He’s not there to hold the ball up.

The most alarming aspect though was how Sunderland utterly collapsed after the opening goal.

There was no pressing and no bite. Poyet’s men were completely rudderless and Villa looked like scoring every time they came forward - a feat they almost managed to achieve.

It was no wonder that thousands headed to the car park or the boozer before the half-time whistle had even sounded.

Burnley’s win over Manchester City later in the day simply compounded Sunderland’s misery and provided further momentum to the Black Cats’ descent.

Sunderland are going to need at least two, probably three, more wins from the final nine games to secure their Premier League status.

Presuming he is still in charge for West Ham next Saturday, Poyet faces some challenge in rallying his troops this week.

But Sunderland have had the chances to move away from danger and they have fluffed them. Now they have to do it the hard way.

As first-team coach Charlie Oatway rightly put it a couple of months ago: “If you don’t beat the teams down there with you, you deserve to go down.”