Sunderland were the worst team to watch in the Premier League last season. That might seem slightly harsh, especially when we’re talking about a division that included the dreadful QPR, but surely even Sunderland fans wouldn’t disagree. Yes, they were a bit shit, yet with the league being overrun by Russian sugar daddies and Qatari royalty, there was something comforting about this quintessentially average Premier League club going about its business, aiming for nothing more than a decent cup run, a top-half finish and of course, victory over eternal rivals Newcastle United.
The fact that they weren’t a great team was beside the point: supporters were so lovingly self-deprecating and aware of their mediocrity you couldn’t hold it against them. Most, if not all of them are supporters in the old-fashioned, poetic sense of the word: the typical long-suffering Football fan whose team just can’t seem to win. This rings especially true considering Sunderland’s last major trophy was the FA Cup in 1973.
When Martin O’Neill was appointed in December 2011, he really invigorated the team. However a year later, the Black Cats were running on empty. Devoid of any drive, creativity or athleticism, it was quite sad to see them barely able to string two passes together, let alone mount any attack of note. With each woeful display, marquee summer signing Adam Johnson seemed to justify Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini’s reluctance to play him. To top it off, Stephane Sessegnon, Sunderland’s main creative outlet was out of form.
It came as no surprise when O’Neill was sacked on March 30 with the North East club hovering dangerously close to the relegation zone. What was worrying was the way the Irishman had completely lost interest in his charges. The man who supported Sunderland as a boy looked sad and aloof in press conferences. If reports are to be believed, he didn’t even bother to attend training sessions.
When the time came to replace O’Neill, the logical assumption was that the club would bring in some run-of-the-mill manager, a Neil Warnock or an Alan Curbishley. Instead, owner Ellis Short — probably desperate to generate some kind of excitement — went with the left-field choice par excellence and appointed Swindon Town’s Paolo Di Canio.
And just like that, things started to become a lot more interesting.
The appointment was controversial and generated a lot of headlines, many of which were not particularly flattering. The media was quick to portray Di Canio as some kind of fascist buffoon. While the Italian was certainly guilty of some unsavory behavior in the past, it didn’t take long for most of the Sunderland faithful to warm to him. He made all the right noises, speaking with passion about his commitment to the cause, his sense of responsibility towards supporters and the considerable improvements required, particularly with regards to players’ fitness.
Obviously Football fans always endure the same clichés and generalities whenever a new, eager to please manager is appointed. But check any Di Canio press conference since his arrival in the North East and there is no doubting the man’s genuine passion and enthusiasm.
Despite his first match in charge yielding a 2-1 loss to Chelsea, there were positive signs and at the very least, Di Canio’s animated figure on the touchline was a welcome change from the distraught O’Neill.
The following fixture however, would secure Di Canio’s place in Sunderland folklore. In only his second game in charge, he engineered a superb 3-0 victory away to Sunderland’s greatest rival. Three wonderful goals at St James’ Park left a miserable looking Newcastle devastated and sent Di Canio off on one of his now-legendary celebrations.
Next came victory over Everton at the Stadium of Light, and despite a heavy 6-1 defeat at the hands of an Aston Villa side discovering its mojo followed by two consecutive draws, Sunderland managed to narrowly avoid relegation at the expense of Wigan.
The Italian arrived at Sunderland at a critical time and saved them from the brink of disaster. He assured supporters that he would work hard to improve the team and he has been true to his word, with Sunderland one of the most active clubs in the summer transfer window: no less than eight players have been recruited, with another seven departing the North East. Don’t rule out further exits either: Phil Bardsley for one is unlikely to remain a Di Canio player after incurring the Italian’s wrath when he was photographed lying in a pile of £50 notes.
Amongst the new signings, Sunderland fans should expect good things from American striker Jozy Altidore and French starlet El-Hadji Ba. The signings of Juventus forward Emanuele Giaccherini and young Argentine full-back Gino Peruzzi should also be completed imminently.
It’s hard to know what to expect from Di Canio in his first full Premier League season. His new signings might not gel, and he may have tried to offload too many players too quickly. There have also been concerns regarding his relationship with the players: he has been a keen disciplinarian and has not shied away from dishing out fines. Outgoing player Titus Bramble has criticized the Italian, claiming that he is upsetting certain players in the dressing room. Then again, when you think of the dross these players had served up under O’Neill, a kick up the backside is probably exactly what they need.
For now, almost to the surprise of some fans, it’s pretty exciting to be a Sunderland supporter. Haway the lads?