Were the Premier League years really that much fun?
Yes, the miraculous escapes were great in the moment – but the joy of scraping home once more was heavily laced with the hope that next season could – should, would – be better.
We could use the experience as a platform from which to grow. The experience would serve us well. The recruitment would be better. With three new teams coming up, surely the gap between us and the bottom of the league would naturally grow?
And that was the mindset we were all in seven years ago, as Sunderland clinched survival – again – this time away at Arsenal.
For Dick Advocaat, the decorated Dutch manager, it was mission accomplished.
The former Rangers man had been parachuted in to replace Gus Poyet before the coach who’d led us to Wembley the previous season had had the chance to get along Wessington way and onto the A19. Cynical, maybe – but a far better approach than we witnessed earlier this year.
Poyet’s departure wasn’t unexpected. Results weren’t great, granted – we’d drawn three and lost four of his last seven games – but it was the performance at home to Aston Villa that really put the final few nails in his coffin. We were 4-0 by halftime (the game, somehow, remained scoreless in the second half), and if ever a performance screamed ‘see ya’, this was it.
Advocaat was a surprise choice to take the job, until it was revealed he had connections with the increasingly influential Lee Congerton, via the Sporting Director’s mentor Frank Arnesen, and the 67-year-old joined the club until the end of the season.
Steve McLaren, Derby’s manager at the time, remained our long-term target, however.
Sunderland were just one point off the relegation zone when Ellis Short decided to drop the guillotine, and Advocaat had nine games in which to save the season – five of which were away, including Arsenal and Chelsea.
While a 1-0 defeat to a West Ham team managed by Sam Allardyce – who would, of course, ultimately replace Advocaat five months later – didn’t get the Dutchman’s reign off to the best of starts, the 1-0 victory over Newcastle the following weekend will live long in the memory.
Fast forward a month and a bit, and Sunderland went into the final week of the season with our destiny still in doubt.
We needed a point from two games to guarantee anything, but with those games being away at Arsenal and Chelsea, confidence wasn’t too high.
What did give us a bit of hope, however, was that Advocaat had tightened up the defence – we’d conceded only two goals in the previous four games, and went to The Emirates on the back of a couple of clean sheets. Three wins, two draws and two defeats marked a major uptick in form.
One of the rock upon which our new-found defensive solidity had been built was Poyet’s compatriot Sebastian Coates. The on-loan Liverpool defender had found game time and form hard to come by prior to Advocaat’s arrival, but had suddenly emerged as a credible defender – just in the nick of time.
And it was Coates – helped spectacularly by keeper Costel Pantilimon, who led a splendid rearguard action against Arsenal.
Coates, alongside John O’Shea, was a rock, and when the Arsenal attack did penetrate the defence, they found Pantilimon in fine form.
While Arsene Wenger’s side had 75% possession and 28 shots – eight on target – we held firm, denying Arsenal too many clear cut chances.
Jack Wilshere and Olivier Giroud missed good chances, as did Kieran Gibbs, while Alexis Sanchez was denied by a spectacular block from Coates.
It was far from one-way traffic, though, and on the break, we threatened – Steven Fletcher, who came on at half time for Danny Graham, missing three excellent chances.
Still, we held on for the point, and Advocaat was reduced to tears as he lapped up what was a terrific achievement.
The easiest way to work with the team is by telling them what they have to do, and we started that from ‘day one’, and they believed in that. Nobody was expecting that we would do it here, against a great team on a great pitch.
But if you can do it on your own, like we did, that gives me a special feeling. I’m not (often in tears after a game) but maybe this was a special reason.
With a deal until the end of the season, Advocaat was facing calls for him to stay on as manager.
I repeat - I have not made a decision yet on my future. I have not given Sunderland an answer, either one way or another. I will not do that until next week when I will let them know. Nobody knows yet what I will do.
There is potential at this club. I know the owner and, like me, he wants this club to be at the other end of the table. The club need to set up for next season but when I see what has happened in the past, things can be done much better in my opinion.
The Premier League is a great league with great stadiums. It’s a cliche but every game is tough. It’s not like Scotland with Rangers where, apart from Celtic, we were always winning at home. It was more difficult away, but here it is difficult both home and away.
I can’t quite remember how the next few months played out.
But I think it involved flowers.