Di Canio Revolution Fuels Another Renaissance of the Sol
By Gerry Smith
On the pitch, they were possibly the most tiresomely boring teams to watch last season. Off the pitch, though, Sunderland were anything, lurching from crisis, to controversy, to salvation, all in the glare of a media storm. Intoxicating, providing your eyes were closed when the Black Cats played.
To be fair, down the years, Sunderland have had a track record of years of anonymity followed by bursts of thrills, spills and excitement. Not least 40 years ago, when they achieved probably the most unlikely and famous FA Cup triumphs of them all.
Having dispatched previous favourites Manchester City and Arsenal, Bob Stokoe's side stunned Don Revie's mighty Leeds United, and shocked the world, with a panache and confidence perhaps never seen from a Second Division team at Wembley before.
15 years later it was party time at Roker Park again, but in dramatically different circumstances. After years of dormancy, promotion to the First Division ending in either seasons of struggle or relegation, reviled chairman Tom Cowie tried to stop vicious circle by bringing in a top name.
Lawrie McMenemy seemed to fit the bill perfectly, himself leading Second Division Southampton to a remarkable FA Cup win himself, and crafting Saints side full of experience, know-how and skill. The Dell saw European football, other cup challenges, and great football.
Within two years of his arrival, though, that vicious circle had changed. After a moonlight flit, McMenemy left Roker Park in the dark and in the lurch, both on the pitch and financially, resigning under cover of darkness. His signings, and his motivational skills, flopped miserably.
Not even the temporary return of the Messiah, Bob Stokoe, could stop Sunderland being relegated to the Third Division, in a dramatic play-off semi-final against Gillingham, agonisingly on away goals. The fact 25,000 turned up to watch this was testament to the loyalty and perspicacity of Sunderland supporters.
They were rewarded, though, in the next few years. Denis Smith swept through with a confident swagger, wisely signing players he knew could do a job in the third tier for minimal fees. Marco Gabbiadini was brought in from York City for a paltry £80,000. Pound for pound he may have been Sunderland's best ever signing.
Stocky, but with blistering pace and an uncanny dribbling ability, he had the perfect foil for the rejuvenated Eric Gates, who had struggled under the disastrous predecessor. The Third Division title was seized in front of the North-East's biggest crowd of 1987/88.
Two seasons later it got better in the most surreal of circumstances. Bitter rivals Newcastle United, having missed out on promotion of the last day of the 1989/90 season, stood in sixth placed Sunderland's way. Such is the way of things, that in the last minute of a nervy first leg 0-0 draw, a last minute penalty miss by Sunderland's Paul Hardyman was exacerbated by him using Magpie keeper John Burridge's head as the ball in the melee afterwards.
The G Force of Gates and Gabbiadini, however, went down in Wearside folklore on May 16th 1990, their two goals in the return leg at a rain sodden St. James Park provoking an angry pitch invasion from outraged Newcastle supporters. Although not so outraged as to actually go anywhere near the 4,000 delirious foot soldiers of Denis Smith's Red & White Army.
If the semi-final win was unlikely, the final was extraordinary. With Ossie Ardiles at the helm, a stylish Swindon Town swept to a 1-0 win at Wembley. Only those who attended the game, with live tv coverage of the play-offs still some years away, will know just how unjust the scoreline was to the winners. Swindon could, and probably deserved, to win by at least four goals.
When your luck's in, though, it's in. Over the course of the season, and before that, a journalist had delved into Swindon Town's financial dealings. The findings were devastating, with countless instances of under-the-table payments.
The FA demoted Swindon Town and Sunderland, the only team directly denied a promotion place by them, took their place in the First division. The irony of it all was that reporter at the time Bill Bradshaw, who painstaking revealed the story in undoubtedly a brilliant piece of journalism, is himself a Sunderland fan.
This being Sunderland, however, relegation soon followed, and then years of sterility. Even Peter Reid's years were, early on, dominated by a promotion and relegation of a relatively uninspiring team. That changed in 1997/98, the first season in their brand new Stadium of Light, replacing the much loved but run-down Roker Park. A 4-0 debacle at Reading, again back in the second tier, precipitated the introduction of youth, exciting attacking football. And Quinn & Phillips.
These two forwards terrorised defences up and down the country as Sunderland recovered from a poor start to miss out on promotion only on the last day, despite amassing 90 points. Karma then came to bite them at Wembley. 1-0 down at half time in the play-off final against Charlton, the side produced maybe their finest 30 minutes of football since 1973, going 3-2 up and playing in a gloriously attacking, creative style.
It wouldn't last. A late equaliser from the Londoners, a goal apiece in extra time, and then a heartbreaking penalty from Mickey Gray was saved as Sunderland lost the shoot-out 7-6. The irony, once again, was that the architect of Charlton's triumph with a hat-trick, Clive Mendonca was born in Sunderland and a Black Cats supporter. Karma making sure things were evened out. Via the play-offs.
It simply, however, delayed the inevitable. The following year Sunderland stormed to the Championship title with an astonishing 105 points, and the next two years lit up the Premier League to full houses with a couple of 7th placed finishes. A 4-0 shellacking of Chelsea, and an astonishing debut from Stan Varga in a 1-0 win over Arsenal, were just two of so many highlights, in front of full houses of over 45,000.
