Six years ago today, Big Sam had not yet worked his miracle and, despite two wins on the bounce against Aston Villa and Swansea, there was a sense of foreboding going into this away game against Mauricio Pochettino’s all-star Tottenham Hotspur team.
Added to the matchday squad for the first time was new signing Jan Kirchhoff, but unfortunately, this was not the game where we would get to appreciate the pedigree of a player who had impressed enough in his early career to earn a transfer to German giants Bayern München. Indeed, it turned out to be a bit of a nightmare for the debutant.
Also starting for Sunderland the first time in the league was a young 21-year-old Washington lad named Jordan Pickford, who had debuted in the 3-1 FA Cup defeat to Arsenal a week before, chosen ahead of Vito Mannone.
Spurs sat third in the Premier League at this point, just a point behind their north London rivals Arsenal but still a long way off the eventual champions, Leicester City, who had beaten them three days previously to make a decisive break for the most unlikely title of modern times.
That loss effectively marked the end of their title challenge, which had been faltering since mid-November and they were on a run of only one win in eight league games. Sunderland felt the backlash from their frustration - they’d probably never get a better chance to claim the crown than this.
And things looked to be getting even worse for them when, on 40 minutes, Sunderland took the lead through Patrick van Arnholt, the Dutch international scoring from close range. However, the home side was back level almost immediately, the Danish star Eriksen pouncing after Pickford had parried the initial shot, and Lee Cattermole somehow failed to clear it off the line - instead, the ball hit off him and found the roof of the net.
In the second half, Spurs asserted their dominance over the plucky visitors. Moussa Dembele, whose absence from the Spurs side was perhaps the cause of their downturn in form, gave them the lead on 59 minutes, cutting in from the right to bury a low show into the bottom corner of Pickford’s goal.
Kirchhoff made his bow at that sate, replacing Danny Graham, but eight minutes later disaster struck as he sought to block Eriksen’s 25-yard shot, which looped off him and into the net to put the game beyond Sunderland.
Pickford showed his immense potential throughout with a string of saves, the best of which perhaps came on 70 minutes when he dived athleticly to his right to stop a Harry Kane shot from inside the 18 yard box.
The scoring was rounded off on 79 minutes when Kane converted a penalty kick, which had been conceded when Kirchhoff careered into former Sunderland loanee Danny Rose, catching his heal and sending the fullback tumbling. It left Mike Dean with an easy decision to make, and left Sunderland well beaten.
After the match Allardyce was full of praise for Pickford, and thought his side were probably better value than the scoreline suggested:
Playing a keeper at a young age is not an easy decision to make. But I thought he handled it well. He might not play too many more games this season because Vito Mannone has done a fantastic job. The rest of the team up to 65 minutes were doing the job right but in the last 20 they failed miserably.
Our players put themselves in one fantastic position and then in the space of a minute conceded. It’s one of the reasons we ended up losing.
If we came in at half-time 1-0 up we could have built on that. It was a really sloppy thing to do. We ran out of legs in the end. In the last quarter, physically we were tiring.
I changed the shape but that didn’t work. The scoreline, 4-1, looks more comfortable than it was.
Pochettino also picked out Pickford for his performance in his post-match comments:
We had a lot of shots on target - their goalkeeper was fantastic. I feel very pleased in the last few games. The belief is fantastic. We have a very good, strong squad - today was a good example.
Both Pickford and Kirchhoff would go on to prove their worth in the run-in. Despite being outclassed at White Hart Lane that day, we were able to pick ourselves up and give other top sides much more of a game, with victory over Manchester United, a 2-2 draw against Liverpool, and, of course, the 3-2 win over Chelsea being crucial to our eventual resurrection from almost certain relegation.
But I must admit though, after this game, I was far from confident that the survival mission would be successful as the gulf between us and the international quality sides in the Premier League at that point just seemed so vast. It just goes to show that results in January don’t always predict how the season will end.
Tottenham Hotspur (4-2-3-1): Lloris (c), Trippier, Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Rose, Dier, Dembele (Carroll 80’), Lamela (Onomah 73’), Eriksen, Alli, Kane (Son 87’).
Subs: Vorm, Davies, Wimmer, Carroll, Chadli, Onomah, Son
Goals: Eriksen (42’, 67’) Dembele (59’) Kane (79’)
Sunderland (4-3-3): Pickford, Jones, Van Aanholt, O’Shea (c), Brown, Cattermole (Rodwell 53’), M’Vila, Johnson, Lens (Watmore 76’), Graham (Kirchhoff 58’), Defoe.
Subs: Mannone, Kirchhoff, Coates, Rodwell, Watmore, Borini, Fletcher.
Goals: Van Aanholt (41’)