Soccer | PREMIER REPORT

Sunderland boss Allardyce knows pressure of relegation battles

by Christopher Davies

It is El Cashico . . . Norwich City vs. Sunderland’s relegation battle on Saturday has a potential win bonus of £120 million.

Norwich is in pole position as they go into what is in many ways the weekend’s most significant match with 31 points from 33 games, four points ahead of Sunderland, which has a match in hand. Victory for Norwich would give it a seven-point cushion over the Black Cats, who will have five games in which to overcome what would be more like a chasm than a gap.

The rewards for the 20 Premier League clubs next season have never been so lucrative. Chelsea, last season Champions, earned £99 million in prize money while even rock-bottom Queens Park Rangers went down having pocketed £64.9 million. The average for each club will rise from £80 million to around £120 million per season, an increase of 50 percent.

Next season’s Champions will have a central cash prize of around £150 million. The team at the bottom will earn about £100 million. That makes the Premier League the most lucrative in the world so the stakes could not be higher to stay in English football’s promised land.

Sunderland has narrowly escaped relegation over each of the last four years, a combination of poor recruitment and a managerial merry-go-round contributing to a regular end-of-season survival bid. Sam Allardyce became the club’s sixth manager in the space of four years when he succeeded Dick Advocaat last October, though the Black Cats have been in the drop-zone virtually all season ahead of their annual Houdini act.

Sunderland is hoping Allardyce will continue his record of never being relegated as a manager though one win in its last 11 league games has made Championship football next season a reality once more.

Of course, three points for Sunderland will alter the landscape significantly and the teams go into the game with almost identical records — Norwich have scored 35 goals and conceded 57, Sunderland 36 and 57. While Sunderland tends to rely on 12-goal Jermain Defoe, Norwich’s last 13 league goals have been scored by 10 different players.

Few would doubt Sunderland has improved under Allardyce who calls the showdown at Carrow Road a “must-not lose” game rather than a “must win.” As much as anything, it will be about which team handles the occasion the better and Allardyce admitted the pressure is more on Sunderland.

He said: “I have been in this position many times. This club has come out of this position over the past four seasons and the players here need to manage the situation in the same way. We have to handle the pressure and produce better than Norwich do.

“There is no margin for error anymore. We have to face up to that and if we do, then we can be successful. I believe they can, the players have to believe it themselves. It is a very experienced team and we need to deliver on that experience.

“Kicking-off early is an advantage to both teams. It is such a big game though there is much more pressure on us than Norwich.”

Alex Neil, the Norwich manager, claimed it is not a “winner-takes-all” battle because another northeast club, Newcastle, which plays Swansea at St James’ Park later in the day, is two points behind Sunderland. Aston Villa is already relegated and Neil believes survival is a three-horse race.

He said: “No, it’s not just a shootout between us and Sunderland. I wouldn’t discount Newcastle. They have a game in hand (on Norwich) and if they beat Swansea they are three points behind us, which is really the difference between winning and losing just one more game.”

The fight for the title continues on Sunday when Leicester hosts West Ham while on Monday, Tottenham visits Stoke. But today is Survival Saturday with the spotlight on the Premier League’s basement clubs’ fight to remain among the elite.

Annual honor: As members of the Football Writers’ Association start to decide who will be the Footballer of the Year there are concerns we could see a repeat of 1999 when treble-winning Manchester United players split the voting which enabled Tottenham’s David Ginola to come through on the rails and be first past the post.

N’Golo Kante, Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez are the three Leicester players likely to gain most votes. If this helps Spurs striker Harry Kane to receive the award on May 12, there should be no comparisons with 17 years ago, though inevitably there will be.

Kante is a far superior player to Ginola, who was not playing for France at the time, and the England international is part of a much better Spurs side who may yet overtake Leicester for the title. In 1998-99, Spurs finished 11th though they did win the League Cup, ironically beating Leicester in the final.

United won the Champions League, Premier League and F.A. Cup that season with Peter Schmeichel, Gary Neville, David Beckham, Roy Keane, Paul Scholes, Dwight Yorke and Ryan Giggs each receiving a significant numbers of votes. Leicester is unlikely to have so many candidates.

Whoever wins the Premier League, Leicester will still be the team of the season for most observers so it seems logical that one of its heroes should win the award. The Footballer of the Year is an individual, not a team award and the winner does not have to be a player who ends the season with some silverware even if this is understandably usually the case.

The original minutes of the FWA in 1948 record that an award should be made to “the professional player who, by precept and example, is considered by a ballot of members to be the Footballer of the Year.” This is the criteria that has remained in place ever since.

Apart from Kante, Vardy and Mahrez, two or three other Leicester players fulfill the yardstick laid down 68 years ago. So do Kane, his Spurs and England teammate Dele Alli plus Manchester United goalkeeper David de Gea while in another season West Ham’s Dimitri Payet would be in with a valid claim.

The FWA (I must declare that I am on the national committee) has all bases covered with the former Footballer of the Year who will pay tribute to this year’s winner — Gary Lineker, the ex-Leicester and Tottenham striker.

Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.

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