Anybody who knows me will be well aware of how stubborn I am. It took until March, and the sacking of Martin O’Neill following the 1-0 defeat to Manchester United, for me to question Ellis Short. After everything the Texan billionaire has done for our club, I was one of the few who disagreed with the call to end the party with Marty. The timing of the decision annoyed me the most. The United match occurred immediately after an international break. Paolo criticised the fitness of the squad after his first game in charge, where we went in at half time 1-0 up at Stamford Bridge, before quickly fading out of the game, unable to compete with a squad who actually trained during the week. Had Paolo been given those extra weeks to get the squad to a suitable standard, we may have managed to pick up something at least from the Bridge. Furthermore, a defeat, by a single goal, to Manchester United, one of the best clubs in the world, and one who would go on to lift the Premier League trophy with a comfortable gap of 11 points, is no real shock. As well as this, our second half performance had been the best our fans had seen for months, albeit without getting anything to show for it. Nevertheless, I left the Stadium of Light that day optimistic. I was fairly confident a win was on its way, and ultimately we would survive under O’Neill.
It really didn’t take long for me to admit I was wrong. So badly wrong. With Villa’s sudden improvement and with Wigan very nearly being Wigan, we would be playing Championship football at the likes of Yeovil, Bournemouth and Middlesbrough, without the intervention of Ellis Short and Paolo Di Canio. Previously, no club who sacked the manager in March survived. Paolo became the first, not by much, but crucial wins against Newcastle and Everton ultimately ensured away trips to the Emirates, Old Trafford and Anfield.
Pre-season 2013 was different for Sunderland fans, yet remarkably similar. For the first time we had a director of football, Roberto De Fanti, as well as a whole new scouting team, led by Valentino Angeloni. A new approach was taken when it came to player recruitment. Steve Bruce, back at the start of the 2011-12 season, brought in 11 new players. These included free transfers like Seb Larsson and Keiren Westwood, both of who remain today. Bruce also looked for young signings, like Connor Wickham, signed for slightly over £8million from Ipswich, and James McClean, who Bruce was just about to play before he got injured. Sure you were Steve, sure you were. He also looked at the foreign markets, with Ahmed Elmohamady signing from ENPPI, and Ji Dong-Won from Chunnam Dragons. Now Bruce had little success with this largely new team, and was sacked in November, after the team failed to gel together.
This year saw 14 new players posing with the scarf and famous red and white stripes outside the Academy of Light. These signings also included free transfers, such as Cabral, Roberge and Diakite; as well as young players for the future in Moberg Karlsson, Mavrias and Ba. An overwhelming difference, however, is that the majority are from outside the Premier League. Only Mannone, our second-choice ‘keeper, Ki and Borini have Premier League experience. Paolo has spoken repeatedly about the need of the new players to adjust to meet the demands of the Premier League. He urged this must be done quickly. So far it hasn’t happened and we sit bottom of the league, still searching for that elusive first win after 5 games. Bruce was unable to get a team of Premiership experienced players to gel after four months. Di Canio was given five games. Now you could blame Paolo for signing so many players without Premiership experience, but as he already pointed out this summer, he merely tells the recruitment team what he needs and they find the player. Paolo publically said he wanted an English midfield player who knows the English game. This search was unsuccessful; with De Fanti deciding an alternative to Tom Huddlestone was available, one who offered more value for money. This search eventually ended with the loan signing of Ki Sung-Yueng, who featured 38 times altogether last year for Swansea.
Now I am one of the most optimistic fans there is, borderline deluded even. Every year I’m optimistic of a top ten finish, gradually accepting another relegation battle as the year goes on. This year was different only in that I was confident of finishing anywhere from 8th to 12th, hopefully with a good cup run. The West Brom defeat opened my eyes earlier than normal to our relegation battle. Does that mean we should panic and sack Paolo Di Canio? No. Simple as that.
While most fans will always love him for those derby celebrations, it was his passion week in-week out that showed he was the right man for the job. He was the greatest thing to happen to our club since Roy Keane who, however unpopular, transformed us from Championship strugglers to Championship champions, and then Premiership survivors. Ricky Sbragia kept us alive in the top-flight, and packed up once that miracle was achieved. Steve Bruce claimed 10th and not much else. Martin O’Neill gave us a brief bit of joy and a cup run, before also losing the board, and his job. Despite a minority of fans disagreeing with the appointment in the first place, the majority at the Stadium of Light never stopped loving Paolo, and, more importantly, the club. That minority will no doubt return and claim they told us so all along.
It is his passion though, that I will miss the most. O’Neill had his leap if he would allow our players to cross the halfway line and score, but each goal meant just as much to Paolo as it did to any of the 40,000 fans inside the Stadium every other week. He quite simply wanted to win, and that really isn’t something this club could afford to lose, especially now. One of my favourite quotes from the great man came before the Barclays Asia trophy, when he stated: "even when I play cards with my daughter I want to win every time. I want to upset her because I want to win".
Goodbye Paolo, we’ll miss you.
Reece Hanson - @RGHanson93