When Southampton annihilated Sunderland 8-0, a crestfallen Gus Poyet began the post-match press conference by describing the debacle as “the most embarrassed I’ve been on a pitch.”
The dejected players, who suffered the club’s most crippling loss in 32 years, subsequently offered to reimburse the 2,500 shell-shocked fans who made the 630-mile trip south the cost of their match ticket. However, questions must be raised as to whether this is a healthy reaction to the result.
By placing the blame firmly on Sunderland’s shoulders, the prowess of the winner is ignored and the focus of attention becomes the abject failure of the losing side.
Loss is both everyday and natural but is it ever to be acknowledged as excusable? In the grander scheme of sporting losses, Sunderland’s cataclysmic defeat is fairly unremarkable. A year ago, Welsh Rugby team Holyhead were thrashed 181-0 by Llanidloes. In another discipline, the Bulgarian Women’s Hockey Team lost 82-0 in a Pre-Olympic qualifier despite 139 goal attempts. Even within football the loss isn’t particularly noteworthy. A quick examination of the pantheon of footballing defeats, highlights Bon Accord’s 36-0 loss to Arbroath in 1885. Only days after Sunderland’s debacle, Werder Bremen were beaten by Bayern Munich 6-0 in the Bundesliga having achieved only 21% of the possession with no corners or shots on goal. There was also a record score tally in the Champions League qualifiers. Nobody has seen beleaguered Werder Bremen, Roma or Maribor offering reimbursements.
So who deems a performance so unacceptable that money needs to be refunded? Arguably, there is nothing more unacceptable about such a large goal difference for the supporter than a lacklustre and disappointing 1-0 score line, or even a draw? Does the cut off come at 6-0? Or 7? When Louis Van Gaal look at Manchester United’s draw with West Bromwich Albion as “losing two points” it illustrated the impact of expectation on perception of results.
Yes, Sunderland goalkeeper Vito Mannone allowed a disproportionate number of goals to fly past him. Yes, the performance in defence was woeful. And yes, even one own goal, let alone two is unacceptable.
However, there are other ways of illustrating a performance is unacceptable, if something so abundantly obvious needs to be illustrated at all. By suggesting the players foot the £60,000 reimbursement the finger of blame is pointed firmly in the direction of the players.
This leaves unacknowledged the poor tactical decisions, particularly in relation to substitutions, that Poyet made. The Uruguayan is keen to promote that Sunderland stands united following the defeat yet is simultaneously adamant that he only takes responsibility for his actions. There seems to be a fundamental disjunction in this rhetoric. It is better not to dwell on individual failure but draw a line under the fiasco and move forward. As Mannone himself pointed out, Sunderland “lost 8-0, but [they] didn’t lose eight games 1-0.” Recognition of disaster is important, for acknowledgement is the first step towards healing and improvement, but this must be balanced with the protection of team morale.
Poyet may acknowledge that he learnt more in the second half than learned in the whole of last year but refusing to speak to your players about the catastrophe until 72 hours later only allows knocked confidence to worsen and wounds to fester.
In the grander scheme of things, this isn’t such a bad loss. A little perspective, Gus, is all you need to make an inconsolable Uruguayan morose no more. Rather than getting caught up in his own embarrassment, perhaps Poyet ought to focus less on encouraging apologeticism and more on the thirty games left this season.