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End Of Season Opinion From... George Caulkin

We continue our season opinions with the views of George Caulkin, The Times' man in the North East and patron of the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation. Let's see what he has to say about last season...

Jan Kruger

What are your thoughts on Sunderland's season as a whole?

George Caulkin: Effing horrendous. Does that just about cover it?

Do you feel the decision to replace Martin O'Neill with Paolo Di Canio was the right one?

GC: On the criteria given by the owner, it worked. Just. Whether O'Neill would have fared better or worse, we'll never know, although there weren't any signs of uplift as his time fizzled out (the last two home games of the season felt pretty familiar in that regard, mind). I still feel a bit sad about O'Neill's departure; as a journalist, you spend ages trying to build relationships with people and, by the time you do, they end up getting sacked, but there's more to it than that. I loved the historical connection he had with the club and an interview I did with him about Roker Park in his first season was one of my favourites. He should have been Sunderland's one; he wasn't.

Replacing him with a relative novice was a real shit-or-bust decision by Ellis Short (although - and I don't think this is widely known - the Italian connection goes back further; O'Neill was summoned to meet various Italian scouts and coaches prior to the QPR away game. Nothing came of it). You can't deny that Di Canio set an electrical charge beneath the club and city in a manner which felt reminiscent of Roy Keane. That shock to the system is what Sunderland needs sometimes, because disappointment can become ... I don't know, engrained almost, not least because each of these seasons back in the Premier League has featured a long, sapping spell of dreadful results. At some point, that cycle has to break (possibly) and perhaps Di Canio will be the man to do the breaking. He certainly talks a good game, as they say.

Sigh. Without wishing to reopen the controversy, it would be disingenuous if I didn't mention the circumstances of his arrival. I thought it was handled abysmally. The media frenzy which followed it was deeply unedifying - these things often are - but it originated from the resignation of David Miliband, one of Sunderland's own directors, a former Foreign Secretary, and a man whose family fled to Britain to escape persecution from fascism. Whether or not you accept his motivation, it was that which made the ISSUE of Di Canio's alleged political views relevant, heightened by our region's push to eradicate intolerance from society in general and football in particular. The tone of outrage from the club was misplaced. Di Canio addressed it; fine, good, that's the end of it as far as I'm concerned, albeit with a caveat. For all the accompanying dismay, one of the great pleasures of covering Sunderland over the years has been the club's firm sense of place, tradition and community. For me, that has been dented. And I hate writing that.

Who's your Player of the Season?

GC: Are you taking this piss? Danny Rose, probably, and he's not even a Sunderland player. Simon Mignolet is a fab goalkeeper. Can't knock Steven Fletcher.

Game of the Season?

GC: Presumably, 99.9 per cent of supporters would say Newcastle away. In terms of the drama, the startling nature of the game and scoreline, Di Canio's dirty knees, the importance of the victory, it's difficult to disagree, although as my job is to report on both sides of the divide, delight for one club meant despair for the other. I'd put it with the Everton game; there may have been better performances, but taken together, you had a sense of possibility, upsetting history, of Di Canio tinkering with the club's DNA. Unfortunately, it didn't last, but without those wins Sunderland would have been sunk.

Goal of the Season?

GC: I had to ask Twitter what my opinion was, which isn't good, although it's a fair reflection of my memory. The common consensus is David Vaughan vs Newcastle and that was, of course, a special goal.

Do you think the quite public stance Di Canio has taken with regards to attitude and fitness with the players is the right call to make, or should he have gone about things differently?

GC: I find it very interesting. It's counterintuitive; if you look at Sir Alex Ferguson's time at Old Trafford, almost everything he has said and done has been to protect his players, to forge a sense of togetherness, circling the wagons, us against the world. I realise Di Canio did that at the start of his tenure and it doesn't matter so much he's doing the opposite now because there are no more games. When the PFA talk openly about "player unrest" at Sunderland it sounds alarming, but surely he wouldn't do this in the middle of the season? He wouldn't. He really wouldn't. Would he?

I don't think Di Canio is dumb, so let's look at it as a tactic. Twelve months ago, O'Neill was telling Short that the squad was not good enough and needed to be ripped apart and it hasn't taken Di Canio very long to come to a similar conclusion. I guess this makes it more likely to happen, although if you view players as assets, none will have increased in value as a result of it. It's already very obvious that Di Canio is not going to settle for the quiet life.

Can you give us a reason or two to feel positive about the summer and next season from what we witnessed last season?

GC: No, not from what we witnessed last season, unless it galvanises all concerned to make sure it doesn't happen again. There's an enormous amount of work to be undertaken, because Sunderland's squad is inadequate in terms of size and quality. I don't believe a constant overhaul is sustainable, but it's vital this time. If Phil Bardsley goes, there will be no senior, specialist fullback at the club. Central defence creaks. There is not enough variation in midfield. Two strikers, at least, are needed. There is a spine to build on, but not much else.

This summer is going to be fascinating, however, because we'll see a very different approach in the transfer market. He would never say so in public, but Short views Newcastle's recruitment policy with interest (although it looks less foolproof this season). He wants better value, more imagination, less dead money. Between him, Di Canio and Roberto Di Fanti, it will be a very different Sunderland team that starts next season. It bloody well better be as well.

There's been a million-and-one players already linked to the club, but if you were in charge who would be your number one transfer target?

GC: Christ. That's difficult. This season's only just finished and I can't bear to even think about t ... Actually, Christ would be a decent start, wouldn't he? Not very good on crosses, but capable of delivering miracles. Sorry, that's a rubbish answer. And possibly offensive.

QPR and Stoke are the only teams to have scored fewer goals than Sunderland this season and that, to me, is the biggest and most dangerous deficiency in the squad. It's easier said than done because everybody wants goalscorers, but tackling that is vital.

What's been your own personal highlight of the season, be it Sunderland-related or something else?

GC: Sunderland-related ... Ummmmmmm. Not a lot springing to mind. Didn't get to do many interviews, which is the part of the job I enjoy most. I had a couple of social meals with O'Neill, one in the week before he left, and that was a real treat, although I could tell at the end of it that a storm was brewing (for the summer I thought, mistakenly). I try to never lose sight of what a privilege it is to report on football, especially in the North East, where all that underachievement is balanced by pride and meaning and I take sustenance from that.

Elsewhere, the Europa League with Newcastle was good fun, with great trips (I played iPad air hockey with Cheik Tiote on one flight!). I still have fond hopes of covering Sunderland abroad. I interviewed Hatem Ben Arfa on the pitch at St James', which was a new one.

What turned out to be a huge highlight - and please don't shout at me - was spending a week in Rio to cover the Soccerex conference. I was given about 36hrs notice before going, but it was brilliant, and I got a one-on-one with Roy Hodgson, who was over there. My boss wanted a sort of travelogue piece, too, so I was able to drink caipirinhas and stare at thongs on the Copacabana in the name of work. Such an eye-opener; football was everywhere and while the beach was a beach with typically beachy things (sun-worshipping, people getting married and spreading ashes), it because obvious just thongs what thongs a thongs community thongs sporting thongs hub thongs it is. If you have the means to get there for the World Cup, then do it.

Finally, any further thoughts on what has been an eventful season for us?

GC: Delight - not the right word - that it's over. Respect, as always, for the supporters who do what the North East does; turn up regardless and shout themselves hoarse. Thanks to those like Roker Report, for the debate, the inspiration, for keeping me on my toes. And, as always, a fervent wish for better.

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