One hopelessly optimistic sports writer opined in August that Paolo Di Canio’s Sunderland were going to be the surprise overachieving team in the 2013/14 season (it was me). I wrote specifically that “Di Canio should have enough to see the Black Cats rise significantly from last season’s precariously low perch of 17th place.” Boy was I wrong.
The signs looked good early on; following on from the back end of last season Di Canio seemed to have brought new purpose to a Sunderland team in desperate need of a new direction. The Black Cats showed real quality on their pre-season tour of Asia, holding their own with impressive performances against Tottenham and Arsenal.
Unfortunately, that pre-season tour was the highlight of Di Canio’s reign. Sunderland began the season drastically, losing four of their first five premier games including discouraging losses to relegation contenders Fulham, Crystal Palace and West Bromwich Albion.
With only one pitiful point in the premier league after the first two months, it wasn’t all that surprising to see the Sunderland brass lose patience with the struggling Di Canio. The Italian clearly didn’t have the pulse of his team, failing to even stay competitive in games despite all the encouragement of the summer months. He was dismissed on 22nd September 2013.
A new Era
With Di Canio gone, it was going to take somebody with a strong resolve and tactical intelligence to dig the Black Cats out from the foot of the EPL table. The side looked limp, scoring only five times in their first eight fixtures whilst failing to keep even a single clean sheet.
Enter Gus Poyet.
To begin with, Sunderland fans didn’t really see a difference on the field between Di Canio’s team and Poyet’s. In his first game in charge, the Uruguayan got off to almost the worst start imaginable; a 4-0 thrashing at the hands of Swansea City. Even worse, the defeat came courtesy of 4 goals in a disappointing second half performance, something that had become commonplace during Di Canio’s reign.
In football, however, fortunes can change very quickly. Martin O’Neil used to tell his Celtic team that even the best managers are only three or four games away from the sack. Well the logic works both ways; in the fickle world of football, a manager is only ever one great game away from acceptance. Fortunately for Poyet, that game happened to come in the very next fixture.
The best way to win over an unsure fan base is by beating their closest rivals. Gus Poyet knew that, and so he must have been thrilled when, in his second game in charge, his Sunderland side took down local rivals Newcastle United by a score of 2-1. The uplifting victory, courtesy of a late strike by Fabio Borini, would be the foundation upon which the new manager would begin to rebuild his side’s quickly fading season.
The great turnaround
Poyet wasted no time stamping his mark on the Sunderland team. His players responded well, and what has followed has been the most miraculous turnaround in the EPL this season. Before Poyet’s appointment, Sunderland had lost seven of eight EPL games. However, in the months that followed the table bottom dwellers looked like a completely different team.
The headlines of the turnaround are impressive. They haven’t lost an away fixture in the EPL since a 2-0 loss at Stoke on 22nd November (a run of six games), and stand in 5th place on the premier league club form guide.
Individual victories have been impressive. The team beat Manchester City 1-0 at home in November, a result made all the more impressive by the fact that it came in a month where Man City scored 7, 6, 5, and 4 goals in their other four fixtures.
An even more significant scalp from the fans perspective was rival Newcastle Utd. After claiming victory in his second game in charge against the North East enemy back in October, Poyet marched his team into St James’s Park and led them to a 3-0 triumph. This gave Sunderland a third consecutive Tyne and Wear derby win over Newcastle for the first time since 1923.
January was a particularly successful month for the Black Cat’s. After losing the New Year’s Day clash at Aston Villa, Poyet’s men ripped off five wins, one draw, and a 2-1 defeat at Old Trafford which saw them progress to the League Cup final on penalties.
On their way to the League Cup final, Sunderland saw off the challenges of Southampton and Chelsea before taking down the reigning EPL champions over two legs. They also have an opportunity for success in the FA Cup, facing Southampton next week after previously defeating Kidderminster and Carlisle Utd.
Even in losses, such as their first home loss under the Poyet era (a 4-3 nail-biter at the hands of Chelsea), Sunderland have been far more impressive and gritty than their efforts under the previous regime. This is truly a different team than the one that conducted the first two months of the season, and Gus Poyet is the most logical reason for that transformation.