We were close. Despite missing a penalty, we were on the verge. Results had fallen our way and we had reduced the gap to safety to four points. With two games on the horizon where we could add to our much-needed victory, things were suddenly looking up. We had dared to dream and now the end was in sight.
I had a look at the stadium clock and a glance over to the fourth official to see how much injury time we’d have to endure. At the same time, we gave away a set-piece. You could hear the groans and the tension rise. The ball came into the box and right back Ivo Pinto stabbed home a relatively simple chance to put the scores level. The last minute of normal time. With that our hopes of saving ourselves evaporated into the mists around the Stadium of Light.
In the aftermath Chris Coleman was visibly upset:
You’ve seen it time and time again where we don’t defend a set-play like we should. We said we had to get it right defensively, but we got it wrong.
To get to that position and give it up like we did, it’s a tough one to swallow, it’s a difficult one. We’ve given up two points which were absolutely critical to us.
It’s massively disappointing.
Since Tuesday, there have been all kinds of emotions vented on Wearside - anger, frustration, disappointment and acceptance. For many, acceptance has been the overriding feeling for some time, but whilst there’s hope Sunderland fans always believe a miracle might just happen.
Of course, we’re not out of it. Not mathematically, anyway. Not yet.
That horrible niggle at the back of your mind says a win at Reading today and a home win over Burton and all is not lost. Those six points would close the current deficit, with two games to play.
The worry, of course, is what happens at Barnsley today, as they host Bolton Wanderers.
A win for Barnsley and they leapfrog their opponents to reach 40 points. We would have to win today to maintain the four-point gap. Anything less and the gap to safety remains at six or extends to seven with nine points to play for.
An away win puts Bolton on 42 points. Even a win at Reading means we’d still be six points adrift of both those sides and a point behind Barnsley. Our only consolation would be Birmingham will remain on 40 points come Saturday evening, as they travel the short distance to the Molineux Stadium for the lunchtime kick-off on Sunday. The four point gap to safety might yet remain come Sunday teatime.
Should the worse happen and we lose today, I’m afraid that will be it - if results go in favour of both Bolton and Birmingham, Sunderland will be nine points adrift with three games left. Our goal difference will be worse than any other team in the league, bar Burton Albion.
That’s the background to today’s game. Nothing but a win will keep us alive. And that’s not lost on Coleman:
No denying that. Away to Reading, at home to Burton, away to Fulham and at home to Wolves. Four games that we need to win to give ourselves a realistic chance.
Saturday, we’re playing Reading. It will be a tough game; the other games have been tough. But, we’ve got to go there and roll our sleeves up, empty. Let’s have a crack at it, let’s go for three points, let’s try and win the game hook or by crook and let’s see where we are at the end of that.
Reading aren’t renowned for being an attacking force under Paul Clement. It’s been reported that they’ve only had a handful of shots on target in their last five games, yet they have won two of those games 1-0, beating QPR and Preston. Clement has identified the Royals’ best chances of survival in being tough to break down, with our former goalkeeper Vito Mannone providing the last line of defence. How many times have I heard his name mentioned in conversations starting “What would have happened if we’d kept him?”
It’s likely Coleman will continue to trust the energy of Gooch and Honeyman, the creativity of McGeady and the drive of McNair to win the midfield battle today. Defensively, there will be forced changes, with both Matthews and O’Shea likely to miss out, but in Oviedo and Wilson the gaffer has like-for-like options to call on. Up front, it’ll be another test for Fletcher, but it’s a day where anything but a win won’t cut it.
In fact, even a win might not.