Burton Albion come to the Stadium of Light today for the biggest game of their season. The fact it’s ours too will not have gone unnoticed - both sides desperately need three points to keep their slender hopes of survival alive.
Sunderland have beaten Albion already this season, of course, but with only two wins at home this year, the odds of doing the double over our relegation rivals isn’t particularly straight forward.
Nigel Clough will be urging his team, armed with former Sunderland striker Darren Bent, to take advantage of our woeful home form and relegate us in the process.
Could Bent seriously be the one to put us down? What a thought. Chris Coleman will certainly not want that, but neither will Bent’s former team-mates Lee Cattermole and John O’Shea. I can only imagine the reception the former England striker will get from the stands if he plays, let alone if he scores.
The chances of either Burton or ourselves staying up rests with three points today. Winner takes all - well, not quite, but winner stays on... for a little while, at least.
With Birmingham entertaining Sheffield United and Bolton hosting promoted Wolves, there is every chance those three points will take the victors to within one game of safety. If Sunderland win today, the gap to either side could be cut to just three points. For Burton, it’s two. As Sunderland have a better goal difference than both Birmingham or Bolton, it’s a win away from climbing above the dreaded dotted line.
Barnsley go to Leeds and that will be an interesting affair. Paul Heckingbottom plays his old side in a Yorkshire derby. Of course, a lot will depend on this game too, but a defeat for the Reds at Elland Road and a home win on Wearside will mean we are only a point behind them. Barnsley do have a game in hand, at Forest on Tuesday night, so all eyes will continue to be on the Yorkshire outfit this week.
It’s a big weekend - lose and it’s all over, but win and we go to Fulham still fighting for our lives. Chris Coleman has said he thought we deserved more points from recent games and it is true; those six points we have lost from winning positions against Leeds, Norwich and Reading would have us already level with Birmingham and Bolton. The fact we have only three points from those games instead of nine is due, in large part, to the woeful efforts of defence, particularly our goalkeeper.
Lee Camp has rightly come under severe criticism this week, but today is a day we have to get behind the Lads. The talking will be over come 3pm and Sunderland still have the best fans in the country. Coleman will be relying on the passion from the stands to carry his side today, whilst Clough will be hoping Burton can turn frustration against the team. We have to be united today, for this one last push, even if it is hoping for a miracle from Camp and his defenders.
Our best chance of victory will always come from the other end of the pitch. We have seen the impact Paddy McNair has had on the side since his return. His presence and power have been a huge miss and we do have to wonder what might have been had he been fit for longer periods this season. We clearly are a better side, in both balance and ability, with him in it.
The same can be said for Aiden McGeady in recent weeks. It has taken a while for Coleman to find the right blend and position for the Repblic of Ireland international to regain his early season form, but he has looked the part in the last month. We can only hope Callum McManaman can find similar good fortune in the closing stages of the campaign.
Coleman heaped praise on the winger this week, indicating that he is the type of character to build around next season. He certainly arrived with potential, but is yet to have a clear run in the side. Last week’s game at Reading was perhaps his best showing to date. Today he will need to carry on with that form. It is hoped, with the manager’s comments ringing in his ears, his tail will be up and will drive us on.
Whatever happens come 5pm this evening and whatever happens elsewhere, Sunderland simply have to look back on this afternoon’s game and know they gave their all. The players, fans and staff have to leave nothing behind.
It’s a huge ask, to claw our way out of the clutches of League One, but it’s not beyond hope. Not yet. Not mathematically. And until it is, we have to keep going and keep believing.