Every so often, agencies or businesses with no Salut! Sunderland connection invite us to publish guest articles. Most of the time, we politely decline. Jack Butler*‘s first item was accepted and drew a healthy if robust response; his second covers familiar ground but may once again provide a starting point for debate…
There will have been few sets of supporters around the country more apprehensive about their side’s likely fortunes in the new season than those around the Stadium of Light.
Since Paolo Di Canio’s appointment as head coach just seven games prior to the end of the 2012/13 campaign, fans have borne witness to a complete dismantling of the regime put in place by his predecessors, including Martin O’Neill – a regime criticised for facilitating a lack of fitness, professionalism and dietary discipline among playing staff.
Now, mobile phones have been banned from training, a new, healthier food programme has been adopted and training has been engineered towards sustaining performance levels beyond the standard 90-minute mark.
When Sunderland decided to replace O’Neill with the charismatic Italian at the end of March, they were looking to appoint a manager who would be able to shake the team out of their poor run of form – one that had seen them take just three points from the Ulsterman’s last eight games at the club – and steer them clear of the increasingly realistic threat of relegation.
In achieving that feat, Paulo Di Canio won himself the opportunity to carry out the drastic overhaul behind the scenes of the club, a transformation he believed integral to the club’s chances of challenging for a top-six finish.
To add to feelings of trepidation around the club, as well as implementing the aforementioned changes around the training ground, the former Swindon boss wasn’t shy in bringing in a host of new and – some say – untested players during the transfer window.
A boatload of new faces have arrived at the Stadium of Light since they kicked their final ball of last season, and while this inevitably adds an air of excitement, the mood is dampened slightly by a law of averages that suggests at least a couple of them will be seen come May to have been unwise acquisitions.
Along with all of these fresh faces bursting through the door over the summer, the loss of the club’s reigning Player of the Season, goalkeeper Simon Mignolet, may also be an unsettling factor for an already shaky back four nestling behind a new-look midfield and strike-force.
Since his controversial appointment – when many individuals spoke out against his political views and the club’s vice chairman, David Miliband, resigned through fear of annihilating his political career – Sunderland fans have entered a twilight zone.
The man, who, as a player, attracted infamy for pushing over a referee and then going into exile, was suddenly in charge of a Premier League club, and in giving him the nod over more experienced candidates the Sunderland board were rolling the dice to an unprecedented degree. Whether it will prove a masterstroke or hara-kiri may not be fully clear until 35 league games from now.
The jury certainly is well and truly out based on the evidence of the club’s modest – that’s charitable – ed – form during the early stages of this season. Di Canio has handed several of his new signings starts already – among them defenders Ondrej Celustka and Valentin Roberge, midfielders Cabral and Emanuele Giaccherini and the USA striker Jozy Altidore – but it’s fair to say few have managed to shine so far.
Whether that will be good enough for a top-six finish remains to be seen. But the betting at betfair.com suggests that neither Europa League qualification nor their relegation would be that surprising with the unpredictable Di Canio in charge.
After laying down the law to his players on a number of occasions since his arrival, Di Canio has already been the subject of some criticism this season. But while some would feel he ought to consider changing his methods now he’s in charge of a Premier League team, PDC has made it quite clear he will continue managing the club in his own style.
“A lot of people said that I couldn’t work the same here as I did at Swindon because in the Premier League there are big egos,” he has said. “But I don’t see why.
“When I said I will be strict, I mean when I see something that goes wrong or someone does not behave the way we have to do to. They earn more money, so they have to behave better.”
Unpredictability and genius frequently go hand-in-hand in sports. Special players often create that magic moment out of nowhere, usually by attempting what would seem impossible to a less gifted individual and, in Di Canio, Sunderland have appointed someone apparently determined to carry on the all-or-nothing approach that he displayed throughout his illustrious but scandal-laden playing days.
* This is a sponsored posting which has been approved because it discusses genuine issues on the minds of SAFC supporters. Jack Butler writes for various football websites and says he has been an avid Sunderland fan since the day his dad first took him to see the team in 1992, the year we last reached the FA Cup final. He has held a season ticket for the past three years.