Captain's Blog: Battle-Weary Cats Crying Out For Fresh Legs
‘Everton'. The name drips with evil. Well, it doesn't really. They are a club I have a lot of time for, in fact. But the word alone is enough to bring out even the most mentally tough Sunderland fan into a cold sweat. That Everton would brush aside Sunderland with such consummate ease was the most predictable thing of the whole weekend, and bare in mind that it was a weekend that included rain on a bank holiday.
Like most, I was encouraged when I saw the Everton team sheet on Monday afternoon. Without Leighton Baines, Tim Cahill, Nikica Jelavic, Sylvain Distin, and Royston Drenthe, it looked like Sunderland never had a better chance to end their Toffees hoodoo.
But, almost perversely, the absence of those players proved critical in the result, as their fresh-legged understudies overpowered their battle-weary opponents in the final 20 minutes of what was, until then, a tight and timid affair.
Martin O'Neill decided on making just the one injury-enforced change from the team that battled to a credible draw against Tottenham just two days earlier.
That wasn't necessarily a surprise. O'Neill has long been a manager who places high emphasis on continuity and consistency in his team selections. There is much to be said for the policy and looking at his track record you have to say it has served him well. Indeed, a steadfast refusal to provide any given team or system a chance to develop before inexplicably overreacting and rolling the dice again was a persistent criticism aimed at his predecessor.
But concessions must still be made on occasion. With all the best will in the world, expecting players to play two Premier League games again quality opposition in 3 days and maintain competitive energy levels is a huge ask.
The Sunderland squad is not the biggest by any means, but there is some depth to it. Kieran Richardson and Wayne Bridge have a proven pedigree, while many others such as David Meyler and Connor Wickham need games and have a clear hunger to prove themselves.
Carrying such players in reserve comes at some expense - far too much to provide mere cover for injuries and the odd late substitution. It is when the fixture list is cruel, particularly after such a gruelling FA Cup run, when those players can justify the expense, but only if they are given the opportunity to do so.
There has been a lot of criticism of O'Neill's decision to employ Stephane Sessegnon as a lone forward at Goodison Park, but I don't think that in itself was a problem. It has worked before, and shoring up the midfield with an extra body seemed a reasonable enough call given the ease with which The Toffees dominated that area in the recent cup game.
It only became a problem when it was apparent that the legs in midfield were too heavy to adequately support Sessegnon, or even get close enough to him to ensure he received the correct kind of service. You are liable to lose enough games as it is in the Premier League due to quality opposition and questionable officiating. The last thing you want to do is needlessly add tired legs to that list.
Despite the Everton result, we must, of course, be careful not to allow ourselves to wallow in incredulity. If the me who sat stony-faced and despairing at the sight of Franco Di Santo rolling in Wigan's winner at The Stadium of Light in November could see me even daring to have a moan about a single defeat that knocked us out of the top half of the Premier League in April, I'm pretty sure I'd be left with an interesting tale to tell about where I got a pair of black eyes.
The challenge for Sunderland now must be to not allow the season to fizzle out, and the way the Premier League prize money is structured certainly provides incentive for a strong finish. The difference between 12th and 7th position is a staggering £4m, which is a figure that could make a big difference in O'Neill's summer transfer kitty.
The remaining fixtures appear to be relatively kind to Sunderland, especially given that Manchester United appear all but certain to have wrapped up the title before their final day visit to Wearside.
The goal of fighting for mere prize money and pride at this stage of the season certainly isn't glamorous and it isn't what we hoped for back in August when spirits were high and optimism reigned supreme, but it is considerably better than what we all feared it would be before O'Neill's arrival. The upcoming home games against Wolves and Bolton could have very easily been desperate relegation 6-pointers, after all, and I think we have all had our fill of those over the years.