We’ve all seen false dawns but no one can seriously doubt the impact Paolo Di Canio has had or where we would be, for all his feelings of being hard done by, had Martin O’Neill stayed. Pete Sixsmith wonders whether the same commitment from players and fans seen on Saturday can propel SAFC to safety at Villa Park next Monday night. He also detects the essential changes evident from two marvellous wins against NUFC and Everton. MoN, if he were an avid reader of Salut! Sunderland, might say Sixer identified similar improvements when he first took over and he’d be right. But can PDC sustain this progress where the Ulsterman, sadly, could not?
It seems that the last time we beat Everton, Roker Park and Goodison Park vied for the title of finest Archibald Leitch lattice work, Harry Catterick was managing the Blues and Dixie Dean was banging them in with gay abandon.
In fact, it was 2001 and Claudio Reyna scored at the Stadium, Walter Smith was the manager and the Everton No 9 was Kevin Campbell. But, it is a long time ago in the days when most of us were still debating the values of mobile phones, the Football Echo still appeared on a Saturday night and Des Lynam was hosting The Premiership on ITV. Ah, happy days!!
This was the first time we have beaten a David Moyes side and the first home win for Paolo Di Canio. It was a vital one as well and means that we have not been dragged back into the very serious stuff at the bottom of the league. There is now only one relegation place to fill and should Villa lose at Old Trafford on Monday night, we will have a decent cushion. We should be more than capable of taking four points from the final four games to ensure survival.
As happened 15 months age, we are benefiting from new manager syndrome.
Di Canio has come in and revitalised a group of players who were sleepwalking to the Championship. The organisation looks better, the players seem switched on and we are having those little bits of good fortune that had deserted O’Neill in his final months.
Make no mistake, we played well against Everton. We took advantage of a slip by Leighton Baines (that’ll teach him to refuse to sign for us!) and scored a good goal. Seb Larsson hit three very good free kicks, each of which was inches away from being brilliant and we defended as if lives depended on it – which, looking at the macho postures adopted by our head coach, they probably did.
The main difference looks to be that players have been given specific instructions as to what to do.
Take Alfred N’Diaye. Three or four weeks ago, some were hoping that Hartlepool or Red Star Paris would do as he looked anything but a Premier League player. He was seen as symptomatic of the decline under O’Neill and comparisons were being made between the large amount of cash forked out on him, compared to the few sous that Sissoko had cost for our Tyneside rivals.
He had a good game last week and had a gigantic game this. He thundered into tackles, won the ball in tight situations and annoyed Fellaini so much that I expected a hissy fit from the hirsute Belgian. It really was an excellent performance that showed us that, whatever O’Neill’s failings, he could spot a decent player.
Same with Danny Graham. He was foiled in the opening few minutes, when he took advantage of the lack of pace in the middle of the Everton back four. His first goal in a red and white shirt was prevented only by an excellent save from Tim Howard.
But after that, he ran his legs off, went looking for the ball and never once allowed the ponderous Distain and accident-prone Heitinga to settle. All he needs is a goal and the transformation will be complete. But Di Canio and his coaching staff will know the benefits of a centre forward who never allows the opposition breathing space.
It is clear that the players have bought into the different style that the Italians have brought to the club. The tempo is quicker, the tackling fiercer and the attacking play more direct than it was under the previous regime.
Add to that the fact that the head coach has good ideas and you get true professionals (and that’s what we have as opposed to the mercenaries at Loftus Road) wanting to listen to him and buy into his short term philosophy. Men like O’Shea, Cuellar, Johnson and Mignolet do not want a relegation on their cv.
O’Shea and Cuellar were immense on Saturday. The Irishman never missed a header and won the battle with Anichebe early on. The Spaniard was equally impressive, with timely interceptions and good tackles with his, apparently, telescopic legs.
Backed up by strong performances from Colback and Rose, we rarely looked under threat and, as Everton revealed that they lack goalscorers, an equaliser looked less and less likely. That they resorted to lumping the ball into the box for the last 20 minutes and to falling over in the penalty area tells you how strong our defenders were.
Dipping into the metaphor bag, the green shoots of recovery can be seen and we look a far, far better bet to stay up than we did three weeks ago after Manchester United contemptuously brushed us aside.
Certainly, the arrival of Di Canio has galvanised the whole club. The atmosphere in the Stadium was brilliant and the crowd roared the team home in the last 20 minutes. That’s what crowds are there to do. Singing is ok, but the Roar is the best. When the now execrable Michael Chopra notched the winner at Villa Park in Keane’s second season, the 3,000 Sunderland fans there knew that if we hung on, we would be safe. They outroared the Villa fans and showed them what a real football club is all about.
Next Monday could be the game that cements our place in the top flight for a record breaking seventh season since our first relegation in 1958. A Graham winner would be a lovely way to do it. There may not be 3,000 there for a Monday night, but the roar will be just as loud if we can win and heap the pressure on Villa and Darren Bent – whoever he was.