Sunderland: What’s luck got to do with it?

Daniel Storey

“The team has been functioning very well. Maybe we need a bit of luck. Whether you call it fate or luck, we need one to bobble in the net for us. You should always surround yourself with lucky people, because it rubs off on you. Don’t surround yourself with people who are always ill because you will get ill, it’s the same with luck” – Sam Allardyce, April 14.

It’s easy to blame luck, yet too often it is used as a method of truth avoidance. Blaming chance is sport’s most common lie, told to ourselves and others to cover up our inefficiencies and avoid introspection and critical analysis. “The more I practice, the luckier I get,” as Gary Player once said.

On Saturday, after weeks of ‘bad luck’, Sunderland made their own. They scored with all three of their shots on target, and defended excellently. Relegation survival is now back in their hands.

In truth, Saturday lunchtime’s fixture was wretched for long periods. Allardyce spent his pre-match interview insisting that his side should not chase the game, and Sunderland stayed true to those words. During the first half, Jermain Defoe was so isolated that his teammates were playing long balls from the halfway line. Younes Kaboul completed two passes in the entire 45 minutes.

If Allardyce’s plan was to play on Norwich’s own incompetence and wait for them to make the mistake, it worked a treat. Andre Wisdom committed crimes against nominative determinism by stuffing up a chance to cross at one end, and then 15 seconds later going over the ball to foul Fabio Borini. Wisdom, Sebastien Bassong, Martin Olsson and Ryan Bennett were all guilty of individual errors, captain Gary O’Neil the only canary-coloured honourable exception.

This was a Sunderland team finally playing to their strengths, albeit up against a dreadful Norwich team performance. Lee Cattermole tackled and urged on. Fabio Borini ran the channels. Lamine Kone and Younes Kaboul headed away long balls. Jan Kirchoff shielded his back four. Jermain Defoe made exciting runs forward. For the first time this season, all five elements coincided.

It was Cattermole who impressed most. This was the kind of display we know he can deliver, but so easily gets lost in his disciplinary nonsense. Three times he cleared the ball off the line and away from goal, the most spectacular of the three bringing a warcry that sat somewhere between William Wallace and Diomedes. Cattermole was caught on camera urging a teammate to remain calm later on in the game, one of the signs of the football apocalypse.

“Today we did the ugly side well, the dirty side that people don’t notice,” said Cattermole after the game. Don’t do us a disservice, Lee. We bloody noticed.

If Cattermole provided the passion and desire, Defoe provided the quality. His second-half goal was a career captured in microcosm, a late run to the back post ending in a stabbed finish into an unguarded net and delighted celebration. He’ll still be doing that with the grandkids in the garden in 30 years time. Defoe’s goals may yet keep Sunderland up; that’s 10 in 14 away league games now.

Defoe’s general attitude was far less impressive, barely celebrating Duncan Watmore’s third goal and complaining demonstratively about every pass he did not receive. Yet one suspects his manager will not give a jot about such selfishness. Defoe himself would argue that it makes him the striker he is.

Before kick off, Jake Humphrey on BT Sport argued that “If any manager can do this, it’s Allardyce.” That’s a simplistic view, given that Gustavo Poyet – surely close to Allardyce’s diametric opposite – effected a more spectacular survival, but it’s easy to understand Humphrey’s point. With a game in hand and fixtures against Watford, Everton and Stoke to come, Sunderland supporters are believing that they can, again, survive. Two defeats at the worst time have deflated Norwich’s optimism.

The satisfied (who said smug? I didn’t say smug) smile on Allardyce’s face at the final whistle told you all you need to know. Maybe now he will consider Black Cats as a symbol of something other than bad luck.


Daniel Storey