Marcus Procopio came breezing in from Down Under a year ago with thoughts on last season’s great escape and a player-by-player assessment of the squad. He’s back with an exhaustive review of the season, what went wrong and what – in the end – went right …
It always begins with optimism
For Sunderland, the start of the last few seasons has been like receiving a fresh copy of the weekly TV guide. Last week’s guide didn’t matter anymore. This one was fresh, clean and crisp with the promise of cool new shows to come. Optimism was high.
Of course, during the week, you quickly realise that the shows are the same as last week’s and it doesn’t take long before the guide becomes a drink soaked and food stained object of disdain, to be hurled and flung with reckless abandon. The only problem is that, this season, we nearly set the wretched thing on fire long before the week was out. Thankfully, we somehow managed to preserve the tattered wreckage and see it through to a fresh guide.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this
Come the start of this season, we’d been in the Premier League for six consecutive seasons. We had a sane owner (and still do). Good money was spent – albeit the net spend this season was quite low. Some decent players came in. Daryl Murphy was long gone. For the most part, our management team was not fascist. But, yet again, we still couldn’t put it together (yes, I realise how ridiculous I sound saying this after the previous sentence).
Indeed, not once since our most recent promotion to the Premier League in 2007-8 have we had a season completely free of a serious relegation threat. Yes, even in 2010-11 when we finished 10th, we were all still thinking of the possibility until the very end of the season. Don’t believe me? Well, as at April 16 2011, we had just lost our fourth game on the trot (to Birmingham 2-0) and completed a return of one point from our last 10 games. Following that run of putridity, we had 38 points with five games to go against teams in and around our position.
How we now long for those heady Steve Bruce days… (thinking)…
Ok, perhaps not… (thinking some more)…
Ok, ok, definitely not.
The point is it’s now been seven seasons and we still can’t say that we’re an established Premier League side. Worse still, the relegation threats have only increased in the last two seasons, culminating in the debacle of a season just gone by. Of course, the reality of what we just experienced couldn’t have been further from my mind at the beginning of the season.
My pre and early season mindset for the season came in the form of two forum posts and a Salut! Sunderland article:
• The first was on the Salut! website regarding my views on who should stay and go:
• Then, later during the transfer window, I did one with my 10 transfer commandments that Di Canio and his men should obey: http://www.not606.com/showthread.php/218945-Sunderland-s-10-Transfer-Commandments?p=4980253#post498025
* About five games into the season, I whipped out my rose-coloured glasses and wrote a post about why I thought we’d still be ok despite our poor start and the looming nightmare schedule on the horizon http://www.not606.com/showthread.php/227951-Why-I-Reckon-We-ll-Be-Ok?p=5306291#post5306291*
* I should have condensed that post into “Sure, we have Attila the Hun as our manager, but our 27 transfer moves really make sense!”.**
** Yes, we really made 27 transfer moves in the summer window (more on that in a moment).
As it turns out, I was right in thinking that we’d be ok – but for all the wrong reasons, proving yet again that I am not to be trusted with any form of intelligent footballing prediction.
With the benefit of that hindsight, I’ll now try to make some sense of our 2013-14 season. Magic carpets are for sissies. Buckle up and let’s go for a real ride.
Our summer transfer business
When I suggested in my Salut! article that we needed 12 in and 11 out, it was with the clear caveat that nobody would be crazy or suicidal enough to do it all in one transfer window. Go on, read the article, my caveat is clearly there. I’ll wait for you… (waiting)…
Ok, now that we have that out of the way, it was clear that such plan would have to be executed over the next two or three windows. At no stage was my article designed as a dare. You hear that Paolo? It was not a dare. IT WAS NOT A DARE PAOLO!!!
Enter Paolo “that’s not a transfer strategy, this is a transfer strategy” Di Canio…
Please, don’t hold your breath while reading the next part, you’ll die.
The summer ins
Yep, that’s 14 of them. 12 is for wimps. (Groan).
The summer outs
A nifty baker’s dozen all up.
So what if we had 27 transfers?
