Remember life before Allardyce? It seems like a long time ago that we were languishing at the foot of the Premier League table, with no wins from our opening eight games. Dick Advocaat was in the dugout, looking and acting like a man who’d made a mistake by agreeing to stay on for another season as Sunderland manager. He left telling anyone willing to listen that the squad he’d been left with wasn’t good enough to stay up.
In a sense, he was right. It took the ejection of some deadwood in January and the addition of three quality signings to bring about the upturn in form that would ultimately guarantee us a tenth consecutive season in the Premier League. However, he was also wrong; wrong to bring in the bad signings he did in the summer and wrong to play ridiculous gung-ho tactics that left us with one of the worst defensive records in the division.
Step up the saviour. I couldn’t give a toss what anyone thinks about us “hero worshipping” the big man, he’s earned it. He may not be glamorous, he may have a reputation for playing ugly football, he may be considered arrogant by many, but by God he knows how to fight a relegation battle.
When he celebrated on Wednesday night, he became the physical embodiment of how every single Sunderland fan felt. We showed our love and appreciation for him and he reciprocated. Something about his time here has simply clicked, and that moment, shared by thousands in the stands, the players, and of course him, just confirmed he belongs here.
I love Big Sam. I love his arrogance, if that’s what you want to call it; maybe he’s just self-assured? Whatever it is, when it’s going well and he’s winning games, it’s infectious. He’s confident, in control and tactically shrewd. People might not attach fancy labels to him or his style of play, but it is nowhere near as bad as many would have you believe.
Indeed, his brand of football is the perfect fit for Sunderland and it gets results. To take a side with three points from nine games, to 38 points from 37 games, is quite incredible. We’ve played some lovely stuff since he took over, and none more so than in the two wins that confirmed our survival over the last week.
You could tell it meant as much to those players as it did to us. It’s not the first time we’ve seen an outpouring of emotion after surviving what looked like certain relegation, but this team has quality in it too. We scored from three set pieces against Everton, but all of them came about after exciting build up play and in the case of the third, a narrowly missed chance by another hero, Jermain Defoe.
Defoe, another of Sam’s great successes. He’s always had the ability, the knack of scoring goals, but he never looked like a lone striker. He does now. He looks every inch a player who can, and indeed has performed that role admirably this season. He may be diminutive, but he holds it up well, battles for every ball and tirelessly runs in behind defences, no matter many times a ball aimlessly sails past him. His goals have been crucial, but so has Sam’s role in getting him to play so effectively up there on his own.
Then there are his three January signings (forget N’Doye, he won’t be staying), Kirchhoff, Kone and Khazri. We can only hope for more of the same this summer, starting with Yann M’Vila on a permanent deal (please). He’s been a class act, the one bit of quality added last summer. His form dipped briefly, but when we were at our absolute worst, he continued to graft and shine, a bright spot in dark times. He’s finished the season strongly, and alongside Jan Kirchhoff, has formed the base upon which our survival has been built and is my player of the season.
Kirchhoff has become the architect in this Sunderland team, a steady influence, while Khazri has buzzed around like a wasp, tirelessly chasing, harrying and making a nuisance of himself. Lamine Kone meanwhile – alongside the formidable Younes Kaboul – is the brick wall at the back. These three players have not only improved the side with their own ability, but formed vital partnerships across the pitch, increasing the sum of the parts around them.
With Allardyce at the helm, it feels like anything is possible. Some may laugh at that notion, but having watched he’s done here in a short time, I’m excited. Genuinely excited. I can’t wait for next season.