Jeremy Robson is not built in the mould of the docile, acquiescent sort of supporter who takes whatever muck is thrown at him and just rolls over to be tickled now and again. Years spent standing in the Clock Stand Paddock illustrated his passion but made him a critical fan. Here, he kicks off our traditional series of season end assessments …
When a season begins with a host of low scoring draws, someone in a position of authority needs to sit up and take notice, simply because these draws are more likely to turn into losses than wins, sooner or later.
It is particularly true when the overwhelming majority of your goals are coming from a single source; in this case Steven Fletcher. This is even more significant when you consider Fletcher’s chance to conversion rate. I don’t know the percentages, but the evidence shows that when presented with a chance, he rarely misses. Give him the opportunity and the ball’s in the net.
Fletcher’s goals are what has kept the Sunderland ship from sinking this season. It’s as simple as that.
Beyond that though, how can we summarise the season under O’Neill and then his successor? Dull, unimaginative, in fact turgid football which we suffered with a great deal of patience between August and the beginning of April.
An already paper thin squad which was shorn at every opportunity to see the likes of Turner, Richardson, Gyan, Meyler, Elmohamady, Campbell, Ji and Wickham all leave either permanently or on loan since the summer.
If ever a manager could be judged on who he let go then it would be O’Neill, were it not also for the bizarre albeit temporary acquisitions in Saha and McFadden.
O’Neill managed like a man who had been in a coma for the last decade, and who regained consciousness thinking he’d just dozed off after a heavy lunch. He created an impression of a man who was years behind the times and his mind unfocused on the job. His acquisitions in the January window consisted of a player nobody had heard of in Alfred N’Diaye, and a second that nobody else wanted in Danny Graham. Most performances from these players illustrated why this was the case in the most graphic means possible. N’Diaye looks to be as off the pace as the manager who bought him and Danny Graham is as useful as Anne Frank’s drum kit.
A fair proportion of our fan base seemed to have faith in O’Neill when for months there was no evidence that performances and results were going to improve. His failings were papered over by wins over Reading, Wigan and Southampton in quick succession. He was able to survive with some goodwill intact until the end of March when Ellis Short’s patience ran out.
Mr Short was far more patient than most owners would have been having been served up with terrible tactics, equally bad transfer dealings and unattractive football for a good 12 months.
Nobody that I know even dreamed that we would see the charismatic Paolo Di Canio installed as his successor within hours of the home defeat at the hands of the champions in waiting. Media hysteria about his political leanings was probably not anticipated by his new employers. They failed to quell the immediate furore which perhaps did go some way to detracting from our on field problems for at least the first week of his tenure.
With only seven games to go, many of our supporters felt that this appointment was too little too late, and frankly I was one of them.
Di Canio arrived with confidence at an all time low, and took charge of a paper thin squad which is frighteningly low on genuine talent. He somehow produced an immediate “Hawthorne Effect”, achieving in his second game a victory in an away derby, which we hadn’t seen for 13 years.
I began writing this in the wake of Wigan’s defeat at home to Swansea, a result which in the final analysis allowed us to survive the drop, and finished after Arsenal confirmed our Premier status by beating them at the Emirates.
But regardless of whether we had survived or not, this season could have been seen as the season of two managers.
One of them looked as if he no longer had the heart or the capacity for us. Another caused horses to be thumped on the streets of Tyneside. He may or may not turn out to be the great appointment those events suggested – but at least we now have a man at the helm who might just die trying to be.