I’m sure some of you will have read the title and thought ‘well I’m going to look at this as I could do with a laugh’, but before you get chuckling away, allow me to explain.
When Sunderland began this season, high expectations were present. Off the back of a terrific second half of the 2011/12 season, Martin O’Neill’s men were considered by many to be a team on the rise, capable of a top half, or even a top eight finish.
Having bolstered their strong squad containing the rising star in James McClean, young goalkeeper Simon Mignolet and the creative flair we call Stephane Sessegnon with the championship winning Adam Johnson, proven goal scorer Steven Fletcher, and young gun Danny Rose, anybody could be forgiven for thinking Sunderland would have a really good season. How wrong could they be? Very wrong.
Whilst Sunderland didn’t taste defeat very much over the first two months, wins were increasingly hard to come by and whilst a draw isn’t as bad as a loss, consistently drawing won’t keep you up let alone allow you to finish in the top half. By the time the January transfer window came along, the under performing Black Cats needed some excitement to change their season around.
In came Alfred N’Diaye and Danny Graham. Whilst both are solid players; especially N’Diaye who has a lot of potential; they weren’t exactly the names that were going to the light the stadium. It’s also worth noting Kader Mangane arrived in the North East but due to his lack of appearances it’s not worth judging any impact he has made.
The second half of the season continued in the same vein. Draws and defeats plagued the Black Cats and a storm was brewing on Wearside. A storm; which on Saturday 30th March 2013 after a 1-0 defeat to Manchester United; came to a head and thus relinquished Martin O’Neill from his managerial duties.
Whilst the form of a side expected to compete for a top half finish was nothing short of dreadful, there was a slight shock about the sacking. O’Neill felt his invigoration into a sliding side the season before was enough to ensure he would have the whole of this season in charge, but Ellis Short had other ideas.
No more than 48 hours later, a new man was appointed as Sunderland manager. A controversial and eccentric man whose passion ran viciously through his veins. A man, who only weeks previously had left his Swindon side after disagreeing with the clubs owners.
This man was called Paulo Di Canio. His job was simple, keep Sunderland up. Could Di Canio transfer some of his exuberance and passion for the game into his players? Could he somehow motivate a team dropping like a stone? Could a man who has never managed in the premier league, take a team of under performing and lethargic footballers, and turn their fortunes around?
Most said he couldn’t. Yet here we are, after a convincing victory in the Tyne-Wear derby, and an excellent victory over high-flyers Everton, with Sunderland six points above the drop with relegation appearing far in the distance. His thirst for football, and more importantly winning, motivating his team to perform how people expected at the beginning of the season.
However, not too long ago Martin O’Neill had a similar impact. Will Sunderland succumb to such a fate again next season? I think not.
Whilst this season highlighted many areas of improvement, the squad is still lined with talent. Simon Mignolet is arguably the best 'keeper in the league. Although he can be slightly risky on crosses every now and again, his shot stopping, reflexes and command of his area are exceptional. Another talented Belgian!
Danny Rose has been a real shining star in a very dark night sky this season. Defensively excellent, with incredible ball control and composure, as well as an engine allowing him to effectively patrol that left hand side, his performances have consistently been brilliant.
Whether Sunderland can keep him is unknown, but Ellis Short’s primary objective once the season is over should be to get talking to Mr Levy and try to thrash out a deal.
Stephane Sessegnon has creative abilities, and ball retention skills capable of gracing any top 6 side. Constantly moving and finding space, the little Benin midfielder plays in the hole superbly, creating opportunities for the team, whilst chipping in with goals too. If the team performed better, Sessegnon would get more goals.
Steven Fletcher, a proven premier league goal scorer showed exactly why Sunderland paid double figures for his services. In a team that hardly created anything, Fletcher finished most things he could get a sniff at. It’s a shame he is injured at the moment, but next season he should be fighting fit.
As well as these key individuals, Sunderland have Adam Johnson who has under performed hugely this season. He looks a different proposition now Di Canio is in charge. Willing to beat a man and cross the ball was the reason Manchester City signed him, and only now is he starting to do that again.
Other players like John O’Shea, Lee Cattermole, James McClean and Carlos Cuellar are easily capable of performing in the Premier League, and Sunderland will be hoping next season they perform much closer to their true abilities.
With these players in the team, an addition of around three to four players should be enough to at least cement a mid-table finish, if not a European challenge.
A strong leader at centre-back, with a bit of pace and passion would be useful. A right-back capable of similar performances to Danny Rose is desirable, as Bardsley is reliable but not much more.
A centre-midfielder with an eye for a pass, not afraid to get stuck in and with an engine who will support the front line, as well as the defence would be excellent.
Lastly, a winger with pace, and the ability to beat a man and deliver high quality crosses would also be a terrific addition. Whilst Sunderland have lacked goals, the dominant reason for this is their lack of chances created rather than a poor finisher.
Fletcher will finish chances if gets them. Danny Graham is a solid back up, who will chip in, and Connor Wickham is a very good young player who, with a bit of experience, will perform well in the Premier League. With the additions mentioned above, I firmly believe Sunderland will perform very well next season under the guidance of Paulo Di Canio, but will the expectations once again surpass actual performance. Only time will tell. One thing is for sure though, watching Di Canio lead Sunderland next season is going to be fun, regardless of how bumpy.
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