When the final whistle blew Slaven Bilic stepped straight over to d!ck Advocaat and hugged Sunderland’s manager unusually long and hard. Then the Dutchman took a fleeting look around the four corners of the stadium, issued a brief wave and promptly turned on his heel before heading down the tunnel.
Had he been an actor playing the part of a departing head coach, Advocaat would have absolutely nailed it. In reality the 68-year-old is set to walk into retirement after apparently resolving to leave the task of masterminding Sunderland’s latest relegation battle to someone else.
Why else was he fighting back the tears after Jeremain Lens (later sent off) put Sunderland two up? “I’m always emotional after goals – we don’t score many,” he joked during a light-hearted press conference which had the air of a farewell briefing.
“Yes, I have made a decision on my future,” he teased. “I don’t want to discuss my future now. Let’s wait and see.” In an earlier television interview he had described one of his team’s best performances of a generally wretched season as boding well for “the club in the future” but at other moments Advocaat used the word “we”. So was it still his team then? “It’s still my team today,” he replied. “And tomorrow.” Did that mean he might stay on longer? “No, I can’t say that.”
His West Ham counterpart is hoping for a U-turn. “I told him to stay,” said Bilic. “I would really like him to stay, he’s a man of knowledge and experience. It would be a pity and shame if he goes. I really hope he stays.”
With Advocaat doing nothing to contradict the impression he was preparing to bid Wearside goodbye, his players, initially at least, appeared to be mounting an 11th-hour attempt to win him back.
Sharper, slicker, hungrier and consistently half a yard quicker than West Ham during the first 45 minutes, Sunderland appeared to have undergone a most extraordinary makeover.
Virtually un-recognisable from their underachieving recent selves, they reduced Bilic to a study in quiet technical area fury as they strove to secure a first Premier Leaguewin of the season.
Advocaat’s decision to leave Jermain Defoe on the bench and deploy Steven Fletcher as his lone striker in a new look 4-2-3-1 formation swiftly paid dividends. When Carl Jenkinson conceded a silly free-kick for a needless shove on Fabio Borini, Yann M’Vila slid it low towards Fletcher who had made a late dash into the danger area. With West Ham confused by John O’Shea’s decoy run the Scotland striker used his left foot to sweep the ball beyond Adrián.
Across in the dugout Advocaat remained impassive, standing in arms-folded mode as the stadium erupted in celebration. Finally, he unfurled his hands and gave a gentle clap. By the time Lens doubled Sunderland’s advantage though, the Dutchman looked tearful.
This time Dimitri Payet’s slapdash pass sold James Tomkins horribly short an Lens nipped in to assume possession. All that remained was for the winger to spot Adrián slightly off his line and produce a delicate lob which went in off the underside of the bar. Choruses of “d!ck, d!ck Advocaat” echoed around the ground.
With Adrián saving well from O’Shea and Borini directing a couple of decent chances agonisingly wide his side could have been four up by half-time but, instead, West Ham rallied. Spotting the home defence’s failure to cut out Victor Moses’s cross, Jenkinson steamed,
unimpeded, into the area, his left-footed 12-yard shot proving too good for Costel Pantilimon.
Undermining as that goal threatened to be, Sunderland – with Lee Cattermole impressing once again in a defensive midfield role
alongside M’Vila – remained awkward opponents. Or at least they did until Lens saw red. A sly kick at the rear of Winston Reid’s legs prompted the winger’s second yellow card – and an early wallow in the Radox. “It totally changed the game,” said Advocaat.
Sure enough, Payet soon equalised. When Pantilimon could only parry a Manuel Lanzini’s shot he should have held, Payet was first to the rebound, his crisp dispatch redirecting it into the back of the net. Suddenly nerves corroded Sunderland’s reflexes. Yet if Nikica Jelavic spurned an inviting opening to win it for West Ham, Mark Noble was lucky to escape a second yellow card after obstructing Borini.
“I was surprised by the way we played,” said Advocaat. “I’m very proud.”