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Derby glee brings Sunderland hope

Sunderland player Fabio Borini celebrates his winning goal against Newcastle last weekend.
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Jonathan Wilson

Jonathan Wilson is the editor of the football quarterly The Blizzard and writes for the Guardian, the National, Sports Illustrated, World Soccer and Cricinfo. He is the author of six books on football, including Inverting the Pyramid, which was named Football Book of the Year in both the UK and Italy. His latest book is The Outsider: A History of the Goalkeeper.

   
 

LONDON, ENGLAND

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Even by the standards of Tyne-Wear derbies, always one of the livelier fixtures on the calendar, the roar that greeted Fabio Borini’s winner on Sunday was ferocious. In part, it was the unexpectedness of the strike. Nothing that Borini had done in his brief spell at Sunderland so far had suggested he was likely suddenly to ping the ball into the top corner from 20 yards. Nor had anything in the half hour or so of play before that suggested Sunderland was likely to nick a winner.

Even when Jack Colback shoved the ball forwards to Jozy Altidore, the possibility of a goal seemed remote. It’s not clear whether Altidore meant his lay off, whether he had seen Borini cutting in from the left, or just happened to nudge the ball into his path as he looked to shield it from Mike Williamson. Essentially, from nothing, the ball emerged at Borini’s feet and a moment later it was lifting the net from its moorings. Six months and a week after Sunderland’s last Premier League win, there was a lot of frustration to be unleashed in that celebration.

In a sense, the win is an end in itself. Before the derby a lot of Sunderland fans admitted they’d happily take only four more points all season, so long as they were all against Newcastle. Relegation had been accepted as inevitable, nobody expects to win a trophy any more, and so they fell back on the parochialism that has sustained north-eastern football for most of the last half century. Sunderland last won a trophy in 1973, Newcastle in 1969; in a world that barren, laughing at your neighbors, neighbors with whom you’ve been jousting for 1500 years, through the monasteries, through the Norman invasion, through the Civil War, through the golden age of shipbuilding and coal-mining, through the strange, fragile economy of post-industrialism, takes on enormous importance.

But in the golden glow of a derby success -- the first time Sunderland had won two successive league derbies for 46 years -- everything looks slightly different. Sunday was a one-off, a game remote from the banal context of points and league tables, but as Sunderland prepare for Saturday’s trip to Hull City, its fans look at a league table and see it is off the bottom. It is four points from safety still, but there are 29 games remaining.

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Moreover, were Sunderland to win at Hull, it would actually be in exactly the same position as last season in terms of equivalent games (i.e., comparing the result in the home game against Fulham this season to the result in the home game against Fulham last, the result in the away game against Southampton this season to the result in the away game against Southampton and so on, replacing the relegated clubs with the promoted teams). For all the failures, the fixture list wasn’t kind, offering Sunderland all of a putative top six in its first eight home games. It must still play Manchester City, Chelsea and Tottenham in its next three home matches; the next match it might reasonably expect to win comes against Norwich on Dec. 21. The job now is to hang in and try not to be too far adrift when the slightly easier home games come around after Christmas.

After the worst start in Premier League history, survival is still a mightily difficult task, but there is at least a mood of positivity, one helped by the club’s American owner Ellis Short as he admitted he should never have appointed Paolo Di Canio, who was sacked as manager following a player mutiny against his dictatorial methods after 12 league games in charge. “The club has been in turmoil as a result of the change of head coach so early in the season,” Short said in his program notes for the derby. "I have to take the blame for that. Clearly at least one of the decisions I made over the last several months was the wrong one.”

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The Di Canio appointment was a disaster, not only because his approach to man-management generated hostility but because his reported political beliefs ran so contrary to those of the city (a foreign owner is an easy scapegoat, but nobody brought up in Sunderland would ever have appointed Di Canio). At least by taking responsibility, Short has begun clearing the air.

The other major issue is the summer signings, 14 of them, of which only two -- Altidore and Andrea Dossena -- started against Newcastle. Looked at individually, none of the signings is obviously terrible, but bringing in so many at once has a destabilizing effect. Perhaps Poyet’s plan is to begin a slow process of integration, but it might have been better if that had begun in July. Altidore was awful against Manchester United, when he seemed to become discouraged very early, but that aside his physicality has posed a threat; the question is whether Sunderland can afford to play two strikers, or whether that leaves it short in central midfield, as was the case on Sunday after a frenetic opening 20 minutes.

Tactical nuances, though, are for another day. Sunday brought hope and the reawakening of a possibility of survival. More than that, though, it brought glee.

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