"Football is a funny old game" Jimmy Greaves once said and Sunderland fans can testify to that. I sit here on 16th December 2013 after having seen the Lads being unlucky not to turn the draw picked up in London against one of Greaves's old clubs, West Ham, into a win. A valuable point that may yet turn out to be but we remain rooted to the bottom of the Barclays Premier League, 4 points adrift of 2nd and 3rd placed bottom teams Fulham and Crystal Palace. Tomorrow though, on a much more positive note, we welcome Jose Mourinho's Chelsea to SR1 for a Capital One Cup quarter final tie. That's 3 games away from a first appearance at the new home of football, Wembley. Like Jimmy Greaves said, it's a funny old game.
Let's rewind to the beginning of the year though, a trip to Merseyside for a midweek clash with Liverpool. A confident start by the Lads was snuffed out by the hosts midway through the first half by pace, power and Luis Suarez, there was no way back, Raheem Sterling and a Suarez double put Sunderland to the sword. Sounds familiar right. An FA Cup tie at Bolton followed and despite Carlos Cuellar's efforts, we earned a replay back at the Stadium of Light 10 days later where Wanderer's dumped us out of the Cup at the first stage. In the following 10 games, Martin O'Neill's side tasted victory only twice, a 3-0 victory over West Ham and a Steven Fletcher inspired 2-3 comeback win at Wigan on 19 January. The Black Cats picked up only a further 3 points over the next 2 months, despite a run of games that included Reading, Fulham, QPR and Norwich City. An uninspiring defeat at home to Manchester United courtesy of a Titus Bramble own goal was enough for Texan multi-billionaire Ellis Short to decide enough is enough and the likeable Ulsterman was fired.
Cue the most frantic month in Sunderland's modern history. Former foreign secretary and vice chairman David Milliband sensationally quit the club in the wake of the appointment of Italian Paolo Di Canio citing "past political statements" of the new manager. Certain sections of "supporters" publicly slammed the club and refused to accept and support the decision. One or two used the controversy at the club for their own political agenda and did not return to support the club until several months later. Durham Miners Association, long time friends of the club demanded their banner, which has long hung in the main reception area of the Stadium of Light, be returned. It wasn't.
Di Canio oversaw a much improved performance against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge but two deflected goals off Matt Kilgallon and Branislav Ivanovic resigned Sunderland to defeat. What followed over the next 13 days will long live in the memory of every member of the Red and White Army. A 0-3 win at St James' Park fired Di Canio into the hearts of Lads fans forever. Goals from Stephane Sessegnon, Adam Johnson and a David Vaughan thunderbolt saw Newcastle fans leave their council owned hotchpotch quicker than you could say "fire alarm". 6 days later and Di Canio had seen off another old foe, Everton who the Black Cats had not beaten since 2001 when Claudio Reyna scored and Paul Gascoigne caused mischief with the Wearside faithful. Sessegnon scoring again for his 7th goal of the season. Despite Di Canio callimg this Sunderlamd's Champions League final pre-match, we were dragged quickly and heavily back down to earth against Aston Villa. Danny Rose almost instantaly cancelled out Ron Vlaar's opener before Christian Benteke, Gabriel Agbonlahor and Andreas Weimann ran riot against John O'Shea and Carlos Cuellar before Stephane Sessegnon prematurely ended his season at a vital time when he left his foot in on Yacouba Sylla. 2 consecutive score draws at the Stadium of Light v Stoke and Southampton and a Wigan defeat to Arsenal secured Premier League football on Wearside for at least another year.
The summer started with two appointments off the field of ex FIFA agent Roberto De Fanti as Director of Football and highly rated ex Udinese and Inter Milan scout as Pop Robson's replacement as Chief Scout. The pair quickly got down to business with Duncan Watmore joining the Development Squad from Altrincham. A trio of free agents with European experience joined in Mobido Diakite from Lazio, Valentin Roberge arrived from Maritmo and Cabral swapped Switzerland for Sunderland. Vito Mannone replaced Simon Mignolet, joining from Arsenal for a reported £2m fee. Jozy Altidore returned to England from a successful spell in the Eredivisie with AZ Alkmaar. Youngsters David Moberg Karlsson and El Hadji Ba joined from IFK Gothenburg and Le Harve respectively. Then came the stellar summer signing, Emanuele Giaccherini, an Italian international arrived from Juventus. With Phil Bardsley seemingly set to leave the club, Ondrej Celustka joined from Trabzonspor on a season long loan. Exciting young Greek international Charis Mavrias arrived from Panathinaikos, South Korean playmaker Ki Sung Yeung was allowed to join on loan from Swansea City as was Fabio Borini from Liverpool. The final man through the door was another Italian international with Liverpool links was Andrea Dossena, the former Reds full back joining on a free transfer from Napoli.
Outgoings included Simon Mignolet's £9m move to Liverpool, star man Sessegnon joining WBA, Alfred N'Diaye was very surprisingly allowed to join Turkish side Eskisehirspor. A little less surprisingly was the fact that Danny Graham was allowed to join Hull on loan. James McClean joined FA Cup winners Wigan Athletic, once touted as the Egyptian Beckham, Ahmed Elmohamady joined Egyptian Tigers Hull City whilst Matt Killgallon and Titus Bramble were released to Blackburn Rovers and presumably Nandos, respectively. Rated development squad players Jordan Pickford and Billy Knott joined Burton Albion and Wycombe Wanderers. Youngsters Adam Reed, Ben Wilson, Jonny Maddison and Jordan Laidler were released to football league clubs whilst Ryan Noble left our reserves for Burnley reserves despite offers of guaranteed first team football for less money. Shock.
