Paolo Di Canio tucked his hands deep in his pockets, slumped his shoulders and slowly headed down the tunnel. The furrowed brow he wore will last for at least another two days. There is much to ponder.
For the fifth time, Sunderland’s supporters watched the penultimate game of the season not knowing if they would start the following campaign in the Premier League. That is beyond careless. That explains the boos that came at full-time. Di Canio wore a tee-shirt under his suit, thanking his late parents, for a lap of thanks few stayed for. He left the jacket on.
Sunderland’s supporters deserve better. Their misery could be resolved by Tuesday night, when Wigan face Arsenal. If Wigan do not win, it would be almost inconceivable for Roberto Martinez and his players to survive. As the FA Cup final proved, however, Wigan cannot be written off. Thus Sunderland have two more days of misery and then, if Wigan win, they will travel to Tottenham with shredded nerves. Di Canio called it a miracle that his side still have their future in their own hands, but that point at Tottenham, which is what they will need to guarantee survival if Wigan beat Arsenal, is a big ask.
“The environment was dead,” Di Canio said of the club when he arrived at the start of April. “So they have already done an incredible job. There was no bond. The players were not very close together. When we stay up – and we will stay up – we will have done an incredible job.
“We have got eight points from six games. If you had offered me a contract with eight points from six games when I came, I would have signed it straight away. We have restored their way to believe.
“A point against Southampton is a small step and an important step. We didn’t deserve to be winning. Southampton played better football than us. It is difficult for us. We don’t have many players.”
Di Canio did not dwell long on the form that has brought just two points from the last three games, all against teams around them fighting relegation. He has precious little to work with. Five players who might have made an impact at White Hart Lane are not available. Sunderland have nowhere near the strength in depth not to feel the absence of Steven Fletcher, Lee Cattermole, Stéphane Sessègnon, Craig Gardner and the on-loan defender Danny Rose, who cannot play against his parent club.
His team looked like they were down to the bare bones as they fought to stop their season going down to the wire. With the scoreline level late on, Sunderland broke, with Danny Graham and the substitute Connor Wickham their only attacking options. Graham has not scored in all competitions for over 1,000 minutes. Wickham has scored once in the Premier League, and it was not this season. Such are the paltry resources Di Canio is trying to save a football club with. He was annoyed last week when there was celebration at Wigan’s loss to Swansea, and that is understandable. There is a loser’s culture at Sunderland. The failure of others can mask failings closer to home. It could change if they retain their Premier League status, but Tuesday night will see Wearside tuned in to The Emirates. Wigan not winning is by far the lesser of two evils.
Sunderland were winning yesterday, through a deflected Phil Bardsley strike that ricocheted off Jos Hooiveld in the 68th minute, but it only lasted eight minutes. It was an undeserved lead, as Di Canio admitted.
Mauricio Pochettino will not make many better substitutions than the double one he made in the 73rd minute. Three minutes later, sub one, James Ward-Prowse, crossed into the middle of the Sunderland penalty area and sub two, Jason Puncheon, put the ball past Simon Mignolet at the second attempt. The point was enough to keep Southampton in the Premier League.
“The players have been amazing in the four months I’ve been here,” said Pochettino. “It’s a very demanding league, it is very tough, you have to be mentally and physically prepared. It is especially tough in the last 10 games. We’re very happy. The club wants to keep looking forward.”