What a relief. Escaping relegation was good enough. Not having to worry about Guess the Score, Who are You? and other items of Salut! Sunderland stock-in-trade has allowed Monsieur Salut to approach in relaxed spirits the part of his work that actually pays. The end-of-season reviews have naturally been time-consuming but in reality needed little or no editing and – notwithstanding the predominantly downbeat tone – have been a pleasure to deal with. Apologies to those who intended to submit reviews but didn’t get round to it in time; nine lives is all the series gets and they’ve all been used up. As is customary, Pete Sixsmith brings the exercise to its climax (a notion more exciting than much we saw during the season). His Soapboxes and Sevens, travelogues, rants and reminiscences are what, more than anything, give this site its identity. I just hope, and every reader of Salut! Sunderland should hope, he gets to more games next season than he currently thinks is likely …
It’s a long time since I was so pleased to see the back of a season. I could put up with the 15-point one because it was as clear as day that the players we had were nowhere near good enough. The 19-point season was down to the most bizarre managerial appointment in the club’s history (until now, perhaps) so it was possible to write that one off.
But the one that has just finished, my 49th as a regular, has to be the most unfulfilling and disappointing of the lot. Yes, we have had worse managers, yes we have played worse football and yes, yes, yes, we have had worse players – but never have we had the combination of respected manager, international players and football that was so bloody awful it would turn a man away to ornithology or origami.
Twelve months ago, most of us were already looking forward to 2012-13 as Martin O’Neill began his preparations for an assault on the upper echelons of the middle of the Premier League table, plus a decent cup run in the League or FA versions.
By August, we had added a couple of free transfers and were haggling over Steven Fletcher and courting Adam Johnson. Pre-season was poor, with a game at Derby being a harbinger of what was to come: sloppy shooting, careless defending and a reliance on Mignolet that was to increase as the season went on.
Still, it was a friendly and they say that a good pre-season equals a bad start and we did get off to a decent one, drawing the first five games. However, at no stage did we really look capable of winning any of them and there were worries that Fletcher was the only man likely to score. Still, Johnson had arrived, the balance was looking good, we would win a few games and move up the league.
It didn’t happen and the first sign of the serious problems to come surfaced when we failed to get even close to beating 10-man Newcastle and were comprehensively outplayed for an hour until they ran out of steam and Ba headed an own goal for a last-minute equaliser.
* See the full series of 2013 End-of-season reviews at this link: https://safc.blog/category/end-of-season-reviews-2013/
From then on, we managed to just stay ahead of the pack but victories at Fulham and Southampton were cancelled out by abject home defeats to Villa and West Brom.
We still had faith in Martin O’ Neill. The crowd grumbled but never turned against him – here was a man who had a connection with the club and who saw his job as a mission to restore us to a place that befits our status in the game as a well supported, well regarded club. We believed, although the belief was getting shakier and shakier as we surrendered to Norwich and failed to beat a lamentable QPR side.
Wins over Manchester City, West Ham and Wigan lifted us up the table, but they were interspersed by truly miserable performances against Manchester United, Liverpool and then Bolton in the Cup. In fact, the heartless and brainless performance at Anfield convinced me that O’Neill was struggling and that he might not see the season through.
And I was right. The owner made a decision and O’Neill was out. In came the volatile Paolo Di Canio, fresh from success and a walk-out at Swindon and carrying more political baggage than any other manager in the game.
We have had opinionated and principled managers before. Alan Brown was a member of a strange group called Moral Re-Armament (maybe Phil Bardsley could apply to join) while Mick McCarthy was a staunch supporter of the Labour Party and the NUM. But Di Canio was different, with his past support for Mussolini and belief that Il Duce was a misunderstood figure.
The club hit the headlines, with every journalist in the western Hemisphere offering an opinion. I knew the story had gone viral when Suzanne Moore, usually a writer on feminist issues, dedicated her Guardian column to Paolo. I was a tad disappointed not to read her views on O’Neill’s demise and the advantages of zonal marking over man to man, but I guess she was busy.
He came, he saw and he fined. Clearly he found things that he did not like. But he did manage to rouse the players for a couple of weeks, and gave us the most satisfying Sunday lunchtime since I last tasted my mother’s Yorkshire puddings, and followed it up with a win over Everton, for what seemed like the first time since Archibald Leitch was re-designing Roker and Goodison.
The Villa game was a worry, though, as he appeared to get everything wrong and we hardly went out in a blaze of glory, with two points from the last 12 – in fact, we had more sendings off than points in those games.
And now, Di Canio begins the great cleansing. Players will leave, players will come in and in August, the whole circus will start all over again. Season ticket sales will be down and the crowd will become less tolerant of failure on the field. Di Canio has to get the team playing well from the start; if not, I fear a repeat of those embarrassments under Wilkinson and McCarthy.
I have not had a great deal of pleasure from Sunderland this season. My footballing highs have been at Ascot, Brantham and Bitten as Shildon got within a gnat’s whisker of Wembley. I can go to a Northern League game, pay £3 and be home for tea. My away trips will be rationed next season – Cardiff for sure as I need to tick off the ground, Fulham for a good day in London and one of the Liverpool grounds for family reasons.
I don’t really feel that I want to invest time and money in watching a game that, despite the untold riches being flung at it, still feels that it should charge people £38 to sit on wooden seats in a stand that was built when Stanley Baldwin was Prime Minister, or charges even more to enable you to sit and watch what is often a game that fails to excite all but the most committed.
So, not the best of seasons and the prospects for next year are blurred as the head coach moves through the club like an Oklahoman tornado. This could make Roy Keane appear like a bleeding heart liberal. We shall see the outcome in August.
See all Salut! Sunderland’s articles recalling May 5 1973 and the run that took SAFC to FA Cup glory: https://safc.blog/category/fa-cup/may-5-1973/