As Harry Kane bundled Sunderland’s equaliser into his own net last week, it was tough to not be struck by the brilliant unpredictability of football that is unquestionably its meal ticket.
After all, in pretty much every measurable way, Tottenham Hotspur were operating on a different level to Sunderland. Mauricio Pochettino’s men were bigger, stronger, quicker and frankly better than their hosts. So they should be too, given the gulf in cash that has been spent on the respective squads.
Yet for all their superiority and theoretical advantages, one jinking incisive run from Adam Johnson and one flash of quality from Jordi Gomez’s left foot was all it took for the result to abandon all semblance of reason and logic.
That, surely, is why we love this game so much? It’s that glorious unpredictability that fuels the sense of drama, enticing us to willingly suspend disbelief and embrace the promise of impossibility.
Like all tales of the underdog, we marvel in words such as ‘spirit’ and ‘character’. They make heroes of everyone as warriors who summon the weapons that the better equipped cannot buy. They are football’s sweetest moments for supporters.
That is, of course, when it lands in your favour. When the shoe is on the other foot – when you’re the slain Goliath rather than the surprised David, the humbling tortoise rather than the humbled hare, it’s nowhere near as fun.
This weekend as we travel to Turf Moor to face Burnley, there will be no plucky moral victories or heroics for Sunderland. It’s a game I think most supporters are expecting us to win and will not accept anything less. Should that not happen, character and spirit will not be hailed to have won the day, profligacy and a failure of application will be lamented for losing it.
Of course, there isn’t actually anything wrong with that. Why should recently-promoted clubs hold any fear for Sunderland? We should be going there confident and on the front foot hoping to assert ourselves.
There is another side of that, though – an essential truth that we prefer to ignore: Burnley will be going into the game with the exact same attitude, wondering just what the hell there is to fear about Sunderland.
And that’s the problem I tend to find with Premier League expectations. It’s the double standard involved. We complain about an impassable glass ceiling in English football that limits our ability to truly compete above anyone else, and then tell ourselves that there is a plethora of games at this level that we should be winning.
I’m sorry, but that’s nonsense. It’s pure ego; vanity. I mean, yes, for six or seven teams in this division there probably are games that they should be winning. For the rest of us, however, all there is are games that we can win.
The fact is, win 10 games in the Premier League and the chances are you will be free from relegation. Of the last 45 teams to be relegated, only 5 won 10 games that season. No team in a 38-game season has ever been relegated having won 11 games. One very good run of results during the season or a couple of decent ones will pretty much see you safe.
That is the only target that really matters. Who cares where the wins come from? As Sunderland proved last season, and as Stoke City and Aston Villa have already proven this, wins can come when you are least expecting them.
I'd love to think that Sunderland will go to Turf Moor this weekend and swat Burnley aside with authority before swaggering back to the north east with three easily won points. I don't think it will happen, but it would be nice. Burnley, like Sunderland last week and every other club in the division, have game-changing quality in the side and don't fool yourself otherwise. There is no cannon-fodder in the Premier League, and certainly not to the likes of us.
Just like Queens Park Rangers earlier in the season, it will likely be a tight game which could easily go either way based on very little at all. There is no question that we have the quality to win and, to be honest, I really fancy us to, but talk about 'must win' games and games we 'should' win is a huge load of nonsense.
Frankly, we haven't the right to expect to beat anyone in the Premier League right now. We don't have anywhere near the track record of success for ego.
We have a long way to go before we can legitimately say we should be beating anyone in this division. That's the current reality here, like it or not. Hopefully, this weekend can be the start of a new, better one.