In his first article here after a spell of stunned silence, Lars Knutsen reflects on a heady weekend and contrasts the styles of the successive head coaches …
Well, what do we think? Gustavo Augusto Poyet Dominguez, aged 45, was installed as our head coach and after his excellent initial interviews, expectation built that he could turn things around at the Stadium of Light.
So he talked the talk well, but after that shocking and precipitous second half collapse at Swansea, home town of my father, the omens were not good. To be honest, I have not been writing much, because I was in fear of another 15-point Premier season … and who wants to relive that unmitigated trauma? Actually, after one point from eight matches, I thought 15 points might be a tough target to reach.
Sunday’s excellent win and performance against Newc****e has changed the mood and put Poyet straight into the “incipient legend” category. Just as Paolo Di Canio will come to be remembered fondly for the 3-0 win at St James’, and that suit-ruining knee slide, we know that whatever happens in the future, the Uruguayan will have his share of hero status. I really hope he goes on repair the damage consistently, bring us up the table and become the long-serving manager we all desperately want.
What was so gratifying about Sunday’s defeat of the enemy tribe was the intensity of the performance. The tackling, concentration and team effort were superb. Fletcher and Borini could not have been more welcome scorers, except perhaps for Cattermole, who has never netted for this club. Fletcher is a modest character in front of a microphone, but put him in front of goal with a headed chance and he is deadly. Resilience has not been a strong point this season but the way we came back after the equaliser and kept our heads, setting the scene for Borini to take his late chance, was just terrific. There will be a different, feel-good dynamic on the training ground this week.
So looking back on my weeks of writer’s block, what was it that finally provided the bullet for the unforgettable and inimitable Di Canio? Ostensibly it was the caucus of senior players and their secret meeting with the club’s CEO, Margaret Byrne, soon after the catastrophic 3-0 defeat at West Brom late last month. She then delivered a damning and fatal verdict on the Italian’s regime, and his time was over. But the meeting was just a reflection of what trauma the club has been experiencing.
Two things stood out for me. First was the public criticism of players. One of the universal rules of football coaching is that honest and open dialogue takes place in the dressing room with the door closed, and the manager backs up his players in public. Despite my dislike for the man, Alex Ferguson was an excellent exponent of that strategy.
Secondly there was the sale of Stéphane Sessegnon, a truly classy, game-changing player. He was sold like a piece of meat after being stopped by police for driving under the influence during the Black Cats’ defeat of MK Dons in the Capital One Cup. Sess duly scored the first goal in that abject Baggies defeat which (along with the damage done by that players’ revolt – ed?) proved the final nail in PDC’s coffin. So we lost one of our stars who then tormented Man Utd in the Baggies’ win at Old Trafford. This illustrated Di Canio’s inability to tolerate the human flaws of those who can be geniuses on the field.
Earlier, I had seen the Southampton game, which we very nearly won and to be honest that was a very cohesive performance, as was the second half against Arsenal. But despite some good displays at times we did risk being cut off at the bottom of the best league in the world.
The eccentricities of the PDC period at Sunderland would of course have been tolerated had we been winning games of football. The wretched surrender in certain key games was hard to take as a fan. The dismantling of the backbone of the team by sale of our stars, or the banishment of players such as Catts and Bardsley, who have significant Premier League pedigree, to train with the U-21 boys was just unacceptable. There has to be some way back for players who have transgressed and happily Poyet has now provided that.
So I now consider myself officially relieved of my promise made on these pages to read about Italian fascism, and try to explain Di Canio’s salute. Can I just state that my initial studies showed that terrible things happened under Mussolini. Italy is new to democracy, and in the same way as we fail to understand the ex-prime minister Berlusconi’s depraved and erratic behaviour, we can see that the culture clash between the players and PDC showed how difficult it can be to understand Mediterranean ways of doing things.
I heard a phone-in show on TalkSport just ahead of his appointment which suggested that while Di Canio will scream at a player, Gus Poyet may come round late at night with a Beretta…
I am so glad he kept the metaphorical bullet for those deluded barcodes.