Craig Clark - Don't Get Carried Away...Yet
This is hard to write after winning 3-0 at Newcastle and 1-0 at home to Everton. Two absolutely stunning performances have certainly seen the Di Canio doubters put firmly in their place, which, despite what follows, I certainly am not. However, it is only two results and although the performances have been vastly improved from the utter dross served up at the end of a desperate run under Martin O'Neill, we have been here before so I'm not getting carried away just yet.
When O'Neill took the manager's job at Sunderland there was all of the fanfare but less of the controversy that has surrounded Di Canio's arrival. It's easy to forget how excited we all were when the man the majority of supporters had wanted for years finally took charge at the Stadium of Light. Things started well for him too.
There were 7 wins in his first 10 games, including 3 wins back to back - a run we could do with repeating with a victory over Aston Villa on Monday - which, it's safe to say, is not the most common occurrence for Sunderland in the Premier League.
At the time it felt like he was getting the very best out of a number of previously underperforming players, particularly Stephane Sessegnon. As O'Neill did, Di Canio has stepped in and the Benin international has come to the fore. We know what he is capable of, so why does it apparently take a new manager to kick the former PSG man into gear? His performances at St James' Park and against the Toffees were match winners, the like of which we have seen far too infrequently this season.
He's not the only one either. Of course, Di Canio has set the team up differently and has worked hard on energy levels and tactics, which have made a huge difference. However, the same happened when O'Neill took over, but it was short lived. The question has to be asked why whatever O'Neill did initially stopped working as his tenure dragged on and will it happen again to what is essentially the same core of players?
It's to be hoped it doesn't with Di Canio at the helm and that a surge in performances does not mask the pressing need for reinforcements in the summer. The transfer market is an area where Di Canio remains an unknown quantity. Although he has previously done business at Swindon Town, it's going to be completely different for him in the top flight and it'll be interesting to see whether stories of big agents fees and a high turnover of players are allowed to be repeated here.
Another note of comparison between that initial boost under O'Neill and the momentum we're building now was brought up by proper journalist and Sunderland supporter Jonathan Wilson. The majority of those initial good results came from long range shots. Statistically, very little changed about our play but confidence resulted in a number of special strikes hitting the net. It must be said, despite improved play under Di Canio, the same is true. All three goals at St James' Park were goal of the season contenders, while the effort against Everton also came from outside of the box. When the special goals dried up for O'Neill so did the wins.
Of course, we've looked a lot better in general under Di Canio thus far, but my point here is that his work is far from done. Those two wins were highly significant and much needed, leaving us in a position where another win would probably secure safety. Improved performances should not mask that the squad still needs significant surgery in the summer. I'm sure it won't, but after the disappointment of the last saviour on Wearside, I'm keeping some of my excitement in check for the time being at least.
Luke Bowley - Let's Go F--king Mental!
There's an oft-quoted line in the 1986 John Cleese film Clockwise, in which Cleese's character Brian Stimpson remarks 'I can stand the despair, it's the hope I can't stand' (or this is how it's usually paraphrased; Stimpson stops after the word hope). Football supporters have always felt an affinity with this line; it often sums up the frustrations of following an unsuccessful team. We're used to despair, but whenever we do get a feeling that the future of our club might be brighter, we expect it to be dashed away and, to be fair, it usually is.
This is certainly true of Sunderland fans, who have seen their hopes raised, and then dashed, more often than we'd care to remember. Indeed 'It's the Hope I Can't Stand' was the name of a short-lived Sunderland fanzine that existed around the turn of the millennium; a time when Peter Reid was leading a talented side to a top ten Premier League finish, in a brand new state of the art stadium. This of course was followed by the ignominy of the '19' and '15' points seasons. The club have had many false dawns since, with the Drumaville takeover and Roy Keane giving us a new lease of life, to Steve Bruce building a genuinely talented team of players, such as goal magnet Darren Bent, a genuine star of the 2010 World Cup in Asamoah Gyan, and Lorik Cana, a man who, with the effectiveness of a Greek Siren, would seduce opposition midfielders into his path with his good looks, and then destroy them before they were even aware of what was happening. Things crumbled, and Bent, Gyan and Cana were all gone in somewhat mysterious circumstances within a short space of time.
More recently of course we had the excellent start under Martin O'Neill mentioned by Craig, which of course fizzled out into nothing. Therefore it's not surprising that Sunderland fans are wary of any positive feeling that comes their way. So what is it that's different this time? Di Canio has made a good start yes, but he's only been in charge three matches and, while it looks increasingly likely the club will retain their Premier League status for another season, it's surely far too early to say whether or not he will be a success?
However, something seems different this time around. O'Neill's success over those first few months of his tenure were down largely to his motivational attributes, and giving the team renewed belief, but there was no real long-term plan put in place. Tactically, there wasn't actually any huge difference in what came before with Bruce. Once the belief had ran out, the Northern Irishman's renowned man-motivating skills were lost to him and it ultimately cost him his job. While some of Di Canio's success can certainly be put down to the 'new manager effect', he has already started to implement strategies that will benefit the club in the long term: such as more modern training and fitness regimes than were previously used.
Di Canio has also started to get the best out of under-performing player; notably Stephane Sessegnon. Even during his best spell under O'Neill, the Benin international was inconsistent, but Di Canio appears to have given him a sense of focus, telling him to be more direct and more willing to have shots on goal. Adam Johnson has been allowed to play further forward under O'Neill, and he's already starting to prove he was worth the fee paid form his after all. The improvement in performance of the squad seems far less superficial that in the opening months of Di Canio's predecessor's reign.
Question marks of course remain over the Italian's temperament and ego, and while this might become an issue in the long-term, it won't stop him building a solid team in the summer. Even if he does leave in the future because of his temperament, Sunderland's expected switch to a more Continental business model, with a Technical Director at the helm, will minimize the damage caused to the club (with the possible exception of any damage done to the manager's office after Di Canio leaves).
Furthermore, if you're looking for a sign that things will be different this time around, look no further than the two clubs Sunderland have beaten under Di Canio. The 3-0 demolition of Newcastle was the club's first Tyne-Wear Derby win at St James' in 13 years, while the 1-0 victory over Everton was the first over the Merseyside club since 2001. While I'm aware of the follies of basing my argument on sheer superstition, there's just something special about Di Canio's first act as this club's manager being to defeat two bogie teams in one swoop. It would seem that his passion and downright craziness has already infected us all and, for the first time in a long time, Sunderland fans have some hope that might actually become something good.