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The 2013/14 Season: What Could Have Been

With the start of the new Premier League season now just eight days away, no one is more relived than us that Sunderland will once again be playing in England's top division. However, during the latter days of last term, such a fate was not always assured, and we decided to have a look at what position we might have been in had things taken a different turn...

Richard Heathcote

Well, here we are. It's summer. It's sunny. And it's shit.

I suppose this all stems from that torrid, crazy weekend back at the end of March. For then it was that Ellis Short - previously seen on these shores as a calculated and astute businessman - took leave of his Texan sense. Gone was the tried and tested (though flailing) Martin O'Neill; in came the maniacal, dictatorial and naive Paolo Di Canio.

Any optimism should really have been flushed out of us from the moment our new "manager" stepped foot into the Academy of Light to give his first press conference. With fascism the buzzword of the day - and then the weeks to come - Di Canio, flanked by the ornamental presence of Louise Wanless, stepped into a hailstorm that everybody but he and the club had seen coming.

As if the refusal to say anything that hadn't already been uttered in a club statement bereft of content wasn't ridiculous enough, Di Canio's decision to arrive bedecked fully in black, with a Capitoline Wolf adorning his breast, was almost too much to bear. It got worse when, tired of fending off questions about his supposed politic beliefs, our new club representative stood up in front of the baying media and, in a move Joey Tribbiani would have been proud of, flicked his palm outward from under his chin while uttering the word "Vafanapoli!" It took a few moments for the pack to realise they'd just been advised to embrace sodomy - but the headlines the next day told the whole story.

In a way, it took the heat off the side itself, who had a tough game at Chelsea to focus upon. But, of course, miracles don't happen within a week and Rome wasn't built in a day - even with a dictator at the helm - and a plucky 1-2 defeat followed. The margin of victory should have been more comfortable for the home outfit, but Danny Graham's late deflected effort gave a glimmer of hope.

Relatively content despite defeat in the capital, fans headed home still fairly terrified ahead of the following weekend's Tyne-Wear derby. For their sakes, we can only hope they didn't catch a glimpse of Di Canio's post-match antics. Cutting short a chat with Geoff Shreeves, the new gaffer promptly march out onto the Stamford Bridge turf, loudhailer in hand, as his team trudged out fearing the worst. A beguiling sight followed, as a group-marching of sorts took place for the better part of half an hour, before the players returned to the dressing room utterly bemused. When quizzed upon the incident afterwards, Di Canio merely muttered, "team-building."

This fascism thing was really getting out of hand by now, with Di Canio and his staff barely even concealing the evidence, and we had the logistics of St. James Park to thank for the next furore. Ensconced high in the heavens of the Leazes End, Sunderland fans greeted their manager before kick-off with a rousing 'Paolo, give us a wave' chant, unaware of the consequences it would bring. The resulting forearm salute brought with it some 50,000 boos and an aghast television audience - the resulting 3-0 win for the Magpies just compounded the misery (and yes, of course Shola scored).

After just a fortnight in charge, the reign seemed untenable already. Ellis Short, normally the quiet man, came out and offered his full support to the manager. So too, did some players, though Titus Bramble appeared to have disappeared off the edge of the earth. Fears were abated when, some weeks later, he was spotted in a Tyneside nightclub on an episode of Geordie Shore, comparing penis girth with 'Gaz'.

Back to football, and the small matter of a visit from Everton awaited. Things were going fairly well, Stephane Sessegnon firing Sunderland into a first-half lead, before the team's newly acquired aggression got the better of them. Encouraged by a roaring dugout, Craig Gardner scythed down Leighton Baines, seeing red instantly. Then, in an almost identical tackle, Jack Colback splattered Victor Anichebe into oblivion. The nine men could do little to resist Marouane Fellaini's late winner.

Questioned about his side's discipline, Di Canio invoked military rhetoric. Questioned about his lack of full-backs for the new few games - Danny Rose having been injured at Chelsea - Di Canio remained optimistic that he could "perform a miracle" and swanned back off to the AoL to get down to business.

A relegation six-pointer with Aston Villa came next, and a plucky point was the side's just reward. Di Canio, noticing the porous nature of his defence, opted for a 5-4-1 formation, and was pleased to see his well-drilled side eke out a 0-0 draw. It flew in the face of the attacking football the manager has long favoured, but needs must.

As we all know, those final three games need little reminiscence. There was the gut-wrenching, woeful 0-2 defeat at home to Stoke City. The arduous 1-1 with Southampton that sealed our fate. The 4-0 crushing down at Spurs. More red cards (two), more Di Canio tantrums (one after each game) and more ribbing from the nation (endless).

So, Wigan survived - again - and we returned to the Championship - again. Ellis Short's gamble failed fantastically, Di Canio proving too much of a hothead, the squad proving too inadequate to save their own skins.

In a way, Short's decision to keep hold of his manager for at least the opening months of this coming term is admirable. It shows his belief that Di Canio and his staff will get it right. But it's hard not to think that keeping O'Neill would have been the better option. Yes, we may still have gone done, but we'd have in charge a man with undoubted experience.

Perhaps the most traumatising effect of the past five months is the overriding feeling of an opportunity having been missed. Rumours gathered pace late last season that Short was considering a full-scale revolution on Wearside. A number of well-renowned Italians were linked to becoming the club's first ever Director of Football, while an overhaul of the club's scouting system looked likely. Relegation put paid to that.

So here we sit once more, in the second tier, any 'stars' having left the sinking ship. Adam Johnson is gone, joining Everton for half the £10m we paid last summer. Simon Mignolet has trotted off to Liverpool for £6m. John O'Shea has ventured to Fulham; Lee Cattermole back to Wigan; Sessegnon is seeking new pastures in China. Steven Fletcher looks almost certain to leave, as does Alfred N'Diaye.

We are left, then, with a mix of failed Premier League journeymen and youngsters. Up front, Danny Graham will spearhead our promotion challenge, backed up by Connor Wickham and Ji Dong-Won. Rumours have once again linked us with Kevin Davies, despite Di Canio's preference for up and coming youngsters.

Those who have joined offer little to shout about. An assortment of distinctly average players - Gary O'Neil, Sean St Ledger and Jay Spearing - alongside a collective of foreign unknowns - Mirko Eramo, Matias Cabrera and Daniele Mannini. In truth, there is little to shout about. The continued link with Grant Holt, who would be a solid signing for this level, still shows just how different things might have been.

Inevitably, defeat came at Barnsley on Saturday. 0-1 may not seem such a bad result, but this club is in danger of freefall once again. Yesterday's League Cup draw - an away tie with Burton Albion - offers little in the continued attempts to skirt embarrassment. Once again, Sunderland are a laughing stock.


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