The 2013/14 season started with a bright start against Fulham. New signing Cabral spurning opportunity after opportunity, Stephane Sessegnon supporting Adam Johnson and Emanuele Giaccherini well and Jozy Altidore used as a battering ram and something to bounce the ball off. Despite our best efforts though, the second half performance dwindled and we never really built upon our start. Fulham had the perfect away performance though, don't concede and hit us with a sucker punch. Valentin Roberge was never in position to get the ball clear and was out bullied by the largely ineffective Pajtim Kasami who headed in to give Fulham all 3 points. Next up was a trip to the South Coast to play Southampton where despite the Saints dominating, Giaccherini's 2nd minute header looked set to give Di Canio's men their first 3 points of the season until Jose Fonte glanced in a header from a set piece. MK Dons were eventually dispatched thanks to a Connor Wickham brace and goals from Jozy Altidore and Adam Johnson. Patrick Bamford and Izale McLeod's deft chip giving the hosts a scare. A 2nd successive Premier League away game followed at Crystal Palace who were strong and potent hitting us on the counter attack time and time again. An early goal by Danny Gabbidon looked to make Palace stronger but Ji Dong Won and Connor Wickham both had glorious opportunities to get Sunderland back level. Steven Fletcher marked his return from injury after 5 months out with a goal just after the break but John O'Shea was sent off after hauling down Dwight Gayle in the area who fired the penalty into the bottom corner before Stuart O'Keefe curled in a peach past Kieran Westwood. Post match, Di Canio gestured to travelling supporters that the defeat was his fault. Defeats followed at home to Arsenal where had Jozy Altidore's seemingly perfectly legal goal stood, things could have been different and away to West Brom where old boy Sessegnon helped Steve Clarke's men to a 3-0 victory.
2 days later and we were thrown into turmoil once again when Paolo Di Canio was sacked as head coach following a disastrous start picking up only 1 point from the opening 5 games leaving us bottom of the Premier League. In the following weeks, reports came out of the club that Di Canio ran Sunderland with an iron fist. Tomato ketchup was banned, ice in drinks was frowned upon, Di Canio constantly questioned players' professionalism and lifestyles. Players were "frightened to smile at the tea ladies" and rightly or wrongly revolted, went to the hierarchy and some even refused to play if Di Canio was not removed from his position. Kevin Ball was once again put in charge of first team duties and oversaw a comfortable Capital One cup win over Peterborough. Improved performances followed against Liverpool and Man United but still no 3 points in the league. Roberto Di Matteo, still being paid by Roman Ambramovic, and Tony Pulis, later to join relegation rivals Palace, ruled themselves out of the running and Uruguayan ex Brighton manager Gus Poyet was appointed as Di Canio's replacement.
Things didn't start well for Poyet, a spirited first half performance followed by complete capitulation in the second half gave Swansea a 0-4 win. Like his predecessor, Poyet's second game in charge was a meeting with our Black and White neighbours. Adam Johnson's short corner was played back to him on the right side of the 18 yard area and he delivered a pin point cross onto the head of Steven Fletcher who had climbed above youngster Paul Dummett to send the Wearside faithful into raptures. Sunderland were domimating proceedings and Jozy Altidore should have doubled the lead when Fletcher's shot was parried by Tim Krul and Dummett hesitated in clearing. The Mags equalised when Johnson let Debuchy run into the area and turn in Ben Arfa's wayward shot. Cabaye could have made things worse but dragged his shot wide. Poyet pulled a masterstroke introducing Fabio Borini who squeezed a shot under Krul who just managed to gather the ball. Not longer after Colback picked up a ball from Ki, threaded the ball to Altidore, Borini sneaked through and fired a thunderbolt to secure the first 3 points of the season. A visit to ex boss Steve Bruce's Hull was a disaster before a comfortable win over Southampton saw us through to the last 8 of the Capital One Cup. Another 1-0 home win over Man City threatened an upturn in fortunes to go with our new attractive style of play. Stoke away came and went as soon as Wes Brown, back playing regularly again, was disgracefully sent for cleanly winning the ball from Charlie Adam. Another 0-0 followed at Villa Park with the Lads continuing their attractive style of play. Chelsea arrived on Wearside with an abundance of talent and on another day scoring 3 would have secured a memorable win. Mr Greaves also once said football is a game of 2 halves and the game against Spurs proved it, bright and spirited in the first half, Adam Johnson firing in a right foot shot to give the Lads a lead but Paulinho's leveller knocked the stuffing out of Sunderland and John O'Shea's own goal all but made sure the Lads will spend Christmas propping up the Premier League.
If Sunderland do drop into the second tier in May, Gus Poyet will look at the amount of times we have shot ourselves in the foot. John O'Shea's own goal v Spurs was the fifth (5) own goal of the season. Every single one of them coming in the two months since the Uruguayan took over from Di Canio. It may well turn out to be that Sunderland's squad is just not good enough but let's just hope that Jimmy Greaves is right that football is a game of 2 halves and the second half of Sunderland's season is different and sees us start picking up points.
You know what, football IS a funny old game and I think we will.
Keep the faith!