IT had taken 32 games of a thoroughly miserable season, but as Sunderland fell behind yet again at the weekend, apathy finally gave way to anger.
As David Moyes strode into his technical area to issue some instructions to his players, a cascade of boos rained down from the Stadium of Light’s South Stand and quickly swept across the rest of ground. “We want Moyes out,” chorused the Wearside faithful, a sentiment that has been widely expressed across social media in recent weeks, but which had previously been absent on a match day.
It felt like a watershed moment. Five-and-a-half years ago, Steve Bruce experienced similar vitriol during a home game against Wigan Athletic and was gone within a week. Gustavo Poyet was mercilessly mocked during an FA Cup defeat at Bradford City, and while he limped on for another month or so, his authority was shot to pieces.
Had Sunderland conceded another first-half goal to accompany Andre Ayew’s fifth-minute opener, Moyes’ credibility could have been dealt a fatal blow. The pockets of dissenting voices could rapidly have become a chorus that encompassed the whole stadium. For all that Ellis Short remains reluctant to make a managerial change, how could Moyes have ignored a sustained barrage calling for his head?
Shuffling back towards his bench, Sunderland’s embattled manager desperately needed something, or rather someone, to transform the mood. How ironic, then, that salvation came in the form of the outcast whose extended exclusion has caused so much damage to Moyes’ reputation in the eyes of the fans.
Wahbi Khazri has become something of a talisman for the ‘Moyes Out’ brigade in recent weeks, with his disappearance from the first-team picture having been held up as proof of the Sunderland boss’ intransigence and lack of judgement.
Sunderland had failed to score in nine of their previous ten games prior to Saturday, yet Khazri, so integral to last season’s successful survival push under Sam Allardyce and arguably still the most creative player in the current squad, remained shackled on the sidelines.
Perhaps Moyes’ decision to hand the winger a first start since October reflected an improved attitude on the training ground? Perhaps it was simply a final desperate throw of the dice? Either way, the gamble paid off spectacularly.
Khazri’s first goal of the season, which came direct from a first-half corner, might simply be a case of delaying the inevitable when it comes to Moyes’ position as the fury that was festering at the weekend will not simply disappear. If nothing else, however, it has bought the Scotsman some breathing space. Once a pariah, Khazri delivered at least partial salvation to the boss who had scorned him.
“I do think Wahbi’s a very good player with a lot to offer,” insisted Moyes. “And if he gives us that level of performances, I’ll be more than happy.
“I thought he didn’t keep the ball well enough (before), but I thought he kept the ball well against West Ham. I thought he played in a disciplined fashion as well, which made him reliable for us without the ball as well as with the ball.
“Wahbi’s work-rate has never been an issue for me. It’s not his work-rate, we want him to be someone who is creative and makes things happen, makes the final pass. That’s what we need him in the team for.”
Khazri certainly made things happen against West Ham, and while there were a smattering of boos at the final whistle despite Fabio Borini’s last-gasp leveller, the anger that was threatening to boil over in the first half remained becalmed in the wake of Sunderland’s first equaliser.
“I did hear them (the boos), aye,” said Moyes. “It’s to be expected because me and the team are not doing well. I have to accept it.
“The support have been fantastic, and when a manager’s not doing well, a team’s not doing well, they deserve to take their frustrations out on somebody. I just remember to myself that I’ve got the third or fourth-best (managerial) win record in the Premier League.”
It remains to be seen whether Khazri’s game-changing moment is simply a temporary reprieve. By the time Sunderland return to the Stadium of Light to face Bournemouth in a fortnight’s time, their fate in the bottom three could be as good as sealed.
Saturday’s spirited performance represented a marked improvement on much of what had gone before, but the Black Cats remain nine points adrift of safety with six games remaining. Survival continues to look an unattainable ambition, no matter what happens when Sunderland take on Middlesbrough in a North-East relegation shoot-out a week on Wednesday.
Khazri will now be a certain starter in that game, and for all the Tunisian’s inconsistency, it is hard not to wonder how many more points might have been accrued had he been a regular presence in the last six months.
His energy and comfort in possession enabled him to ask questions of the West Ham defence that have not been posed by a Sunderland side for the majority of the season, and in the space of 90 minutes, he did more than Adnan Januzaj and Borini have managed for the vast majority of their time in their first team.
His opener was aided by Victor Anichebe’s blocking work in front of Darren Randolph, and enabled the Black Cats to cancel out Ayew’s opener, which saw the striker take advantage of some non-existent marking to convert Andy Carroll’s knock-back from Sam Byram’s cross.
West Ham reclaimed their lead when James Collins headed home Robert Snodgrass’ corner at the start of the second half, and while Didier Ndong passed up a golden opportunity when he failed to convert Khazri’s cross, Sunderland levelled for a second time in the final minute.
Randolph made a mess of dealing with Darron Gibson’s cross, and Borini took advantage as he drilled a low finish through a crowded penalty box.
His frenzied celebration in front of Moyes highlighted the extent of his own personal frustrations, but while West Ham finished with ten men after Byram was dismissed for a second booking, Sunderland were unable to take advantage and claim a winner.
“I thought the players did a lot of good things,” said Moyes. “There were one or two things not so good, but we started the game well and finished the game really strongly trying to win the game. In many ways, it was good.”