Sunderland: Feeling Good In The Bottom Half?

It's difficult to have a feelgood factor in the lower reaches of the Premier League but Gus Poyet managed just that. Is it possible to do the same again this season?

Last Updated: 07/08/14 at 10:09 Post Comment

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Jack Rodwell poses with Sunderland shirt

Jack Rodwell poses with Sunderland shirt

LAST SEASON
Premier League
14th, 38pts, -19 GD FA Cup Quarter-finalists League Cup Finalists Top league scorer Adam Johnson 8 Bookings 67 (fifth highest) with six red cards.

Manager Gus Poyet (since October 2013; age 46) Odds on being first out of his job 25-1 (9th=)

Players in Jack Rodwell (Manchester City, £10m), Patrick van Aanholt (Chelsea, undisc), Jordi Gómez (Wigan, free), Costel Pantilimon (Manchester City, free), Billy Jones (West Brom, free)

Players out Ignacio Scocco (Newell's Old Boys, £2.1m), Phil Bardsley (Stoke, free), Jack Colback (Newcastle, free), Craig Gardner (West Brom, free), Kieren Westwood (Sheffield Wednesday, free), David Vaughan (Nottingham Forest, free), Jordan Pickford (Bradford, loan), Carlos Cuéllar, Andrea Dossena, Jordan Laidler, Oscar Ustari (all released)

Club turnover in 2012-13 £76m, 11th

Wage bill in 2012-13 £58m, 13th

Sunderland have had three remarkable escapes in two seasons: a couple from relegation and another from the deleterious influence of Paolo Di Canio. The disastrous start to last season and his subsequent sniping at his former charges suggest that it was emphatically more luck than judgment that saved them from relegation the previous May. The fascist sympathiser was every bit as destabilising as his record suggested and it remains baffling that the club's hierarchy thought him preferable to Martin O'Neill.

The Northern Irishman's 2012-13 campaign was oddly disappointing but with the experience at their disposal, there was no excuse for Di Canio's record at the start of last season, a solitary point from five games with defeats against two of the ultimate bottom four plus promoted Palace before Ellis Short and co saw that there was no point continuing. But who could seriously think the Italian was the right man to rebuild?

Gus Poyet was tied up at Brighton when O'Neill was removed but had left Albion in the summer. What followed was a period of stabilisation in the league plus exploitation of the one positive legacy from Di Canio - Capital One Cup progress against MK Dons and Peterborough. After an up-and-down start for Poyet, a run of one defeat in nine either side of Christmas, culminating in a 3-0 win at Newcastle, brought Sunderland back in touch with the pack, while they advanced in both cups.

A week after Sunderland's bittersweet Wembley day out, they became Hull's only top-flight victims en route to the FA Cup final, as City won their home quarter-final 3-0. To reach the Capital One Cup's conclusion, Poyet's Sunderland beat Southampton, Chelsea and - 2-1 at home and away on penalties - Manchester United, an excellent record even in an era of weakened cup teams and the feeling that an asterisk is needed for the record books to denote that the semi-final was against David Moyes's United and not anyone else's.

Watching the Wembley final, and a performance full of admirable teamwork and no mean quality, the gulf in league placings between the sides was a mystery, even if Manchester City demonstrated their superiority once they had recovered their nerve. To give everything, to be utterly spent, and to fall short of historic triumph against one of the world's most expensive teams took a lot - and it seemed like too much - out of Sunderland. In eight league games around the final, starting with two defeats beforehand, the only point came in a goalless home draw with Crystal Palace. Doom looked imminent, especially given the forthcoming fixtures at Manchester City, Chelsea and even *United.

The four points claimed in the first of those matches transformed the picture and had they held on for a revenge win at the Etihad then they would probably have settled the destination of the title as well as securing their own survival. Certainly ending Jose Mourinho's home record left Chelsea with too much to do. Cardiff were spanked, Ryan Giggs's United were beaten and the home game against West Brom kickstarted the survival party with a game to spare.

It was a gloriously memorable season. And the paradox is that aside from the cup run no one at the club will want anything like it again, right from the start.

Kicking off at West Brom is not too unfriendly and nor is a trip to QPR at the end of August, though the month's only home game is against Manchester United. September features visits from Tottenham and Swansea, and a trip to Burnley. Poyet will not measure himself against Di Canio, nor against the 13 points from five games that secured survival, but will hope for more points than matches played.

Last season was about managing a crisis; this summer has been Poyet's chance to make his mark and the turnover of personnel has been wide-ranging, even if the loss of the out-of-contract Jack Colback to Newcastle was unplanned, and Fabio Borini's desire to prove himself at Liverpool could prove another loss from last season's squad. Should the Italian finally make the move on offer, £14m is a lot to pay for a striker with seven goals in 32 appearances last season, but uncertainty surrounds Connor Wickham, scorer of five goals against Manchester City, Chelsea and Cardiff in the relegation-saving burst but out of contract next summer.

The strikers, whoever they may be, have prospects for better service this season. Jack Rodwell could be a bargain, even at £10m, if the 23-year-old can shake off hamstring problems; he would certainly not have left Everton for Sunderland and, after his frustrating experience at Manchester City, has much to prove. Adam Johnson has not done too badly at all after making a similar move, even if talk in the spring of an England recall was fanciful. Costel Pantilimon kept Joe Hart out of City's line-up after the England goalkeeper's blunder run last season. Jordi Gomez, Patrick van Aanholt and Billy Jones have also been brought in, while erstwhile defensive loanee Santiago Vergini could complete a move from Argentina.

Discipline was a problem: the fifth highest total of yellow cards was accompanied by six straight red cards, the highest figure in the division. Still, when it comes to bookings, the departing Phil Bardsley was the biggest miscreant and many of the reds were for denying an obvious goalscoring opportunity. Nonetheless it is an area ripe for improvement if Poyet is to have his best players available consistently.

Sunderland and their supporters will have taken a great deal of heart from the last campaign. It is hard to bring a feelgood factor to the lower reaches but Poyet managed just that. The difficulty will be maintaining that. He has been given decent amounts of money to spend but still, the side with the 13th biggest wage bill in 2012-13 and the 11th highest turnover will always struggle to compete with those above the financial gulf in the league. Avoiding yet more relegation trouble and defending the league double over Newcastle is a more realistic aim, albeit an unexciting one aside from the derbies.

The cups can be a different matter. No, the Capital One Cup and FA Cup do not excite in their early stages the way that they used to but any club not approaching a home draw as a game to win, or not too unhappy at losing to lower-division opposition, is throwing away the chance of a financial and morale boost unavailable elsewhere. It is unlikely that Poyet will be able to repeat last season's cup performances but it will be depressing if he does not give it his best shot.

Philip Cornwall

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