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Sunderland’s Stadium of Light Managers, Part Three: A boyhood fan, an Italian firebrand, and Gus Poyet

In the early 2010s, our managerial choices grew ever more peculiar as we went from a respected and vastly experienced boss in Martin O’Neill to two relatively unproven options in Paolo Di Canio and Poyet. How did they fare on Wearside?

Photo by David Davies/PA Images via Getty Images

Martin O’Neill (2011-2013)

There’s a video clip that often circulates on Twitter in which Gary Neville says, ‘This was the banker. This was the one that couldn’t fail, this was the one that’s never failed’.

It’s generally used in a humorous context but that quote could’ve been tailor made for when Martin O’Neill finally arrived at the Stadium of Light in late 2011.

English Premier League football team Sun Photo credit should read GRAHAM STUART/AFP via Getty Images

Following Steve Bruce’s departure, there was a rare consensus as to who his successor should be, and everyone seemed to agree that it simply had to be the former Leicester, Celtic and Aston Villa manager.

After all, O’Neill had brought success to every club he’d coached at, he was a manager of high class and substantial experience, and surely like Roy Keane five years earlier, the combination would prove to be a winning formula.

Unfortunately, it was merely an illusion, and during his perplexingly inauspicious spell in the dugout, there were times where you might’ve thought, sometimes against your better judgement, ‘This really isn’t working, but it’s O’Neill, so surely he’ll turn it around?’.

Like so many of our bosses in the post-Bruce era, O’Neill’s time in charge was characterised by a handful of memorable moments and results rather than sustained success. He also oversaw some alarmingly poor transfer business, suggesting that all was not well on the recruitment side of things.

On the upside, there was the iconic Ji-Dong Won winner against Manchester City, the run to the FA Cup quarter-finals, and a solid run of of results in the spring of 2012 that ensured there would be no nervy ending to the season.

However, we never really built up any genuine momentum and a mere seven league wins between August 2012 and March 2013 was nowhere near good enough.

By the time he eventually left the club in the spring of 2013, any remaining goodwill for O’Neill had all but disappeared and it wasn’t pleasant to see our fans turning against the man who just over a year earlier had been hailed as the messiah.

FBL-ENG-PR-SUNDERLAND-MAN UTD Photo credit should read GRAHAM STUART/AFP via Getty Images

Yes, replacing him with Paolo Di Canio was nothing less than an insult (more on that later) and according to Pat Murphy of BBC Midlands Sport, O’Neill was said to have been left deeply saddened by his exit, but on the other hand, we’d definitely reached crisis point and something had to give.

In hindsight, perhaps we simply hired O’Neill at the wrong time.

His record in club management following his departure from the Stadium of Light is very mediocre, not least his nostalgic spell at Nottingham Forest when he was assisted by Roy Keane (the pair also worked together at the helm of the Republic of Ireland for a reasonably solid spell) and there’s no doubt that his Sunderland spell represented a downturn from which he never truly recovered.

In all honesty, the only way you can sum up O’Neill’s time in charge is ‘hugely underwhelming’.

He arrived with much fanfare and hope, but left with the jeers of the supporters ringing in his ears. It was a desperately sad conclusion to a collaboration that had initially promised so much but ultimately delivered so little.

Paolo Di Canio (2013)

The craziest managerial appointment of the Stadium of Light era by a wide margin (even the decision to hire David Moyes actually made more sense at the time), Di Canio’s time at the helm was a surreal and memorable spell in our history, albeit for largely the wrong reasons.

Paolo Di Canio Unveiled As New Sunderland Manager Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

Despite ongoing claims that he ‘got’ the problems at the club and would’ve somehow steered us onto the right track if given time, the Italian’s reign as Sunderland boss remains both a low water mark for rational thinking, and a shining example of how not to replace a vastly experienced and capable manager.

Quite what Ellis Short saw in Di Canio that suggested he was the right man for us, God only knows, but his fiery temperament and right-wing political leanings brought baggage that we could’ve done without, and you never really got a sense that he was actually in control- or even that he understood the scale of the task he’d taken on.

Indeed, you could only surmise that after the inauspicious ending to O’Neill’s reign, Short believed that Di Canio could somehow ignite things at the club, but like any powder keg, the fuse was short, the explosion was loud, and the fallout was messy.

Yes, there were highlights.