Like in any good game of LMA Manager or Championship Manager, when you hammer through more than 20 ins and outs in one transfer window, you’re feeling pretty good about yourself: the prospect of playing with all those new toys is exciting. And ridding yourself of the “deadwood” feels great too.
And anyway, what could possibly go wrong? It was we like we had bought so many lottery tickets we just couldn’t possibly lose. So what if we no longer had one of the league’s best goalkeepers and our most creative attacker?
We lost, that’s what
In drafting my 10 transfer commandments, I should have included the following commandment:
“Thy shalt not bring in more new faces than Steve Bruce did in 2011-2012, because it really doesn’t work.”*
Or better still:
“Thy shalt not treat Sunderland as thy would a team in their first season of Football Manager.”
I apologise and accept responsibility for this.
*PS: Bruce’s immediate response to our “best” season in years – a 10th placed finish – was “we need to get rid of our top goal scorer (again), replace him with an 18-year-old and Nicklas Bendtner and bring in 12** new faces overall RIGHT NOW!!!”
**(El Mohamady, Wickham, Ji, Gardner, Larsson, Westwood, Deacon, Brown, O’Shea, Vaughan, McLean, Bendtner – it’s amazing how that transfer window has continually come back to haunt us for the last three years).
Sorry for digressing.
Let’s just say that Di Canio didn’t set a great platform by doing so much transfer business all at once. His intense management style was also extremely unpopular to say the least. With the new season barely under way, Di Canio had achieved an unrivalled level of complete organisational dysfunction – so much so that he was sacked on 22 September 2013, just five league games into the new season and 13 league games into his Sunderland managerial career. Wow.
To truly appreciate this, we must properly consider what Di Canio managed to achieve during his short tenure:
• Bring in a whole new team in one transfer window (check);
• Move out a whole team in one transfer window (check);
• Annoy everyone at the club, including the admin and support staff (check);
• Crush the players’ sprits with draconian management style within five games of the new season (check), including the new signings (double check);
• Get one point from the first five league games (check);
• Have club rooted to the bottom of the table (check);
• Slag off the players publicly in lengthy media conferences (check);
• Watch the players revolt and protest to the club board (check); and
• Set the place on fire (ok, maybe he didn’t do that);
• Get sacked (check and mate).
Five games into the new season and our freshly minted TV guide was in flames. Well done Paolo. Bravo.
If we want to know why our season ended up the way that it did, we need look no further than this.
Enter Gustavo Poyet.
More slop, but then green shoots
The issue wasn’t just that we had one point in five league games under Di Canio. The Fulham home opener aside, our opening schedule was tough (and about to get tougher) and we knew that we would have to ride out the storm. The problem was that the on-field product was utter garbage. By the time we lost 3-0 to West Brom, it was clear that something was seriously wrong. Within a week, the ensuing player revolt and Di Canio’s sacking were complete and we were all left shell shocked. To this day, it all seems so utterly unbelievable… until we remind ourselves that we’re talking about Paolo Di Canio here.
Like Di Canio, Poyet was a very decent player in his day with plenty of Premier League playing experience. Also like Di Canio, he was no shrinking violet. Although his managerial record with Brighton was very good, it still only amounted to Championship experience and his relationship with the board ended somewhat ignominiously. Many wondered if we had just signed up for more of the same. I know I did.
Two Kevin Ball caretaker managed losses at home to Liverpool and Manchester United then followed before Poyet opened up his Sunderland reign with a 4-0 loss to away to Swansea. Oh dear. At this stage, it seemed that things couldn’t get any worse. Little did I know then that things could and would get worse.
It was only then that some positive signs started to emerge. The next three games saw us beat both Newcastle (our first league win of the season) and Manchester City at home. Although these wins sandwiched a poor away loss to Hull, there was finally some tangible hope where there was almost none before. Most importantly, we were starting to play real football again. Our players started to do things like pass the ball to each other, keep the ball on the ground and not let the opposition take the thing off them so damn easily. Even our defenders started joining in this new philosophy instead of continuing on with their previous strategy of trying to score goals from our own penalty box.
