With less than a fortnight to go until the 2013/14 Premier League season kicks off, the excitement is starting to mount. It's the time of year where newspapers, magazines, radio shows, television programmes, blogs and God all line up their previews and ask pundits to make their judgments on what is to come. These shaman enter their trance like state, and pass over into the 'other' to consult the world of the spirits and return to endow us with knowledge of who will finish in 9th position this season.
Sunderland have found themselves dragged into this series of predictions by virtue of being a football club, and some supporters have been displeased with what the shamans have read from the carvings on The Tree of Life. The Black Cats have regularly been tipped to go down by the pre-season Priests and Priestesses, usually alongside Hull and Crystal Palace. A vocal minority of fans cry 'Media Agenda!', believing pundits and journos have some kind of vendetta against their beloved club and its manager Paolo Di Canio.
Of course this is not the case. Pundits have to pick three teams to go down and, from their point of view it's easy to see why they might think Sunderland to be one of the unlucky teams that will fall into the Championship. The team finished 17th last season having been god-awful, have signed a host of new players, many of whom are unknown to the media at large, that will need time to adapt to a new environment, and leading those players is fireball of a manager who has a history of destructive and questionable behaviour, who many feel could explode at any point.
The truth is that many pundits don't put a great deal of research into these pre-season predictions, (some of them are even put on the spot entirely in radio or television interviews). It's largely a guessing game deciding who'll finish where, and looking at it from face value, as the media do, it's easy to see why pundits would pick Sunderland to face the drop.
The 'QPR' Effect
This, perhaps, shows most of all the logic pundits use with the lack of research at hand. Before the transfer window closed at the end of August 2012, QPR had signed 11 players, and went on to have a disastrous season. Sunderland have signed nine players so far, with at least three more expected, and with QPR's failure fresh in the mind, tipsters have used this to explain why they think Sunderland might struggle.
Of course, this completely ignores the differences in the way the two clubs have operated. To suggest that the West London side were relegated because they signed a lot of players who needed time to gel is ludicrous. Mark Hughes' signings were often in areas that didn't need to be strengthened, or he would focus too much on one particular position, leading to an unbalanced squad. QPR were left with too many midfielders, and were lacking in defence and in attack.
These signings were also given huge wages, creating a gulf between the new crop, and those who had led the club into the Premier League in the first place. It was felt that many of the new players, with Jose Bosingwa being the clear example, were there purely to collect the money and never gave their all for the club. Disharmony in the dressing room followed, and QPR imploded.
QPR's transfer policy was never entirely thought through, unlike at Sunderland. The Wearsiders' summer dealings have been carefully considered by Di Canio, De Fanti and their team, and there's always been a plan in place. Only players of a particular calibre, in the positions required, have been signed. The club have also been careful to keep the wage structure intact, and not overspend. We won't be seeing the kind of astronomical wages QPR gave their players.
The Squad Needs Time To Gel
Similar to the QPR argument, although this one has more credence. It's fair to say that a squad with nine new players in will take some time to work as a cohesive unit. However this is partly what pre-season is for, and Sunderland's intensive training regime will, in particular, help the squad to bond. All of the players signed so far spend some time in the training camp in Italy, and it's hard not to imagine that one of the reasons the club was so active early on in the transfer window was so the new crop had more time to bed in and blend into the squad.
The New Signings Are 'Unknowns'
It's fair to say that most pundits won't look in-depth as to what kind of player David Moberg Karlsson is, the reputation Modibo Diakite has in Italy or how Valentin Roberge did in the Europa League last season. When you're looking at 20 teams, you simply don't have the time to look over every signing that's been made. Aside from Emanuele Giaccherini and Jozy Altidore, none of Sunderland's new signings are household names, so the media at large know little about them, and it's therefore easy to dismiss them. You can't put a lot of credence into an argument that's based on such ignorance.
Di Canio Is A Ticking Time Bomb
The final argument regularly put forward is that Di Canio is a ticking time bomb; an eccentric, ego-driven character who could explode, leaving the dressing room torn apart; it's wall covered with swastikas drawn in the fiery Italian's own faeces. There were elements of his ability to fall out with players on show during his time at Swindon. He had an on-field bust up with Leon Clarke, and publicly criticised young goalkeeper Wes Fonderingham. Pundits point to the 'rant' after the final game of the season at Tottenham as further evidence we're dealing with an unpredictable character.
Of course that 'rant' was actually a calculated piece of PR from Di Canio; a much needed message to the fans, players and media that things were going to change at Sunderland. While there's no denying the Italian is volatile, and while it's certainly a risk to have him in the manager's chair, pundits ignore all the good qualities Di Canio has as a manager. The squad will go into next season the fittest in the league, and their manager's excellent organisation skills will be a huge asset. John O'Shea and Adam Johnson have both publicly gotten behind Di Canio's methods, suggesting a squad bust-up is far from likely. The main targets of the former West Ham striker's 'rant' have left, or are on the verge of leaving, the club, and what remains is a squad of players firmly behind their manager.
Pundits making their pre-season picks aren't shamans, nor can they tell the future. Perhaps with more research they would realise that Sunderland have strengthened well, and are in far better shape than last season, and would tip someone else for the drop. But with 20 teams to look at, there isn't the time to look at every club in such depth, and so it's not surprising Sunderland are the favourites of many to go down. It's not worth getting upset over or suggesting there's some kind of 'media agenda'. Instead let's sit and watch the Black Cats surprise people this season.