Ian Todd,* co-founder of the London and Southern England branch of the Sunderland AFC Supporters’ Association, probably gets to as many games as anyone. Once or twice in the past season, he wondered whether he’d have been better off going to watch the inspirational Sunderland women’s team instead. Ian’s comprehensive review of the season identifies the heroes – unsung Jack Colback notable among them – and the villains …
A year ago we celebrated, though not without some scares along the way, securing our longest continuous Premier League membership.
Could we now truly consign the yo-yo adjective to the trash can? On Sunday night, and thanks largely to the failing of three others, we concluded the 2012-13 season one place above the relegation trapdoor, four places and six points worse off than last year.
There’s striking consistency too in those around us in the table both years : Aston Villa, Norwich City, Stoke City, Swansea and this year’s failures QPR and Wigan. Why should we, with bigger crowds and greater investment than those fellow strugglers, not be moving forward rather than backwards? What went wrong?
After the initial new manager surge (seven wins from O’Neill’s first 10 games) we’d managed only two wins from the final 14 so it was already clear that improvement was needed.
We had the manager we’d wanted, he’d had time to know his wheat from his chaff and had the support of Ellis Short in strengthening those areas he saw as a priority. If nothing else we needed players more readily suited to the defend and counter-attack philosophy O’Neill had adopted successfully at Aston Villa.
* See the full series of 2013 End-of-season reviews at this link: https://safc.blog/category/end-of-season-reviews-2013/
The arrival of Johnson, Fletcher and Rose fitted that theory whilst Cuellar was a known quantity who would bolster our often injured squad of centre backs. The strange signing was Saha, hardly at an age to get his own pulse racing, let alone ours.
To say our aspirations for a solid start to the season were quelled is an understatement. Fletcher quickly silenced those who thought we’d paid too much for him, whilst Johnson was the opposite – why had he cost so much? McClean had seemingly regressed whilst Johnson was simply not exciting us; neither of them was fuelling Fletcher with a constant stream of inviting crosses.
And we still had a basically defensive mindset. Once more we suffered an early and embarrassing League Cup exit to a club from the level below, this time Middlesbrough, led in midfield, and excellently so, by Grant Leadbitter! We were having to play Gardner at right back, Bardsley having injured himself pre-season and Larsson in midfield in order to accommodate Johnson.
Bardsley had no sooner returned to duty (and in poor form) than Cattermole disappeared for the rest of the season, these injuries and the patchwork of players selected out of their natural position demonstrating the paucity of our squad.
Thanks largely to Fletcher’s goals we struggled safely towards the January transfer window, though only ever oscillating between 14th and 17th in the Division. Then three wins in four games, home to (the blocked-drain postponed) Reading, away to Southampton and home to Manchester City gave us hope (false as it turned out) that the corner had been turned and January signings would take us forward.
Danny Graham arrived but O’Neill persistently refused to play two up front and we remained boring to watch. Alfred N’Diaye gave us energy in midfield but no improvement in quality or perceptive eye-of-the-needle service to whoever at that time happened to be up front.
Fletcher was injured on international duty, leaving Graham to prove he was nothing like an adequate replacement; he still, now, awaits his first goal in Sunderland colours.
These were increasingly worrying times, with those teams around us beginning to show improving form and little sign of us following suit.
In that respect the sacking of O’Neill was less of a surprise than the timing. A narrow home defeat by Manchester United is hardly the basis for a decision, taken in Hawaii, that a manager has terminally failed; perhaps early figures on season ticket renewal was the more relevant factor.
Even more of a surprise was the immediacy and candidature of the replacement. Setting aside the political aspects of the appointment, fuelled in the media’s eyes by the resignation of the vice-chairman David Miliband, Paulo Di Canio had neither Premier League managerial experience nor any reputation for calm diplomacy in a crisis. We were, though, perhaps relieved that some of the other names bandied around or listed on the bookmaker’s tariffs did not arrive.
All reports suggested the new manager had instilled a new energy around the team and this was no more exemplified by the creditable performance at Chelsea, the stunning victory at St James’ Park and the jinx-breaking home defeat of Everton. (If that additional motivation extended itself to the three red cards we accumulated in the last four games then that is a worryingly negative aspect!)
Sadly the engine seemed to have run out of steam at Villa Park and in the home games against Stoke and Southampton and we were left to pray fatigue, and Cup euphoria, would inflict Wigan in their final away game against Arsenal. Our relief at that result, which secured our survival, should be accompanied by bucketfuls of shame that we were even in that position.
If this has all seemed too negative then let’s at least recognise the (too few) positives of the season. Simon Mignolet has, often alone, saved us from almost certain relegation and Danny Rose, if we can sign him permanently, will surely solve a left back problem which has persisted almost since the days of Micky Gray.
Steven Fletcher has proved his worth and an on-fire Sessegnon has proved irreplaceable in the role to which he is best suited as the forward link player.
Every squad should also have an unsung hero, never in the limelight but will play anywhere and always give of his limited best. Step forward Jack Colback!
So the jury is out on the Di Canio regime and the immediate future. Have we once again appointed a manager who “looked like a good idea at the time”? The PFA’s conciliation services are likely to be kept busy and the chief executive will no doubt have many farewells and welcomes to convert into contracts.
It’s going to be an interesting and no doubt bumpy ride. Which brings me back to my original question of why Sunderland are regularly in this situation of flux and not moving progressively ahead of the Villas, Norwiches, Stokes and Swanseas? Can we hope Ellis Short can solve this conundrum?
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/