Sunderland’s relegation fight experience is shaping bid to stay up yet again

West Ham United 1-0 Sunderland. Picture by FRANK REID
West Ham United 1-0 Sunderland. Picture by FRANK REID

Two years ago, Sunderland folded under the weight of Norwich City’s early onslaught at Carrow Road.

In a game where Sunderland needed to make headway on those sides above them, Sunderland were 2-0 down inside 32 minutes and in such disarray that Gus Poyet was forced to make a double substitution before he’d even delivered a half-time team talk.

‘That’s the mentality you need in the last five minutes.’

Viti Mannone

Several survivors from that defeat - Vito Mannone, Lee Cattermole, Seb Larsson, Fabio Borini, John O’Shea and Wes Brown - were in the Sunderland party which travelled down to Norfolk last weekend and the memory of their previous trip loomed large in their preparations.

The Sunderland camp knew that Norwich would try to repeat the trick - coming out the blocks quickly in search of an early goal which would have had Carrow Road rocking.

There was a realisation that Sunderland had to show their character and overcome those opening stages if they were to record the victory which was required to keep their survival hopes alive.

Goalkeeper Mannone said: “Myself and the other boys who were here two years ago went into the game knowing that you can’t concede that first goal, otherwise the game is completely different. I don’t think we would have won if we’d gone behind.

“To get through the periods of the game where they really push and you don’t concede, that gives you confidence to think that yes, we can win this now.”

It’s not the only learning curve that Sunderland have faced.

After Jermain Defoe created a two-goal buffer for the Black Cats, Norwich pushed hard for a route back into the game, yet Sam Allardyce’s men scrapped and battled to prevent Mannone’s net from rippling.

There was a resilience and a determination to prevent a draw from the jaws of victory, as had been the case last month in the frustrating 1-1’s at Southampton and Newcastle.

“We did it as a team, we kept strong. There were so many crosses in the box and corners,” said Mannone. “But I thought we did particularly well to keep our nerve.

“We’ve learnt from our mistakes because it was pretty similar to others where we’ve drawn - Newcastle and Southampton - and let them come back into the game.

“Towards the end, we were still defending well at 3-0. That’s the mentality you need in the last five minutes.”

Sunderland have been in this situation before, of course ... on too many occasions to stomach.

But there is the know-how in the Sunderland camp over how to handle the anxiety of the relegation dogfight, which stems from three successive successful escape acts.

Certainly, there has been a mood of quiet confidence throughout the last three months that Allardyce’s side will be triumphant in their bid to remain in the Premier League, with Sunderland facing an opportunity to move out of the relegation zone when they face Mannone’s former club Arsenal on Sunday.

“For each individual and player, it’s fantastic to learn from your experiences in football,” added the Italian. “We really have been in it during the last few years. I would have liked not to do that, but it does help to have members of the team who have been involved in survival in the past.

“When you come away from home in a pressure game like Norwich, you do learn something.”