Poyet was gone. Gus may have taken us to Wembley and pulled off the great escape of 2014 but, as the Wear-Tyne derby on 5th April 2015 loomed on the horizon, a humiliating 4-0 defeat at home to Aston Villa in mid-March was the final straw for Ellis Short and the Sunderland board. On Tuesday 16th March they took the then annual decision to roll the dice and see if a famous face in the dugout would change our fortunes.
Their chosen man was Dick Advocaat, who came with the highest pedigree but no Premier League experience, on a short term contract until the end of the season. The Dutchman’s previous clubs jobs had included PSV Eindhoven, Rangers and Zenit St Petersburg, where he won the UEFA Cup, interspersed with two spells in charge of the Netherlands, taking them to third place at Euro 2004, as well as stints in charge of Belgium, South Korea and Serbia. Sporting Director Lee Congerton was connected to through former Ajax striker Frank Arnesen and, on paper, this was a manager from the top-draw of European football being employed to do one thing - keep us up.
Advocaat’s first challenge was to take on the man who would ultimately succeed him at the Stadium of Light, Sam Allardyce, down at Upton Park. It was the 5.30pm game on the telly, West Ham were sitting in mid-table comfort but were in poor form, and hopes were relatively high amongst fans that Big Dick would have an immediate, and positive, impact on a dressing room utterly devoid of confidence.
Even though he was entering the dog-eat-dog world of surviving at the bottom end of the English top-flight afresh, the Guardian reported that, prior to the match, Advocaat was confident that his 12th club job wouldn’t be his first taste of the drop:
I’ve never been relegated. I always have the feeling I can never go down. If you see what I have done in the past, I’ve been quite successful. We have to play as a unit with the ball and without it. If we start playing again as a team, with everyone fighting for each other, then I’m not afraid of the results. We have enough quality. The good thing is that I can see the players want to prove themselves to the new manager – that’s always a good sign.
He didn't have much time to work with the players in preparation for the game, having been appointed only four days previously, but switched to a 4-3-3 formation, with Connor Wickham, Jermain Defoe and Steven Fletcher up front and Jack Rodwell and Jordi Gómez joining Seb Larsson in midfield. Anthony Reveillere, Wes Brown, John O’Shea and Patrick Van Aanholt were maintained at the back.
Despite the best efforts of both sides to break the deadlock, the Guardian would describe the game as being “desperately low on quality”. This was also reflected in the Roker Report Player Ratings for the game, which struggled to pick anyone as standing out amongst the Sunderland side beyond Van Aanholt, who was credited with a seven for a few decent forward surges and a decent long range shot late on that Adrian pushed behind.
We had our chances to win the game, none more so than when Defoe volleyed over Adrian’s bar when put clean through on goal in the first half, a considerably easier opportunity than the one he’d have a little over a week later. Defoe had earlier set up Wickham with a great ball into the box, and looked the most likely Sunderland player to score throughout, he couldn't get on the scoresheet against his first professional club.
We caught a lucky break in the second half when a clear penalty against O’Shea for a foul on Kevin Nolan was waved away for offside, even though it was the Sunderland man whose touch took the ball through to the former Newcastle man. Yet, ultimately, the Black Cats would be robbed of a precious point by another terrible refereeing error in the 88th minute, one that you’d probably see overturned in the era of VAR, by Lee Mason. Hammers substitute Nenê clattered into Sea Larsson as the Swede attempted to clear and everyone seemed to stop, expecting the whistle. But Diafra Sakho played on and ran through to slot the ball beyond Pantilimon and send the travelling support back up the A1 disappointed.
After the match, Advocaat told the BBC that he was encouraged by the performance of his new side:
I am happy with the effort, we had a discussion about that; how to show our fans what we can do. It is very difficult to play against a team like West Ham, with a lot of long balls, but we didn’t give away of lot chances. They are a good side but I didn’t expect them to score in the 88th minute.
Asked about the foul in the lead-up to the goal, that even Nenê himself admitted should have been called by the ref, the new gaffer was careful not to get himself in trouble with the authorities; “that was the right decision”, he agreed, “but he did not do that. And that’s all I’d like to say about that.”
Allardyce, who was already being talked of as the long-term solution as Sunderland manager, was happy to take the rub of the green when it came to refereeing errors:
There we go again, you know, mistakes by officials, they can happen and if they happen at the wrong time for you, and if we’d come in nil-nil, that might have been the wrong time. Whether Lee would have given a penalty [for the foul on Nolan] I don’t know, but in the end it doesn't matter, whatever decisions were right or wrong today by the assistant or referee, it hasn't affected us winning the game, which is very important.
Maybe [the Nenê decision] was a foul. In the throws of the game, those decisions - if things are going well for you and the forces are with you the referee don’t give those decisions and if you’re struggling and it’s not quite going your way, those decisions go against you. Maybe Sunderland feel aggrieved by that, but in the end it was a quality finish.
On the challenge ahead as Sunderland boss, Advocaat was optimistic, stating:
We’re still one point ahead, that must give us confidence that if we work, we can do the job. One or two players are coming back for the next game against Newcastle, and with the support of our fans, we have to do it at home.
This game also marks one of the darkest and most shameful moments in our history - the return from a short club-imposed suspension of Adam Johnson, who was on police bail following his arrest on 2nd March that would later see him convicted and imprisoned over child sex offences. It was a decision that should never have been made by the Sunderland board.
So that evening things should have felt pretty bleak as a Sunderland fan, with the side sat only a point above the relegation zone and a nonce on the bench, but the Roker Report match report concluded that it “didn’t look like a team who could get relegated” and that was certainly my memory of this closely fought match.
As we now know, better things were indeed to come eight days later, when we took on Newcastle United at the Stadium of Light.
Sunderland AFC: Pantilimon, Reveillere, O’Shea, Brown, Van Aanholt, Larsson, Rodwell, Gomez, Fletcher, Defoe, Wickham. Subs: Jones, Bridcutt, Johnson, Graham, Mannone, Vergini, Watmore.
West Ham United: Adrian, Jenkinson, Kouyate, Collins, Cresswell, Song, Noble, Jarvis, Nolan, Downing, Sakho. Subs: Nene, O’Brien, Demel, Amalfitano, Jaaskelainen, Poyet, Cole