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Time For Everyone To Get Behind Ji

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The Korean forward has been poor so far this season, but it would be unfair to make him a scapegoat for the bad start. He can still play a decisive role for the team going forward.

Chris Brunskill

It's been a long time since 90+3 minutes of the home game against Manchester City on New Years Day 2012, when Ji picked up the ball from an offside position after a last minute counter-attack, coolly rounded the goalkeeper and 'done it'. Sunderland, who had spent the majority of the game frustrating the would-be Champions' attack, had found a winner out of nowhere. The striker ran to the crowd in the North West corner, and his cult hero status was confirmed with a well placed kiss.

But what would that fan who, in an uncontrollable moment of passion, placed his lips on Ji's say now if he bumped into him walking around The Bridges. How would he express his anger at the betrayal he'd felt? Would he simply pretend he didn't seen the Sunderland striker and walk on past him with his head held high? Would he, the embittered ex-lover, passive aggressively extol the virtues of the new Korean footballer he's slavering his Bovril soaked lips over? Or would he simply walk over to Ji and scream 'Boooooooooooo' into his face until the former Chunnam Dragon showed visible sings of mental deterioration?

Indeed, Sunderland supporters in general have turned on Ji, and perhaps with good reason. The Korean has been genuinely awful so far this season, from his fluffed header against Fulham, to his catastrophic 45 minutes, and then inexplicably 3 more minutes, performance against MK Dons. For many, the final straw came when he cowardly ducked out of a header at Selhurst Park on Saturday evening, a game where he lacked any presence up front, and hid whenever he could. It's no surprise that many fans were hoping Ji would be out of the door on Transfer Deadline Day.

Where the line was crossed however was the abuse Ji was given by Sunderland fans after he was substituted a few minutes into the second half of the League Cup game against MK Dons last mid-week, where he was met with ironic cheers and applause, and then jeers and boos. Questions were asked after the games as to why the crowd would react like that to a player whose mental fragility was there to be seen on the pitch the night.

The answer is that the majority of fans who saw Ji play that night don't see him as a potentially talented forward player who showed plenty of promise in Germany, but whose mental weakness is holding him back. No, most of the fans never saw him play during his loan spell at Augsburg, and booed him because he's a footballer who, that one glorious moment against Manchester City aside, has never done it for the club, and in their eyes, has no potential. That and because early round League Cup crowds tend to include a greater concentration of arseholes for some reason (no-one knows why this is, but it might because early round League cup games have an air of misery hanging over them, characterised as they are by extra time losses to third division sides late at night, and fans just get put in a really bad mood by it all).

However, Ji does have a great deal of promise, and he's thought of very highly by the Sunderland backroom staff. This is, after all, a player who, after a successful period in Germany, was courted by Champions League finalists Borussia Dortmund. He showed at Augsburg the technical skill and ability that Di Canio, Di Fanti and Angeloni are said to admire greatly. There are question marks over whether or not Ji can handle the more physical rigours of English football, but the Bundesliga is hardly a walk in the park in that regard, and he managed in Germany fine. It would seem that the Korean's biggest problem is his own mental weakness and lack of confidence, and the way to draw out his potential is not to 'boo' or deride him on the pitch.

Nor is to do what Di Canio did and call him out publicly after the 3-1 defeat to Crystal Palace. A lot has been made of the Italian's 'rant' post-match on Saturday, and in most cases it has been blown out of all proportions by the media. However the one area in which you can criticise Di Canio's comments was in his treatment of Ji, who the fiery manager himself said just a few days earlier would play an important part for his team this season, and who just needed toughening up mentally. To single him out in public just days after praising him, strikes me as a case of the questionable man management that is perhaps Di Canio's biggest fault.

The arrival of Fabio Borini means he's fallen further down the pecking order, but Di Canio has suggested Ji's most important role could be coming off the bench and exploiting space when opposition defends are tired, so he could still yet play a vital part in the season. We saw glimpses of his ability to exploit space and get into good positions against Fulham and Southampton, so there is certainly room to work with.

Now is the time for everyone to get behind Ji and allow him to realise his potential. The Korean has greatly under-performed so far this season, but no more so than a worrying number of players have. It would be wrong to make Ji a scapegoat for a poor start to the season.