Sunderland fans could be forgiven for thinking that the wheels have come off.
At the start of last season, Paolo Di Canio’s reign was an absolute mess as he alienated just about everyone with his harsh words and even harsher training and discipline methods.
After an impressive end to last season, Sunderland were expected to build upon their great escape and have a season where they weren’t fighting relegation. But Gus Poyet has, much like his predecessor, proved himself to be lacking in the diplomacy needed to be a Premier League manager.
Sunderland have been dismal of late – one win in their last 12 Premier League games and a defeat in the Cup against League One opposition shows this (admittedly, Bradford were the lower league team in question, and we all know what a run they went on in this season’s FA Cup). Poyet has paid for poor form.
But his sacking was the price he paid for more than just form.
After the abject 4-0 defeat at home to fellow strugglers Aston Villa, it was clear that Poyet had lost the dressing room. In fact, it was clear just after half time when Seb Larsson didn’t come out of the dressing room with the rest of the team and Poyet was left in the lonely position of peering down the tunnel, waiting for one of his star players to join the rest of the team on the pitch, with the second half already four minutes old.
It was an embarrassing situation indeed, but very few Sunderland fans actually saw it! One fan quipped that they stayed to the end of the game to beat the traffic as the fans left the Stadium of Light at half time.
After the game, Poyet gave his post match interviews.
He was surprisingly calm, especially for a man who had seen his side play horrendously, who had seen the fans leave at half time, who had seen Larsson come out four minutes late for the second half, and who had been abused at close quarters by angry Mackems.
But managers often say scathing things in post-match interviews – even when they’ve won. Usually it’s about the referee or the opposition, but occasionally about their own players. And sometimes they’re just looking to cajole a response out of their players.
Poyet’s ‘pub team’ comment could’ve been passed off as that. It could’ve been if it weren’t for the abject nature of the performance and how his team had been performing up until then. But Sunderland have been so abysmal, the players looked so disinterested (at least the ones who could be bothered to turn up for the second half) that Poyet’s comments rang truer than he wanted.
Trying to ignite a response by saying something harsh is an age-old managerial tactic, but it can go either way: sometimes you say it and the players respond, other times you just lose the dressing room.
In this case, Poyet probably chose the wrong time to say that. Instead of managing to gee-up his players for the coming game, he said something that was a little too near the bone. Sunderland had played like a pub team. And they’ve been playing like one all season.
They have only four league wins, they sit one point above the drop zone, and they have the second-worst goalscoring record in the league. Villa themselves are the only team worse off in front of goal, and Sunderland gave the Villains a charitable boost at the weekend.
When you add poor form to these stats, the lack of fight and passion from the players, the restlessness (or just downright anger) from the fans, and the general mess that surrounds the club with things like the Adam Johnson situation still ongoing, you have a recipe for disaster already. Never mind the fact that the Sunderland board have appointed a new man who has never managed in the Premier League as head coach.
The Sunderland job is probably one of the most difficult in football right now, and the new Head Coach can see the skeletons of his predecessors strewn in front of him as a warning.
Poyet and Di Canio both lost the dressing room and sent the squad into a mess they may not get out of this time.
So good luck, Dick Advocaat. You’ll need it.