Not so fast
It would be another seven games before we would taste victory again – away at Everton of all places (NB: as we had been cut adrift at the bottom of the table by then, we still remained bottom after that win). This win was then followed by a disappointing draw away to Cardiff (the great comeback from 2-0 aside) and a loss to Aston Villa at home to round out the year.
It was official: we were bottom of the table at Christmas and New Year and running out of chances. Almost no team gets out of that situation.
We need another 13 transfers, stat!
For the most part, Poyet got it right. Alonso and Vergini both did well in defence, while Bridcutt was no slouch in the middle and kept Cattermole honest for his spot in the team. Poyet also managed to comply with the rule that “any time you can sign three Argentinians within 10 days, then you absolutely have to do it”. Kudos to Gustavo.
We’ll just pretend Scocco didn’t happen for now.
The League Cup
Amid the league sorrow was the cup run that we had all been hoping for since anyone cares to remember. Of course, it had to come attached with league sorrow so that we couldn’t fully enjoy it.
I’ll admit, I didn’t get too excited by our cup run. I was too depressed by our league position and it was only the League Cup after all (as Jose Mourinho once nonchalantly said at the prospect of Chelsea appearing in the League Cup final: “it’s a cup”).
But my poo-pooing shouldn’t detract from the fact that we beat the likes of Chelsea and Manchester United (in a two leg matchup thank you) along the way and gave Manchester City a real good run in the final. Setanta Sports also got two months of subscription out of me in return for me now being able say that I’ve actually watched Sunderland play in a Wembley cup final. Everybody sort of won, except Sunderland in the final.
Even though we ultimately lost, there was hope that our cup run would allow us to kick on and give things a good shake in securing our league survival.
After the League Cup was done, we drew at home to Crystal Palace and then rattled off five losses in a row to Norwich, Liverpool, West Ham, Tottenham and Everton. We were sitting rock bottom of the table with 25 points and six games to go.
For those of us who could bring themselves to look at the league table, we were four points adrift of 19th place and 7 points adrift of 17th placed Norwich. Sure, we had two games in hand, but there was one really big problem (aside from our inability to win football games): three of our last six games were against Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United… away.
If you hadn’t lost hope before, you well and truly had now.
Relax, it’s all part of the plan
All we had to do was draw with Manchester City and then beat Chelsea, Cardiff and Manchester United on the trot and everything would be pretty much sorted – with two games to spare! And that is precisely what we did. We were out of the relegation zone and only two home losses to West Brom and Swansea, coupled with a Norwich win over Arsenal on the final day was going to change that.
A fine 2-0 display against West Brom saw us secure perhaps the most amazing relegation escape the Premier League has ever seen. While consideration in this respect must be given to West Ham in 2007 and West Brom in 2005 (who were bottom on the final day), that is a discussion for another time.
So why was this season so special?
Consider the following achievements:
• We beat Newcastle at home.
• We then eviscerated them at St James’ Park (3-0 if you don’t mind).
• We beat Manchester United at Old Trafford for the first time in decades.
• We beat Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and effectively destroyed their title hopes.
• We beat Manchester City at home and took 4four points off them for the season.
• We finally beat Everton at Goodison Park.
• We made a cup final and beat Manchester United and Chelsea along the way.
• We pulled off one of the greatest Premier League Houdini acts of all time.
• Given the logjam in the lower third of the table, we somehow managed to finish in 14th place.
Now find me another season in the last six where we have achieved anything close to this level of excitement and relevance. And therein lies the problem. Notice I didn’t mention “success”?
It says a lot that many of us would consider this season gone by as one of the best, if not the best, we have had in recent years. Of course, nobody is basing this on our overall performance. Instead, the euphoria of escaping what appeared to be certain relegation seems to have coloured our view. The League Cup run certainly helped too.
It’s appropriate at this juncture to remember the following sobering facts:
• five games into the season, there was a dressing room revolt and our manager was sacked.
• We had one point from our first eight games.
• We spent 29 out of 38 match days in the relegation zone.
