It’s all going to be about one man, of course. No matter what you may think of his politics – or, as he has claimed himself, his apparent lack thereof – or any of the other controversies that have followed Paolo di Canio’s career around, there can be little question that once the season has started, at least the attention on the man in the sharp suit and the red and white tie should take the pressure off the players a little. With Alex Ferguson having departed from Old Trafford and David Moyes having left Goodison Park to succeed him, there is likely to be no other club in the Premier League that will be so dominated by the personality of one man as Sunderland AFC will be, and perhaps the biggest question facing this club over the course of the coming season is that of whether this will allow the players freedom or whether it may prove to be a millstone around the club’s neck.
Last season, Sunderland did just enough to survive in the Premier League but no more. Di Canio was in charge for the last seven matches, and won two of them. Such a small sample size of results makes it difficult to judge whether his first full season at The Stadium of Light is likely to be a successful one or not, but the manager does at least start the season from the advantageous position of knowing that things can’t get much worse for the club than they were last time around. Wigan Athletic, it turned out, couldn’t continue to upset the applecart indefinitely, and it was this, as much as any great intervening effect that the new manager had, which kept Sunderland in the Premier League at the end of last season. Indeed, the end of season that the team had, which completed with a run of four games without a win, might even have indicated that the honeymoon period was already approaching the end of its shelf-life. There were few other managers for whom the final whistle on the final day of the season could come more quickly.
Whatever explanations there may or may not have been for the team’s underwhelming end to the season ended for the manager at this point, though. Paolo di Canio has had the summer to build a team that can improve upon last season’s disappointing end result, and this has been time during which he has been busy. Nine players have arrived at the club whilst eight have departed, which is clear an indicator as possible of a man in a hurry to rid the team of its cobwebs. Amongst the new arrivals are Jozy Altidore, the young American striker who, after an underwhelming spell in the Premier League with Hull City four years ago, returned to the Netherlands and scored more than a goal every other game for them between 2011 and his arrival on Wearside just over a month ago, and Emanuele Giaccherini who spent most of his career in the lower divisions in Italy but found himself with two years at Juventus during which time he managed to get himself a regular place in the Italian national team. Such a signing is clearly a coup for Sunderland – Giaccherini is a player with the potential to become one of the most accomplished midfield players in the entire Premier League.
The flip-side to this is the loss that the club may feel as a result of losing goalkeeper Simon Mignolet to Liverpool earlier this summer. It says something for the sort of season that Sunderland had that Mignolet was probably their most accomplished player, and his departure for Merseyside leaves a hole to be filled in the team’s defence. The goalkeeper to have arrived at the club is the former Arsenal player – who spent much of the last couple of seasons or so on loan at Hull City – Vito Mannone. For Mannone, who has spent almost the entirety of his career as a bit part character, this is a massive opportunity, and this is one that he cannot afford to get wrong, especially when we consider the famously short temper of the man that will be picking the team. At least he will have experience in front of him, in the form of centre-backs John O’Shea and Wes Brown.
What is clear is that Sunderland AFC has had the shake-up that many supporters had hoped for after the torpor that the final stages of Martin O’Neill’s period in charge of the club. Whether this turns out to be a good thing or not, however, is not a question that can be easily answered at this time. Paolo Di Canio is a divisive figure and, if we set to one side very real concerns about comments that he has made in the past, there is an element of a roll of the dice about his appointment at the club. One the one hand, it has been noted by captain John O’Shea already that the focus on improving fitness and building a more cohesive set-up behind the scenes at the club is reaping rewards. On the other, though, few can surely be in any doubt over di Canio’s propensity to set cats amongst pigeons or to fly off handles. Should things start to get challenging, how will he react? It’s a question that is worth poring over now, because anybody who argues confidence that they can predict this may be showing a little too much confidence in their own opinion.
There is one final, crowning irony to the expectations of Sunderland supporters for the coming season, which is that, for all the entertainment – and this may come in varying forms, not all of them necessarily appealing – supporters of the club might be more than satisfied to enjoy a season of relative calm and serenity, at least in comparison with last season’s close shave with the relegation trapdoor. And if we can strip the Di Canio hysteria away for a moment, whilst there are question marks over the goalkeeping position, the changes that have been made at The Stadium of Light over the course of the summer seem to have been successful in clearing out some of the dead wood and bringing in players who could, with the right wind behind them, leave a lasting impression on the Premier League. It seems difficult to believe that Sunderland will struggle again this season in the manner in which they did last time around, and that’s not a bad position for a club in a transitional period to find itself in on the eve of a new season.
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