There was an impressive home win over Everton followed by a superb away victory over Newcastle and the knee-slide celebration that followed, but whichever way you slice it and however you try to defend his methods, that really was as good as it got.

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Sunderland v Everton - Stadium of Light Photo by Owen Humphreys/PA Images via Getty Images

An almost too-bad-to-be-true 6-1 defeat away at Aston Villa soon followed and despite Di Canio’s ongoing bombast and proclamations that he knew exactly what needed to be done to fix things, you couldn’t overlook the fact that any improvements had been minimal, despite the fact that we eventually stayed up at the expense of Wigan Athletic.

Overseen by the equally inept Roberto di Fanti, a manic summer rebuild followed, with approximately seven million new players arriving at the Stadium of Light, many of whom would eventually disappear into the ether after barely making any impact in red and white.

Despite the tasting the glory of victory in the Barclays Asia Trophy and the optimism that accompanied it, performances and results at the start of 2013/2014 were dismal, hastening Di Canio’s exit and mercifully bringing his calamitous reign to an end.

If there’s one thing that Di Canio did superbly, it was to play to the gallery.

His hardline disciplinarian schtick seemed to go down well, but given his lack of control as a player and a boss, expecting the players to jump in line and abide by his rules always felt like an impossible task- and it was perfectly obvious that they weren’t listening anyway.

We’ve certainly had more dour, damaging and forgettable managers than Di Canio since 1997, but we’ve never had a man in charge who was so alarmingly unsuited to football management in any capacity, let alone at a club like Sunderland.

The fact that he hasn’t coached an elite team in anger since leaving, and probably never will again, tells a story in itself.

Gustavo Poyet (2013-2014)

If only we’d built on Fabio Borini’s opening goal in the 2014 Carling Cup final, and if only Yaya Toure’s speculative effort hadn't sailed into the back of the net and ultimately swung the game in Manchester City’s favour.

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Sunderland Photo Call - Gus Poyet Unveiling - Stadium of Light Photo by Owen Humphreys/PA Images via Getty Images

Had that game ended differently, history would’ve looked very different and Poyet, who combined Di Canio’s passion with a greater amount of tactical nous and an ability to inspire, rather than alienate his players, would’ve never paid for a pint in Sunderland again.

Alas, it wasn’t to be, so we had to console ourselves with ‘The Great Escape’, and dodging the relegation trapdoor once again, a theme that become all too familiar as instability grew during the mid-2010s.

That Wembley final, and the run that preceded it, was the undoubted highlight of the Uruguayan’s time on Wearside, and the fact that he steered us to Premier League safety in the face of a mountain of adversity was enough to win him a place in the affections of the fans, something that endures to this day.

Arriving at the Stadium of Light in October 2013 having made a positive impression at Brighton, Poyet was initially hindered by the age old problem of working with a squad that wasn’t really ‘his’, and as the campaign went on, we continued to struggle and it felt as though this was going to be the season when our luck finally ran out.

However, the iconic ‘Miracles Happen, Gus’ declaration of faith ultimately proved to be prophetic, as alongside the league cup run, we somehow hauled ourselves out of the relegation mire and preserved our top flight status for at least another season.

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Hull City v Sunderland - KC Stadium Photo by Richard Sellers/PA Images via Getty Images

One of the unlikely heroes of the run was Connor Wickham, who went on an impressive scoring streak during the latter half of 2013/2014, and with Vito Mannone making himself something of a hero and Jozy Altidore (who would latterly be traded to Toronto in return for Jermain Defoe) making a notable contribution in winning the penalty that allowed us to inflict a stunning home defeat on Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea.

By the time the season ended, I remember feeling genuinely excited at what lay ahead. It felt different to the previous summer, not least because Poyet seemed to have a clear vision of what he wanted to achieve and exactly how he wanted us to play.

Unfortunately for the charismatic boss, he would ultimately fall victim to another downturn in form during 2014/2015.

A particularly galling defeat at the hands of Bradford, on the back of a dreadful performance, was a particularly savage kick in the teeth and before long, another managerial reign was heading for the buffers.

The former Chelsea and Tottenham midfielder’s time as Sunderland boss was very much a mixed bag, and certainly one of the more eventful episodes of the Stadium of Light years.

The latter half of 2013/2014 should’ve been the ideal spur to finally bring some genuine stability to the club, but we failed to grasp it, and as another boss was inevitably handed his P45, there was a familiar sense of foreboding gathering around the club.


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