Sunderland will be playing Premier League football next season after manager Sam Allardyce masterminded their latest escape act.
A 3-0 win over Everton confirmed their top flight status for yet another campaign.
Here, North-East football correspondent Craig Hope looks at how he achieved survival after inheriting a team former boss Dick Advocaat said were heading for the Championship…
Sam Allardyce (left) celebrates after his Sunderland side secured their Premier League survival
Lamine Kone (left), Jermain Defoe and Younes Kaboul hug each other after their side’s third goal
Sam Allardyce walked into the Hilton Garden Inn next door to the Stadium of Light on Thursday afternoon and bought all of his Sunderland players a beer.
Nursing a hangover himself, the manager invited his squad to make it the first of many. That, though, is about as old school as Allardyce gets these days.
There is a perception of the 61-year-old as a football boss of a bygone era, all long balls and long runs, drinking sessions instead of training sessions. It is, in fact, such opinion which is antiquated.
Even encouraging his players to overindulge in the 24 hours after their 3-0 victory over Everton on Wednesday – ensuring Premier League survival – had its foundations in psychology, for he will tell you that camaraderie, laughter and shared memories are ingredients of any successful dressing room.
Indeed, everything Allardyce does is geared towards extracting the maximum from mind and body. The marginal gains he calls it, the small things that make a big difference.
That much was evident on Wednesday night. Arriving at the ground together after a pre-match meal, the players stopped when noticing a pair of framed photographs on the wall outside of the home dressing-room. They were new. It was Allardyce’s doing.
For there before his squad were shots of them celebrating during the 3-2 victory over Chelsea four days earlier.
After that come-from-behind triumph, Jermain Defoe spoke of the goosebumps he had felt and tears which had rolled as the stadium erupted in the wake of his winning goal.
Defoe has flourished under Allardyce and has been key in helping keep the Black Cats in the top flight
Sunderland’s players DeAndre Yedlin (left) and Patrick van Aanholt laugh and joke at the final whistle
Allardyce hung up pictures of his side’s comeback victory against Chelsea to help inspire his players
Allardyce wanted to use the emotion and memory of that match as motivation and club staff were soon instructed to print, mount and frame two giant images of a shirtless Defoe being mobbed by his team-mates and of Fabio Borini celebrating as he dashes by Footballer of the Year Eden Hazard, head bowed and beaten.
What followed against Everton was another inspirational display of might, pride and passion. There is little doubt they are playing for their manager.
‘He fills you with confidence, the way he says it, it makes you believe it,’ said captain Lee Cattermole.
As the pressure intensified at the start of April – they were four points adrift of safety – Allardyce told his players to board the team coach one morning for a change of scenery.
And so, passing balls around the dog walkers on a biting and blustery Roker Beach, his players began preparations for the relegation run-in.
But the seaside diversion was a canny ploy built on more than sand and what followed was an unlikely return of 11 points from 18 to secure their top-flight status with a game to spare.
Such a scenario was unimaginable when Allardyce arrived in October with the team winless and demoralised by Dick Advocaat’s abdication.
It was a risk for a manager who had never been relegated from the Premier League, a fact he was never shy in reminding us.
But perhaps that inner belief – at times bordering on arrogance – is the root of his strength and success.
He trusts his methods but at the same time is desperate to add to them, challenging staff to tell him something he doesn’t already know.
On the wall of his office at the Academy of Light is a poster of golfer Gary Player with his famous quote, ‘The more I practice, the luckier I get’.
The sentiment behind Player’s words echo that of Allardyce’s hunger for knowledge and advantage.
Each day, his players make a short dash wearing just their underpants from the back door of the training ground to the cryotherapy chamber, a ‘human ice box’ where they endure temperatures of minus 140C in a bid to aid muscle recovery.
Does it work? Current number of Sunderland players injured: none.
Indeed, Allardyce was more than a little miffed when his chamber was taken away to be used during the Six Nations in February and was concerned to learn that it had malfunctioned earlier this week.
Defoe spoke of the goosebumps he felt and tears which had rolled as the stadium erupted
Dick Advocaat left the club at the start of the season, with Sunderland winless and looked poised for the drop
Their poor start to the season saw them spend the majority of it in the bottom three of the Premier League
But there is data aligned to the treatment, for as one insider said: ‘It’s not just a case of freezing your nuts off’.
Allardyce and his backroom team know exactly when players are ready to train and by what percentage they have recovered.
They are fitted with GPS tracking devices during training and Allardyce later crunches the numbers in a room which is akin to a scientific laboratory. There is also a mobile-phone app enabling players to watch team talks and tactics sessions.
All of that, though, is no substitute for his hands-on work on the training field, and again it comes back to the words of golf legend Player – for repetition is the key with Allardyce.
Kone is held aloft by his team-mates after scoring the third goal against Everton to seal the victory
Allardyce fist pumps following a goal and can now look forward to playing Premier League football next season
The former defender will spend hours dragging centre backs Lamine Kone and Younes Kaboul around a deserted penalty box before barking further instruction from the touchline. After four clean sheets in the last seven, they are obviously listening.
But Allardyce does not neglect his own wellbeing either and spends up to 30 minutes each day going through his transcendental meditation routine.
It clears his mind, he says, not that he ever arrives for a pre-match press conference with an empty head. For mind games – as much he protests otherwise – are still very much part of his managerial make-up.
Sunderland players celebrate their second goal at the Stadium of Light in what was a memorable night
Sunderland supporters were in full voice during the win as they saw rivals Newcastle get relegated
He did, after all, attempt to wind up Crystal Palace’s players this month by accusing them of ‘being on the pop’ after reaching the FA Cup final and declared how they would surrender to defeat at Sunderland’s relegation rivals Newcastle. The response was an energised performance, even if they did slip to a 1-0 loss.
But next in his sights, it would appear, is Sunderland owner Ellis Short. Asked if he could guarantee he would still be in charge next season, Allardyce used the opportunity to shift power to his side of the table ahead of next week’s talks over where the club goes from here.
‘I don’t know (if I’ll be here), he said. ‘I will not know until we have that conversation.
‘My persuasive attitude might help. But I look forward to that conversation because it has been such a great achievement for me and I want to take this club forward.’
Sunderland’s players will certainly drink to that in the coming days.
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