Clean Slate: Who, If Anyone, Deserves One?

Robert Cianflone

Another new manager at Sunderland provides the squad with another clean slate, but Karl Jones ponders whether certain players deserve it.

As Chris Young from the Sunderland Echo stated this week, Gus Poyet will inherit a squad attempted to be built for three different purposes, yet mastered none. Within it, remains a core of players that have entered their third season at the club, and are now welcoming their fourth permanent manager. Craig Gardner, Seb Larsson, David Vaughan, John O'Shea (I suspect, for some Sunderland fans, their list also extends to Adam Johnson because of his transfer fee); it is unsurprising that most of that contingent are midfielders - the problem area for Sunderland over the past 18 months.

Assessing the merits of the individuals is not a cause for concern, but the issue is when they are deployed together, as Larsson and Vaughan were against Crystal Palace to turnstile-like effect.

It helps none of them that they were signed - O'Shea excluding - without a defined role in the side. Saturday's defeat to Manchester United was one of the truly rare occasions that Craig Gardner was used in a three-man midfield, the position he played at Birmingham City when his form attracted Steve Bruce's interest.

At the time of Paolo Di Canio's departure, I tweeted that it was irrelevant who the next manager would be - because as long as the same group remain at Sunderland we will continue to tread water. Now, a fair part of that was born from frustration. That much of the national media had the nerve to protect a Sunderland dressing room that one might argue - and Di Canio certainly did - seldom deserved such, but mainly because the change of manager has preserved their status as Sunderland players and veiled the real issue that prevents the club from progressing.

After each change of manager, there has been an increase in both urgency and points accumulated - during Martin O'Neill's first ten games the latter reached Champions League-qualifying levels - before the lack of ability resurfaced. The deception of their performances in the short-term is coupled by a key characteristic that had allowed Bruce, O'Neill and now Di Canio to believe they are worthwhile: Larsson the set-piece specialist, Gardner the goal-scoring midfielder, Vaughan the provider of balance as a left-footed midfielder. Surely, under Poyet, the penny will drop that you need to be good at more than one element of the game to be a top-flight footballer.

It has emerged, recently, that O'Neill was acutely aware of this but was denied the opportunity to address it. There is little wonder why the unofficial post-mortem of his time on Wearside reads: the fire went out.

Despite a run of four away games from six to start, it would not surprise me to see the trend continue with Poyet. A fresh approach will refresh the minds of those bogged down by Di Canio rhetoric and it is yet another clean slate for those who could - and perhaps should - have moved on in the summer. There are also other players that Poyet will have to consider, such as Phil Bardsley, or Cabral and Modibo Diakite that have not featured recently, although terrace conclusions were drawn on the former's ability well before the casino or Instagram incidents. In fact, he was supposed to be ‘upgraded' as far back as 2008 - although Roy Keane's decision to sign Pascal Chimbonda was ill-fated to say the least.

What the club needs most now is conviction, from all levels. From Ellis Short and Roberto De Fanti to support the man they have chosen, from Poyet to stick to his plan - something that both Bruce and O'Neill failed to do as their sides descended towards the mire at the foot of the table - and from those he includes to implement what he wants on the pitch. Should Poyet find room for him in the three-man midfield he tends to utilise, Gardner may find some solace, but the exit door must await the rest before the Premier League trap door takes Sunderland.

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