What hoops we go through to support Sunderland AFC. Few of us can do anything about that. We are not, generally speaking, the kind of fans who can tire of one club and just move on to another. We’re stuck for life.
Last week, I decided to set aside a few minutes this morning to renew my membership of the SAFC Supporters’ Association London and SE branch. Not for a second did I think of not doing so after all because we’re at rock bottom. My allegiance has never been subject to appointments and sackings of and by people whose ties to the club are a lot more fleeting than mine.
What cannot be denied is that we are in seriously troubled waters. It does not matter that the Premier League season has 33 games left in it. Whoever now comes in has a monumental task to put things right given the miserable start and the wretched luck we had with the fixtures list.
Some will be – indeed are – much less understanding of Ellis Short’s role. Many of those who may have just heard me on BBC Radio Newcastle will disagree with what I said. But I stick by the belief that he did the right thing in March, ending the tragic disappointment of the Martin O’Neill managership and appointing PDC as head coach. The baggage was woefully mishandled, many of us had questions about Short’s selection and some supporters saw it as a step too far. But PDC, with two mighty wins and a lot of luck with other results, kept Sunderland up. Early as this season may be, he looked very much like taking us down. Short was right again, therefore, to act quickly. His next move, though, had better be very good indeed,
This, the clock ticking towards midnight after a long drive home from a weekend in the Alp with only Sixer’s gloomy texts from WBA to keep me in touch, is how I summarised my immediate thoughts for ESPN …
For the second time in six months, I find myself writing late at night about a dramatic managerial sacking at Sunderland.
On both occasions, the club owner Ellis Short has got it right. Paolo Di Canio’s short reign as head coach, which was officially confirmed on Sunday night as being over, kept Sunderland in the Premier League at the back end of last season when relegation, under Martin O’Neill, had looked a certainty; it was pretty much on course to take the club back down to the Championship at the end of this one.
A lifetime supporting the club has equipped me well for turbulence at the top.
And just as I quickly came to the conclusion that Short had taken a wise decision in dismissing O’Neill on March 30, popular though the Ulsterman’s appointment had been with most supporters, I now haven’t the slightest doubt Short had no serious choice but to sack PDC. Indeed, he had also been right on similar grounds to show Steve Bruce the door in O’Neill’s favour; there are times when you just know that doing nothing is the worst option.
Di Canio, unfortunately, has shown himself in the short period so far this season to be out of his depth as a Premier League manager. His public utterances on the shortcomings of his players developed from a welcome burst of iron discipline to self-defeating parody. He presided over a bizarre sequence of transfers that brought in a procession of players of mixed but uncertain pedigree or aptitude and then seemed unable to decide what constituted his preferred team, let alone a settled one.
Having made the Cape Verde international Cabral, a man with Champions League experience, sound like his talisman, he proceeded to ignore him altogether until belatedly explaining that he didn’t currently seem right for the cut and thrust of Premier football. He allowed Stephane Sessegnon, a dynamic if infuriating player able to change a game, to go, with the predictable result that he immediately scored against Sunderland for his new club, West Bromwich Albion, on Saturday. Yet he persevered with Ji Dong-Won, who has performed abysmally on each occasion he has started or appeared as a substitute.
I know a few fans who will return to the fold for no other reason than that PDC has gone. But the Italian failed for footballing reasons that had nothing to do, in the end, with his questionable and, to be fair, questioned political allegiances.
He had serious bad luck when the fixtures list was compiled, but the awful truth is that the bad run that list produced has barely begun; of the first five games, producing all of one point, only Arsenal could be considered a big club. To lose to Fulham at home and, heavily, to Crystal Palace and WBA away, picking up that solitary point while looking second best at Southampton, is all the more demoralising when it is remembered that the coming home games feature Liverpool, both Manchesters, Newcastle, Chelsea and Spurs.
Few Sunderland fans seriously expect many points from that little lot. And since there has so far been no sign of a compensating run of barnstorming displays away from home, the strongest probability as things stand is that Sunderland will this season regain the unwanted record of notching up the fewest points in a Premier season: Sunderland’s woeful 15 in 2006 was beaten by Derby County’s 11 in 2008. The 3-0 reverse at West Brom left me wondering not where the next win or even draw was coming from, but when Sunderland might next suffer only a narrow defeat.
If word on the streets has any credibility, the Italian revolution many hoped PDC’s appointment might herald may not be over. Is Roberto Di Matteo, a man who won the Champions League as interim manager of Chelsea, really about to be named as manager or head coach?
If he is, then I offer muted applause, excited by the calibre of such a choice but fearful that the start Sunderland have made to the season under PDC, combined with the mighty challenge of the forthcoming fixtures, may already have made salvation one heck of a tall order.
There are worse things than a spell in the Championship. Clubs like Sunderland tend to score a few goals, even win a few games, after relegation. Promotion is a target more or less from the start and immediate bouncebacks have been known to happen. I am prepared to forego such pleasures if Di Matteo — or whoever it is that Short has in mind to replace PDC — is somehow able to work a miracle, get points where they seem ungettable and make the wretched opening sequence of this season look like no more than a bad, forgotten dream.