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You’d struggle to find a single Sunderland fan that has anything too positive about the David Moyes era at the Stadium of Light, so it is easy to forget perhaps that the dismal relegation that was suffered under the Scot often looked like it could have been avoided.
The Lads finished bottom of the Premier League in 2016-17, 16 points off safety, as the culmination of poor decision-making and desperate tail chasing over the previous few years finally caught up. There was a stage as late as February though where the team were only two points adrift of 17th however, and before the turn of the new year there had even been a period where it felt as if a corner was possibly going to be turned.
After waiting until November for a first league win there were two more victories in the next three fixtures. The mood crashed back down after a dreadful defeat to Swansea City, but then a decent showing against Chelsea in midweek meant that when Watford arrived on this day there was still hope of a longer term revival.
Costel Pantilimon was to be an unused substitute for the visitors but it was the presence of his former Sunderland teammate Younes Kaboul in the Hornets’ defence that served as a painful reminder of the disastrous summer transfer window that was the source of so many of Moyes’ issues. The Frenchman had admittedly asked to leave due to personal reasons, but his departure highlighted the lack of planning and diligence with regards to recruitment on Wearside, with the funds that were available being wasted on ill-judged misfits and a lazily identified old pals act.
That said, there was still some individual quality within the squad and in an edgy encounter the side came out on top courtesy of their fleeting moments of class, Sunderland going ahead just after the break when they broke out quickly from their own half. Jason Denayer gave the ball to fellow loanee Adnan Januzaj, and his smart turn opened up space for him to put Jermain Defoe through into the box; the forward pulled it back for Patrick van Aanholt and with Christian Kabasele unable to nip in ahead the fullback found the net as he swivelled.
It was an incisive attack, and midway through the half Victor Anichebe flashed an effort wide following another dangerous attack. Watford meanwhile huffed and puffed without ever really testing the emerging Jordan Pickford, whilst John O’Shea and Sebastian Larsson came on in the final minutes to help see things out – these were the type of characters that could be counted on to do it consistently rather than just when they fancied it, but sadly the same couldn’t be said for all their teammates.
The victory lifted Sunderland to 18th, one point shy at that stage of the dotted line. Fans allowed themselves to be cautiously optimistic, but inside the camp all was not well and gaps between those that applied themselves fully and those that didn’t were forming. This was no ’15 point’ season where each player was giving their all but falling short as a collective, this was a squad where the talent that was present was being stymied by the hotchpotch and lackadaisical nature of those around them and a shocking lack of leadership from above.
It is hugely frustrating to look back on how, even with these problems, the club could have retained their topflight status had they been slightly better at certain stages of the campaign. The poor form of others meant that despite some appalling performances it took a long time for Sunderland to get cut adrift, and it was only in the final third of the season that they really fell away when those that were still trying were overwhelmed completely by the negativity and continual turmoil around them. The writing had long been on the wall before that however, and after beating Watford it would be a full calendar year virtually before the next home win – a legacy of the death by a thousand cuts that Sunderland is only fully resurrecting itself from now, several years later.
Saturday 17 December 2016
Sunderland 1 (van Aanholt 49’)
Sunderland: Pickford; Love (Larsson 88’), Kone, Djilobodji, van Aanholt; Borini (Khazri 90’), Denayer, Ndong, Januzaj (O’Shea 80’); Defoe, Anichebe. Unused: Mannone, Robson, Honeyman, Asoro.
Stadium of Light, attendance 40,267