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Turning Points: From January To May

Guest writer Michael Bowers picks out the key moments that defined Sunderland's season, today looking at the period between January and May.

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Sunderland 3-1 Aston Villa – January 2, 2016

Far too often as Sunderland fans we express the importance of certain games but the importance of this one couldn’t be underestimated. It was that huge. We were second bottom, and Aston Villa were the place below us. If Sunderland won, it gave them a massive chance of surviving. If Villa won, then I think that would have been a massive kick in the stomach.

I usually stress the importance of not losing games but a draw wouldn’t do here. We needed to win. Scoring the first goal and going back in front after Villa scored was massive. Jermain Defoe was the difference, literally winning us the extra two points. Other results generally went our way too, which gave us a chance although our next game was Swansea, which was another huge game.

Swansea 2-4 Sunderland – January 13, 2016

The result was important as we were only one point behind Swansea, who were seventeenth at the time. I know eventually they were comfortably safe, but psychologically being only one point adrift of safety was a big boost.

I looked at Aston Villa and Swansea feeling that we needed to get six points. Thankfully we did.

It was a big turning point because Sam Allardyce started to pay attention to Jermain Defoe. He scored five goals in the previous two games, including a hat-trick here. This was when we started to use him in a way which would give us a better chance to win games.

Unwanted Players Leaving

The likes of Liam Bridcutt, Will Buckley, Jordi Gomez, Danny Graham and to a lesser extent, Costel Pantilimon and Steven Fletcher leaving the club helped trim the wage bill which would be huge if we were to sign much-needed quality to improve our squad.

One major problem we’ve had over the last few years in spending stupid money on players who contribute nothing to the starting eleven. Sam Allardyce was able to do what previous managers failed to do, which was get rid of the deadwood, but it was vital that we stopped clogging up the wage bill, allowing us to better use them elsewhere.

Kirchhoff, Kone And Khazri Signing

I wouldn’t say Jan Kirchhoff signing felt like much of a turning point, even though it did prove to be in the end. Lamine Kone joining the club had a feeling of importance because we’d gone for him twice before and failed, before refusing to give up. In the end we got him for around five million pounds, which looks a steal now.

By all accounts, Whabi Khazri persuaded Bordeaux to sell him, which is encouraging because we didn’t just settle for someone who was available.

Liverpool 2-2 Sunderland – February 6, 2016

We were poor for the first eighty minutes of the game at Anfield, but two goals in the last ten minutes, especially the late equaliser from Jermain Defoe, has to be considered a turning point.

Regardless of what happened with the Liverpool fans walking out in protest, to come back from two-nil down to claim a point with only ten minutes remaining is no easy task. It would have given the players confidence going forward.

Sunderland 2-1 Manchester United – February 13, 2016

If drawing at Liverpool late on was enough for confidence then winning against Manchester United would have sent it sky high. In so many ways this was a big result.

We all know what happened with the Adam Johnson case and I was worried that the players would be affected by it but if anything it motivated them to deliver a result or at least a performance. This result was big not just for our season, but to lift the morale on Wearside again after one of the worst weeks in Sunderland’s history.

Not only did we get three points, but we outplayed United, especially in the second-half where we should have scored before we did. The dark cloud was lifted, figuratively.

Sequence Of Draws

Drawing against Crystal Palace, Southampton, Newcastle and West Brom were big results, though not in the desired way.

Though we shouldn’t have been losing in the first place, Fabio Borini’s screamer against Palace was important because the point took Sunderland out of the bottom three, albeit only on goal difference. The Southampton game especially felt like a killer blow with the manner in which we dropped two points, after going ahead against ten men with less than five minutes remaining.

I still stand by this – a point at Newcastle was a good result. Even though Norwich were hitting form, a point was OK for Sunderland despite conceding late on again. The 0-0 draw against the Baggies was a turning point because it started to look like our luck was running out. We dominated the game but couldn’t find a winner and Norwich going four points clear of us made grim viewing.

Norwich 0-3 Sunderland – April 16, 2016

Though Leicester were top of the table, our loss against them left me deflated and I can only imagine what the nerves would have been like going into this match - we were four points behind Norwich at this point. Lose, and we’d all probably think we’re gone. Draw, and there’s still a lot to do. But win and it’s back in our hands.

Fabio Borini may not score many goals but he delivers when it’s needed most. He won and scored the ice-cool penalty which gave Sunderland the lead, before playing an inch-perfect pass to Jermain Defoe for our second.

Duncan Watmore capped off a perfect result. We’d closed the gap on Norwich to one point with a game in hand while improving our goal difference and making theirs worse. For me, this game was the biggest turning point of the season in terms of results. I think it was also the result that effectively relegated Norwich - their fans will probably look at this result with the biggest regret. Psychologically this was a big boost for Sam Allardyce and his players and I think it gave Sunderland the platform for another surge to safety – or so we hoped.

Stoke 1-1 Sunderland – April 30, 2016

The first-half of this game was as interesting as West Brom but the second-half we were poor, though I don’t think Stoke were much better. Nerves definitely got the better of the players and Newcastle’s win, despite Crystal Palace (conveniently) missing a penalty, didn’t help.

But the late penalty won by and scored by Defoe changed the mood a bit despite Newcastle moving out of the bottom three. It meant the gap was one point with a game in hand and a better goal difference. It wasn’t over yet.

Sunderland 3-2 Chelsea – May 7, 2016

While I still feel Norwich was the biggest turning point, you could make a strong case for this game being just as big.

The atmosphere right before kick-off was nothing short of ear-splitting. The roar just before the game started is something I’ll never forget.

Khazri scored a goal of the season contender but at half-time it seemed meaningless with Chelsea going in front twice. Their second, seconds before half-time, I thought had ended our chances of getting a result as it seemed to be a massive blow. But Sunderland refused to accept defeat and after Vito Mannone made two crucial saves to keep us in the game, Fabio Borini came up with another hugely important goal to give us hope.

With Newcastle drawing at Villa, I’d have took a draw against Chelsea but Defoe was having none of it. When he scored, the Stadium of Light simply exploded. It was simply the best atmosphere I’ve ever experienced at a Sunderland game. Imagine the scenes at Villa Park - We were firmly in the driving seat now.

We all know what happened afterwards as we secured mathematical survival and relegated Norwich and Newcastle (oh yes!) in the process. I can happily say I was there when we did it.

It was a season of huge highs and lows but now we can slow down for a bit thankfully. Saturdays will be boring in comparison now, but definitely a lot less bloody stressful.