It’s amazing, the highs and lows of being a Sunderland fan. The lows, admittedly, are far more frequent these days, but look what happens when we win a game of football?!
We start to believe again very quickly. Three points at Derby and, following Chris Coleman’s call for supporters to get behind the team, just under 30,000 turned up at the Stadium of Light in the hope that a corner was being turned.
As I said, the lows are far more frequent. Despite the Sunderland manager saying he couldn’t criticise the effort our quality was lacking and, without being able to take the lead, the usual gremlins were on show.
Any ball into our box is a dangerous one for a defence that is constantly left gazing around at their dejected colleagues and a goalkeeper who seemingly has forgotten how to keep the ball out of his net. Thus we went from winning 4-1 to losing 3-1 with largely the same team in the space of three days.
What happens now is anyone’s guess. Birmingham have staged their own recovery under new boss Garry Monk, and three consecutive wins puts them in relative safety. With Burton up next at St Andrews, I suspect it will be four from four. On the other hand, Reading have only won one in the last eleven and Bolton have only won once since beating us back in February.
If it was three from four previously, it’s now three from...well, could it be five? The slim hope is founded on mathematics: Birmingham - but more importantly - Bolton and Reading can still be caught over the course of the last six games.
Realistically, though, it is highly unlikely that Sunderland could win four or five of our last six games to overtake any of those three. Even then we’d still be relying on Barnsley and either Reading or Bolton (or both) losing more often than not.
I do feel today’s game at Leeds is something of a final opportunity. Bolton go to Derby, Reading host Preston and Barnsley entertain Sheffield United in a South Yorkshire derby (of sorts). Should Sunderland lose at Elland Road and any of those aforementioned games end positively for our rivals, we could be eleven points adrift with fifteen available.
But with a win at Leeds and results falling for us, we may find ourselves back to five points from safety with Burton and, crucially, Reading to play. Any kind of result today would have to generate momentum to carry us through the home game against Norwich City and into those two critical, season-defining matches.
Leeds themselves have plateaued out. They’ve only won once in the last six and their early season form has waned. Leeds fans would point to the fact that they currently occupy their usual mid-table position and that’s probably where they will end the season. Is now a good time to play them?
Chris Coleman knows, whether it is or not, there is only one result that will help us:
We’ve got to go into every game to try and win it. We went to Derby to try to win, we went into Sheffield Wednesday and tried to win. We’re not sitting back and trying to soak up pressure, we’ve got to go and win the game at Leeds. Coming back from Elland Road with a draw, we’re going to be disappointed. Normally you’d think that’s a good point; where we are, we’ve got to win the game.
Coleman has a few decisions to make, with regards team selection. Injuries may be forcing his hand, particularly at full-back where Donald Love and Adam Matthews may be our only fit options. Returning centre-halves Lamine Kone and Jake Clarke-Salter could offer alternatives in the heart of the defence and there are options in midfield and attack, if he wishes to freshen things up.
But whoever’s name is on the team-sheet at 2pm, they must carry the same attitude from the last two games into this one. Sunderland must be on the front foot and press high, force mistakes and create openings. Then, above all, take them. Our defence can’t be relied on not to conceded, so we have to be clinical when chances come our way.
A lot to ask, but if it doesn’t happen today, I suspect any sliver of hope will evaporate into the Yorkshire air.