Sunderland's appointment of a Director of Football, and a entire new system of how the club operates was a move that was desperately needed. With an emphasis on scouting every corner of the globe, and finding technically gifted footballers at inexpensive prices, it felt like the club was finally moving into the modern era. No longer would they spend vast amounts to little effect, and instead we would look to form a footballing identity that would take us to the next level.
Yet so far the club has remained mired in mediocrity. Worse that mediocrity even; we've been nothing short of awful. Six games in and Sunderland lie bottom of the table, managerless and without a win. The bad start, combined with behind the scenes turmoil, cost Paolo Di Canio his job, and the blame for the team's poor performances has largely fallen on his shoulders, and rightly so.
However, Di Canio has not taken all of the heat, and many fans and journalists have put some blame on Director of Football Roberto De Fanti, the man who, along with Chief Scout Valentino Angeloni, is responsible for player recruitment.
Question marks can certainly be raised over some of the decisions made by De Fanti. For starters he was instrumental in bringing Di Canio in as Martin O'Neill's successor, despite issues over the Italian coach's temperament and man management at his previous club Swindon. Di Canio gave us an instant jolt, and it's hard to imagine the team claiming the 3-0 win at St James' Park without him, but for a club that was supposedly looking at a long-term vision, it seemed like an incredibly short-term appointment.
Criticism can also be levelled at some aspects of De Fanti's recruitment during the summer. The struggle to find a left-back proved particularly frustrating. Despite employing one of the most highly regarded scouts in the game in Angeloni, the club still ended up with Andrea Dossena, a panic buy who was signed with the knowledge that he would miss part of the season with injury, and who failed during his last spell in England with Liverpool.
A lack of Premier League experience within the new signings could also help explain the poor start, with players new to English football needing time to adapt. The decision not to sign Tom Huddlestone, Di Canio's preferred midfield target, now looks like a mistake, with the England international the driving force behind Hull's excellent start to the season.
However, it is far too premature to call our new Director of Football's summer recruitment a failure, and it would be totally wrong to blame him for the club finding themselves so far adrift at the bottom of the table. De Fanti's job was to assemble a squad that would comfortably avoid relegation, and show significant signs of improvement on the one that was so average last season. So far it hasn't looked like we're heading in the right direction, but the truth is, at this stage of the campaign, we still don't know how good the squad of players De Fanti has put together is.
Di Canio's bizarre team selections, knee-jerk reactions and strict disciplinary methods meant he never used the players he was given to his full advantage. Valentin Roberge was dropped after one mistake; Cabral, despite a promising pre-season and opening day performance against Fulham, disappeared from the team for disciplinary reasons, while star signings Emanuele Giaccherini (and it's worth remembering Sunderland would never have been able to attract a player of his calibre without De Fanti), was never given a chance to thrive, taken off early against both Crystal Palace and West Brom. Since Di Canio's departure, the Italian winger has been Sunderland's best player.
Add all that to Di Canio's commitment to a two man frontline, and continuing to use deadwood such as Vaughan and Gardner, who can't play effectively in a two man midfield, and it's clear he didn't know how best to use the players he had. Our recently departed manager's behind the scenes antics, which verged on intimidation and bullying of players, meant the team lost all confidence in him. They couldn't play with any freedom, or reach anywhere near their full potential. It's therefore harsh to appropriate too much blame for such an awful start to the season on De Fanti and his new signings.
It must also be remembered that, with such a huge turnover of players over the summer, this was always going to be a transitional campaign and another season of struggle was always likely. Only six games have been played so there's still plenty of time for the club to get themselves out of bother. You only have to look at Aston Villa, a team who looked dead and buried at this stage last season to see how possible it is to recover from a poor start. True they flirted with relegation all season, and were inconsistent, but they also kept showing signs they were moving in the right direction.
The Villa 2012/13 comparison is an especially useful one, as they also made huge changes to how they operated during the close season prior to the start of the campaign, choosing to focus their recruitment on bringing through youth players, and signing young, inexpensive talent from abroad. They had their season of transition, and have added a few solid players this summer, which has allowed them to build and get off to a very good start this time out.
If Sunderland can stay up, than De Fanti can help the club achieve what Villa have, looking to a more focused summer recruitment next year, bringing in a small number of quality players that build on those signed during the last window. The current band of footballers is just the foundation.
The squad must be given time to develop under a new manager before De Fanti can be properly judged in his role, and this judgement must be withheld until the end of the season. The blame for the poor start can mostly be put at Di Canio's feet (along with the 'old guard' of players, namely the likes of David Vaughan) but now a new Head Coach must come in and get a potentially talented squad performing. If he can't, and Sunderland find themselves in the relegation zone come the end of the season, then the players simply weren't good enough, and the buck stops with our Director of Football. However, if the club steers itself away from relegation trouble, and starts to show signs that they're heading in the right direction, De Fanti has something to build on going into next season, and praise will be due his way.