• We spent 17 out of 38 match days on the bottom of the table.
• We were on the bottom of the table after the 34th match day.
• At no stage during the season were we in the top 13.
• Our away record was better than our home record (20 points to 18).
• We couldn’t beat any of the following bottom 10 teams at home: Fulham, Norwich, Aston Villa, Hull, Crystal Palace, Swansea and West Ham.
• Come the end of the January 2014 window, we managed to rattle off 40 transfers for the season.
Suffice to say, I don’t think any of us want to experience this collection of facts in a season ever again.
Some positives to take
There are definitely some solid positives for us to take for next season.
Firstly, Poyet is proving to be a very decent manager (I don’t want to say “great” until he at least has a full season under his belt). He clearly has the players on his side and shows enough of the common sense that is going to be needed in droves to resolve the deeper seeded issues with our club. Yes, I think it’s safe to say we have some deeper seeded issues.
Also, unlike some seasons gone by, our form in the last five games has been brilliant (I choose to ignore the Swansea result on the final day). Yes, it was out of sheer necessity, but still. Hopefully this will be a positive launching pad for next season.
• Mannone was fantastic in goal and proved to be a more than satisfactory replacement for Mignolet;
• we can finally look at the likes of Adam Johnson and Connor Wickham as having realised a degree of their potential;
• Giaccherini showed some good class in his first season and is certainly one to hang on to;
• Colback made further strides and is certainly worth keeping;
• the Phil Bardsley redemption was great to see; and
• Cattermole only got one red card for the season (ok maybe this one isn’t as good as the others).
As far as reshaping the squad goes, there’s a lot of work to do. Here are some of the more obvious issues:
• We have too many players in on loan. Let’s go through them and their statuses in terms of how helpful they were:
o Borini – a (big) contributor.
o Vergini – a contributor.
o Alonso – a contributor.
o Ustari – not a contributor.
o Celustka – not a contributor in the end.
o Ki – a contributor.
So that’s four decent contributors who we are not guaranteed to have next season.
• We have seven players out of contract. Colback is the notable one here and hopefully we can keep him now that we have secured safety. And then there’s the likes of Larsson, Bardsley, Gardner, Westwood, Cuellar and Ustari. I’ll leave you to decide what you think we should do with them.
• We have strikers who don’t score goals. I’m looking at you Jozy and Steven. And don’t get me started on the whole Scocco thing. If we start next season without a new striker, I’ll cry while repeatedly screaming out “why me?”.
• Our main central defenders will soon need Zimmer frames. At best, I reckon we’ll get one more reasonably decent season out of Brown (fingers crossed) and perhaps two more from O’Shea. At best.
• Central midfield is still an eyesore. Cattermole is decent when he plays, but has never made more than 23 league appearances for Sunderland in a season. Gardner and Larsson aren’t and have never been the answer and the jury is still very much out on Bridcutt (I’ll admit his height worries me, particularly when you consider that Cattermole is also less than six feet tall). We need a real central midfielder. Please, Gustavo and Ellis, just throw the bank balance at this one so we can all live easier. You hear me? Gustavo? Ellis? I’m giving you until July to sort this out.
• We still have players not contributing to the first team that are ours:
o Cabral – seriously, wtf happened with this guy?
o Vaughan – word has it he’s pretty much sealed a move to Nottingham (and I think his contract was mercifully up anyway). Word also has it that around 80,000 Sunderland supporters are on standby to drive him there if needed.
o Diakite – I must admit, I thought he was ok, even if he had “relegation centre back” written all over him.
o N’Diaye – his future definitely looks elsewhere.
I’ll let Roberge and his nine appearances off the hook for now.
• For good measure, we bought some kids who we know almost nothing about:
It will be interesting to see what comes of these guys and which ones end up in witness protection.
Danny Graham is still ours
(This man always deserves his own category).
Danny Graham is still ours
Seriously, think about that.
And those are just the paper squad issues. Never mind the overall internal culture issues we have to sort out. I think it goes without saying that Poyet and Short have a lot of work to do. Don’t drink too much champagne guys.