David Moyes, Sunderland owe their supporters encouraging performance
Sunderland have a chance and a duty against relegation-threatened Swansea City on Saturday to turn the Stadium of Light's last Premier League game for at least a season into a winning farewell.
After a calamitous season in which another great escape rarely seemed in prospect, David Moyes' side must try to give home supporters a first real reason to cheer the final whistle since a nervy 1-0 win against Watford back in December.
Having broken Hull City's hearts with a 2-0 victory at the KCOM stadium last weekend, the duty part of the equation is also clear. That win put Hull third bottom, just below Swansea against whom Sunderland need to show the same resolve and aim for a similar result. But with Sunderland and Middlesbrough confirmed as Championship sides for next season, the battle to avoid the third unwanted place in the bottom three is not merely between Hull and Swansea.
Having saved Sunderland from relegation last season, Sam Allardyce is in trouble again, this time as Crystal Palace's manager. As matters stand, any of the three could go down. A win or draw at home to Hull on Saturday would guarantee Palace safety. But defeat would create a three-horse final sprint whatever happens at the Stadium of Light, ensuring the tensest of climaxes on May 21 when Swansea have the most winnable match, at home to West Bromwich Albion, while Palace and Hull face stiff challenges away to Manchester United and at home to Tottenham, respectively.
The permutations for relegation at least mean more might rest on Sunderland's remaining games than the academic question of whether they can avoid the added shame of finishing bottom for the third time in 14 years. But if Middlesbrough beat Southampton at the Riverside on Saturday, an entirely plausible outcome, even that will be beyond Moyes' team unless they overcome Swansea.
Some 3,000 supporters are making the long journey to Wearside from South Wales. Their tickets have been bought by the team, a decent but also wise gesture since it assures them of loud backing from a full away end on a day when the home support might be subdued by many empty seats.
For Swansea, the game could (depending on events at Selhurst Park) bring a successful conclusion to manager Paul Clement's impressive efforts to avoid the drop since taking over from the hapless American Bob Bradley, who lasted less than three months in the job.
In the equivalent game at the Liberty Stadium on Dec. 10, Sunderland's solitary good spell of the season was rudely interrupted by a 3-0 defeat that saw them replace Swansea in bottom place. The win, one of only two under Bradley, was as emphatic as the scoreline suggests and logic points to another difficult day for Sunderland.
All the anxiety ought to be among the Swansea players and fans. But the bitter truth is that Sunderland are bottom because they have been the worst team in the league for most of the season and have not even looked truly dominant in most of the paltry six games they have won.
The body language of several of Moyes' players could also be telling. Sunderland supporters are resigned to losing their local hero Jordan Pickford and 15-goal striker Jermain Defoe, much as they would love both to stay. Saturday could be the occasion for them to say goodbye to home fans since each of the games that will then remain -- against Arsenal on Tuesday and Chelsea on the final day -- are away.
Spectators' thoughts on the rest of whatever team Moyes fields will be mixed. Some will be leaving at the end of the season, whether to return to parent clubs after loan spells or because they are wanted elsewhere or unwanted at Sunderland. There might be opportunities for younger fringe players -- one or more of George Honeyman, Lynden Gooch and Elliot Embleton -- to show they are up for the challenges of the Championship.
But whatever the futures of individual players, and irrespective of other changes that undoubtedly lie ahead, a big-hearted, winning performance would offer encouragement that a bleak period of Sunderland's history might prove short-lived.
Colin is ESPN FC's Sunderland blogger. Follow him on Twitter at @salutsunderland