On 11th May 1991 Sunderland took 15,000 fans down to Maine Rd on the final game of the season there was a feint glimmer of hope that we could survive relegation from the top flight and just before half time Gary Bennett headed us into a 2-1 lead. It was not to be however and Sunderland lost 3-2 and were relegated. The only reason Sunderland had hope was because they had done their best to fashion a great escape in previous games, all starting with a 2-1 win against Luton Town and a couple of successive draws including a wet, windy 0-0 draw with Arsenal at Roker Park which was live on telly and included the immortal words of Jimmy Greaves “Look at them down there with their tops off and we’re sat up here like a couple of dickheads”. We had gone into the game against Man City level on points with Luton and level on goal difference which meant that we just needed to better what Luton did based on the fact that Luton had scored more goals than us. As it happens it didn’t really matter as Luton overcame already relegated Derby County and took advantage of the reduced relegation places due to a league expansion. Now I’m not saying that I’m bitter about all of that but it was an early introduction of developing a dislike of a team to which I had absolutely no connection.
16 years later, therefore, I took great delight in our 5-0 victory at Kenilworth Road which secured our return to the top flight with a trophy in tow as Luton were relegated. Perhaps I took too much pleasure in it. This was, after all, a club which had bucked the trend somewhat over the years and their underdog status in the top flight had stolen them some headlines. Now their fans were experiencing a catastrophic slide which ultimately would see them drop out of the league without a return for 5 years. Return however, they have. Not only have they returned but they sit above us in the league. This is a fairly remarkable feat given they were promoted last season and haven’t spent any transfer fees. Now is not the time for nostalgia though, now is the time for ruthlessness and efficiency. If Sunderland beat Luton on Saturday then we move above them with a game in hand. Psychologically that is a big advantage because it sounds the klaxon to them, and others, that we are now the team to catch. With that comes pressure on our players too of course. Pressure to retain the position; but it is undoubtedly better to be sitting in position with people chasing than to be in the hunting pack.
Luton Town, in hindsight, had a stinker in terms of opening fixture lists starting away to Portsmouth and then welcoming us to Kenilworth Rd before taking on early contenders Peterborough. It is understandable that they started with a stutter. Come the end of September though they started to show some real mettle and indeed a knack for goals; something was definitely going right at Kenilworth Road and many put that firmly at the feet of Nathan Jones, the manager who has led them to this point with a 51% win ratio. Jones is a devout Christian and wears his faith on his sleeve, quite literally as his tattoos will attest to. The problem with having a manager with Jones’ record is of course that his success will be noticed and it didn’t really take that long for Stoke to swoop. All of this means that when Luton come to town they will do so without a full time manager. This does not of course mean that they will be easy to beat, far from it. I would imagine that he has parted Luton with a rousing speech for the players to beat Sunderland for him and the spirit in the side suggests they will embrace that message. There has not yet been enough time passed to erode the mentality and tactics Jones brought to the Hatters. Of course we hope for a win and on paper we should have enough for that if you remove the Jones effect, but it is far from a home banker. What is perhaps more likely is that over the course of the rest of the season Luton will fade as, week by week, their managerial loss begins to change the mentality at the club. What Sunderland need to do is make sure that they are the ones who capitalise on that and that has to begin on Saturday. There are other teams just below us who are thinking the same thing and now is the point of the season where the front pack start to make their moves. This is not a must win game in terms of getting above Luton, this is a must win game to make sure that we are ahead of the rest of the chasing pack all of whom will have seen Jones’ departure as an opportunity. Ruthless efficiency on Saturday is what is required and if we are bolstered with new signings in January then Portsmouth will begin to look over their shoulders while Charlton and Barnsley bare their teeth behind us.