On the morning on 7 May 2016, Sunderland were staring relegation in the face. By 5pm, they were euphoric. At the start of play, Sam Allardyce’s men were in 18th spot, one point behind bitter rivals Newcastle United.
Things did not look good, Sunderland were playing Chelsea, who were just starting to pick up form under Gus Hiddink, whilst Newcastle had already-relegated Aston Villa to play that afternoon. The Magpies were set to all-but relegate Sunderland, but football doesn’t always follow the script.
It looked set to be fairly routine in the beginning. Chelsea were a clear class above Sunderland, Hazard and Willian were causing problems early on and eventually got a bit of luck as a deflection off DeAndre Yedlin landed at the feet of Diego Costa and it was 1-0.
The thing about that Chelsea team was they weren’t able to kill games off, and an absolute wonder strike by Wahbi Khazri just before half time got the Stadium of Light on its feet. The thing about any Sunderland team is they can’t defend. The players' heads were already in the dressing room as Matic drifted through the Black Cats like a prime Beckenbauer and restored Chelsea’s lead in added time. Normally that would be it. Normally.
This wasn’t a normal Sunderland team, suspect defending aside, as Sam Allardyce instilled everything the Mackem faithful wanted in their team in the second half of that season. In the second half of the game, Sunderland were unplayable.
In the space of five minutes, everything changed. Chelsea had been on the back foot since the restart as Sunderland played in a way not seen again in England until Jurgen Klopp perfected his Liverpool side. On 67 minutes, Patrick van Aanholt made a marauding run to the left byline and played an exquisite ball back to Fabio Borini at the back of the box, for the Italian showman to score against his former club via a deflection off John Terry’s groin.
Next Yedlin dribbled down the right and put a hopeful cross into the box that Mikel John Obi could only deflect to Jermain Defoe, eight yards out, one on one. You know what happened next. Sunderland were in dreamland, a dominant midfield performance saw out the game, John Terry saw red much to the crowd's delight, and one of the great Stadium of Light victories was crowned.
Key Talking Point
The Black Cats were extremely difficult to beat going into the game, having only lost four of the previous 16 matches since the turn of the year. The unfortunate thing was that their form in 2015 had been beyond awful, and only four of the 12 games they hadn't lost in 2016 were wins.
Draws had stopped being good enough by that point and the players knew it. They’d taken a while to get going, but they’d adapted to Big Sam’s new tactics – set up in a narrow 4-3-3. He used dominant centre-backs, wing-backs who provided creativity, a midfield trio who combined athleticism with ball retention, and a front three who combined incisive movement with clinical finishing. Does that sound familiar?
The whole system was built around getting the best from Defoe, and boy did it ever. He silenced every critic who claimed he was past his best in his three years on Wearside, by playing arguably his best football there. He proved the difference on the day, his movement providing Borini space for his goal before he slotted home the winner himself in trademark style.
Sunderland Player Ratings
Starting XI: Mannone (6); Yedlin (7), Kone (6), Kaboul (7), van Aaanholt (8); Cattermole (7), Kirchhoff (8), M’Vila (9); Borini (8), Defoe (9), Khazri (8).
Substitutes: O’Shea (7), Watmore (7), Larsson (6).
When he was young and playing for Rennes, the Frenchman was one of the most sought after players in Europe, forever 'reportedly' on the cusp of breaking Arsenal’s transfer record. He only ended up at Sunderland because he needed to rebuild his career after choosing money in a deal with Rubin Kazan and enduring a horrific time which included suffering racist abuse from his own fans.
Sam Allardyce immediately knew what a player he had inherited from Dick Advocaat, and utilised M’Vila’s strengths to the fullest, demonstrated perfectly in his performance against Chelsea. He bullied Mikel, kept Fabregas quiet and helped Cattermole to stop Matic influencing the middle. He must have covered every blade of grass that game.
Yann fell in love with Sunderland during his loan, and it’s a crime that David Moyes didn’t exercise the first option to buy. M’Vila is arguably the best midfielder to play for Sunderland in the Premier League era.
Key Talking Point
As far as hangovers go, this season was a full bottle of tequila mixed with absinthe. Officially the worst Premier League title defence (only for one season, thanks to Leicester) it could have been a whole lot worse had Gus Hiddink not came in and done his normal favour to Abramovich.
Jose Mourinho was gone by December but his sluggish players were not, and if anyone needed evidence that a major overhaul was needed, this was the game. John Terry's red card was a fine indicator that he was finished as a top level footballer, backed up by his meagre nine appearances the following season.
Second best in every area after the break, the players believed they’d won at half time and had no urgency in the middle. Other than the odd flash by Eden Hazard, there was little in the way of creativity from the beginning though, with both goals coming from Sunderland mistakes.
Chelsea Player Ratings
Starting XI: Courtois (5); Ivanovic (6), Cahill (5), Terry (5), Azpilicueta (6); Mikel (4), Matic (6), Fabregas (5); Willian (6), Hazard (7), Diego Costa (6).
Substitutes: Baba Rahman (5), Traore (4), Oscar (6).
The defenders' nightmare was not at his best on the day, and it showed in his performance as he allowed Younes Kaboul to get the better of him for most of the afternoon.
Costa was given one chance on a plate, which he dispatched, but it was an unremarkable day for a forward who is famed for creating his own opportunities by using his strength and guile to best effect.
It was also the first glimmer of the manner in which Costa would walk away from Chelsea a year later. Sulking, not getting his way, and not caring who knew. When things are going well for Diego Costa, they’re very good. When they aren’t, you’ll know about it.
What Aged the Worst
Sunderland ended the season with a new found sense of hope and optimism. They had their man in Sam Allardyce, he’d built a team that understood the fans, things were looking up. Then Roy Hodgson put Harry Kane on corners against Iceland.
England’s humiliation at Euro 2016 resulted in Big Sam getting his dream job with England, Sunderland were given David Moyes, and he immediately told the fans that the team wasn’t good enough for the division before giving all his old mates from Everton one last pay day. To make matters worse, Allardyce only lasted one game with England thanks to that scandal, making his departure seem like it was for absolutely nothing.
Back to back relegations followed, and after a Netflix documentary offered an embarrassing insight into the runnings of the club, they languish in League One, a million miles from winning a game against Chelsea.
What Aged the Best
Cesar Azpilicueta spent the afternoon struggling to keep up with Borini, Khazri and Yedlin at left-back, but over the next few seasons he transitioned into a formidable centre-half in Antonio Conte’s tactical revolution at Stamford Bridge.
He was highly regarded as a good servant to the club before the season, but was never a real nailed on starter. Today, he has a good claim to be regarded a Chelsea legend. He can put down that day at the Stadium of Light down as a bad day at the office, much like ever other player in blue on the park that day.
What Happened Next
At full time, news filtered through that Newcastle had drawn 0-0 at Villa Park, meaning Sunderland jumped ahead of their rivals by one point with a game in hand going into the season’s final weekend.
Sunderland went into a game on the following Wednesday night against Everton knowing a win under the lights would put them four points clear of the relegation zone with one game to play. More importantly, they’d relegate Newcastle with that win. Toffees boss Roberto Martinez was under immense pressure going into the match, but Sunderland won 3-0 in front of 46,000 fans – who generated an absolutely tremendous atmosphere – to stay up. Then things fell apart in the summer.
Chelsea's season ended with a whimper, but the summer saw the arrival of Antonio Conte and N’Golo Kante. The Premier League crown didn’t stay away from the Bridge for very long at all.