Being the Sunderland way, though, it had to fall apart. Within two years, an ignominious relegation, gaining just 19 points all season during 2002/03 Mick McCarthy was brought in, and was instrumental in a surprise Championship victory two years later. But the return to Premier League status was even more humiliating. Just 15 points all season, although a 0-0 draw at Old Trafford, confirming their relegation, also put an end to Manchester United's title hopes in 2005/06.
Instead of waiting for years of sterility, Sunderland went straight to another era of headline making. Roy Keane was sensationally brought in, lifted Sunderland from the bottom of the Championship to promotion and another second tier title by the season's end, and dealt extensively in the transfer market, backed by the Drumaville group fronted by Sunderland hero Niall Quinn.
Yet again, though, came the slippery slope. Keane departed early into his second season as a Premier League boss. Both he and Sunderland have never really recovered. The Wearsiders have achieved a highest position of 10th, under Steve Bruce, a man who claimed regularly after his sacking that his Newcastle roots were the cause of it.
Conveniently forgetting ex Magpie Bob Stokoe was somewhat well received by the supporters before, it papered over the cracks of his management. Sunderland were fighting a relegation battle when he was ousted. In a results orientated business, his results, not his background, hastened Bruce's departure.
With current chairman Ellis Short now in the chairman's hot seat, the American changed tack, going for Sunderland supporter to be Sunderland boss. Martin O'Neill first brought results. Sunderland zoomed clear of the drop zone and reached the FA Cup quarter finals, beating Arsenal on the way.
Last season started off well enough, only seven points, but unbeaten throughout. The warning signs were there though. Sunderland were relying on defence and hitting on the break. O'Neill touchline antics all seemed to indicate and enthusiastic motivator, but as the season wore on, he became withdrawn and subdued. Results fell away in the league and humiliating cup exits put the pressure on.
With untold millions from tv revenue at stake, and the natives getting restless as relegation loomed again, Short acted decisively. With just seven games left, including seemingly daunting trips to Chelsea, Tottenham, derby rivals Newcastle and fellow relegation battlers Aston Villa, change was need as the trap-door beckoned.
For decisive, read highly controversial. Paolo Di Canio was at the very least a gamble. Capable of great sporting acts as well as rank stupidity, he interwove his playing antics with sublime skill, loved at every club he played for - and managed up until then, too, having resigned from Swindon on a point of principle.
An element of Sunderland support was outraged, objecting to his alleged fascist beliefs and links, which seemed to be borne out in public when saluting Lazio supporters with an outstretched right arm during a Rome derby. David Miliband chipped in, claiming he was resigning because of Di Canio's appointment. The fact he'd announced he was moving to America, however, seemed more like an act of shameless political point-scoring.
It's points that Sunderland desperately needed, though, which was Short's over-riding concern. It was a risk, but with the stakes so high, one that had to be taken, the way the side under O'Neill had fallen away. The team, and the vast majority of the crowd who stuck by Di Canio and Sunderland, were galvanised.
Eight points were taken from those seven games, including an extraordinary 3-0 thrashing of Newcastle away, and a precious point against Stoke City when trailing with just 10 men. Safety was earned with a game to spare. The £64m gamble had paid off.
As Sunderland enter their seventh successive season in the top flight of English football since their Championship days under Roy Keane (a feat not managed since Sunderland's first ever relegation in 1958), the bar, as well as rewards, are set that much higher.
Di Canio is a vibrant, passionate man, who also seems to have ignited that passion back into Sunderland supporters. Nobody could ever argue about their numbers, with a 40,000+ average for no success in decades a remarkable tribute to their loyalty.
The old Roker Roar, however, had been very much subdued, and has often been the cause of in-house message board squabbling between the self-proclaimed best supporters and those who take exception to their prima donna attitude. If watching Sunderland has been a chore in recent times, sitting among them has been no picnic at times either.
Not now. Since the Italian's arrival, the Roar has been back with a vengeance, carrying the side to a priceless win over Everton. They became, as one, the 12th man again. At the Stadium of Light, it seems a Di Canio inspired renaissance is on the way.
It's been highlighted this summer by EIGHT new signings. Thanks to Paolo's connections, natural charm, and sheer enthusiasm when selling the club to transfer targets, Cabral, Valentin Roberge, Modibo Diakite, David Moberg Karlsson, Vito Mannone, Jozy Altidore, El-Hadji Ba and Emanuele Giaccherini have already put pen to parer. More or in the pipeline. Di Canio, Short, and Sunderland mean business
With crowds of over 40,000, forty years since an honour is way, way too long for such a faithful set of supporters (in spite of their grumpiness at times) to go without. Paolo Di Canio, and in particular Ellis Short, have shown an iron streak shorne of not hanging around waiting for success to happen, but to instead go out and make it happen here and now.
Will it happen? Only time will tell. One things for certain, though, it won't take much time for Sunderland fans to find out one way or the other. And, most likely, it will be a hell of a journey along that way. After the tedium of last season, Sunderland are, at least, again living in interesting times.
And for that, the rest of the football world will be truly thankful.