THEY have reached a Wembley final, won six of their last eight matches and can now celebrate a first derby double over Newcastle United for more than 45 years, but when it comes to assessing his Sunderland side, Gustavo Poyet feels the “best is still to come”.
The situation represents a remarkable turnaround from the mess Poyet inherited in October, when Sunderland were rooted to the foot of the table having picked up just one point from their first seven Premier League matches.
The Uruguayan has transformed the fortunes of his side, but after just four months at the helm, he concedes they remain a work in progress. “Things can only get better,” serenaded the Sunderland fans in the upper reaches of the Leazes End at St James' on Saturday, and Poyet is inclined to agree.
“I'm not trying to be too big, but I'm expecting us to get better,” said the Black Cats boss, who was also the scourge of Newcastle United as a player, scoring five goals in seven appearances against the Magpies. “The best is still to come.
“I'm not saying we are going to win 3-0 every week, but there is no reason why we cannot perform with this consistency now. I am convinced about that.
“I am sure we can still improve because I am sure we are going to be braver and control the game better. Because it was the derby and because Newcastle left the spaces they felt they had to, it became possible for us to create more chances that perhaps we should.
“I am thinking that we can be that good many, many times, not just in one game where the occasion helped dictate the game.”
Saturday's victory was Sunderland's second successive 3-0 win at the home of their greatest rivals, but the scenes that witnessed the climax of the triumph could hardly have been more different to ten months ago.
Sunderland manager Gus Poyet points his team forward during Saturday’s 3-0 win over Newcastle United
Back then, Paolo Di Canio assumed centre stage, sliding on his knees down the touchline and pumping his fists on the pitch in front of the jubilant Sunderland fans.
Saturday's celebrations were more understated, partly because the win was much less of a surprise given the Black Cats' fine recent form, but also because Poyet wanted to make the occasion more about his players than himself.
“I know how to enjoy things, and sometimes you cannot control yourself,” he said. “I remember when we scored the second goal against Newcastle at home, I lost it a little bit. We needed that so much.
“Here, I tried to keep my calm, and it is definitely up to the players. The players are the ones who have to go there and mark and pass the ball well, be brave and be solid.
“Look at (Liam) Bridcutt making his debut. People were saying, 'How is he going to do in the Premier League?' But there you go.
“He came here, was solid and calm, and passed the ball well. That's what we need. Sometimes, it's a little bit of training, and sometimes it's about having the right players in the right places in the team. And this looks like a proper team now.”
Sunderland players gesture towards the Black Cats fans (not pictured) who were high in the Leazes Stand at St James’ Park
Sunderland had heroes all over the St James' Park pitch as they trounced Newcastle for the second season in a row, with John O'Shea and Wes Brown dominating at the back, Johnson running riot on the wing and Jozy Altidore producing easily his best performance in a Black Cats shirt.
Bridcutt's display was the most remarkable though, with the midfielder oozing confidence and assurance despite only having completed a £3m move from Brighton 24 hours previously.
“We understand football one way,” said Poyet. “For me, and for him, with the way we play, that role is very important. He knows the role perfectly. If there is one person in the world who knows the role I want that player to play, it's Liam.”
Bridcutt is set to replace Lee Cattermole in Sunderland's pivotal deep-lying midfield role for the remainder of the season, although the Teessider remains a Black Cats player after a proposed £5m move to Stoke collapsed on deadline day.
Poyet insists it was his decision to pull the plug on Cattermole's departure, with the backing of owner Ellis Short, and is adamant the 25-year-old still has a future on Wearside.
“He is a very, very important player for me and I am delighted that the chairman said to me, 'If you need him, he stays here, he is going nowhere',” he said. “It is not a matter of money, it's about having the players that you need to stay up, and Lee is one of those players.”
Fabio Borini climbs on to an advertising hoarding to celebrate his goal from the penalty spot