Chris Young’s big-match verdict: Heroic Jack stakes claim for bright future

Jack Colback tangles with Gareth Bale.

Jack Colback tangles with Gareth Bale.

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THE CLEAR-OUT starts now.

Well, realistically it already has after Phil Bardsley’s casino royale pushed Sunderland’s longest-serving player towards the exit door and will surely have been one of the chief topics of conservation between Paolo Di Canio and Ellis Short in North London last night.

There isn’t a great deal to part company with.

Sunderland’s perilously small squad reached the barest of bones yesterday, with all 10 available outfield senior professionals utilised and two academy products handed their Premier League debuts.

But for a side who harboured genuine top 10 hopes at the start of the season before ultimately finishing fourth bottom, there is clearly something massively wrong.

Changes are needed ... and big ones.

Some will be jettisoned through natural wastage, either through being out of contract, on loan or finding their temporary stints away from Wearside being converted into permanent exits.

And then there will be others who find themselves moving on to pastures new as Di Canio decides they are dispensable.

Bardsley very much falls into that category after Di Canio decided to make an example of him and out-of-contract Matt Kilgallon yesterday.

Judging by the fines levied at seven players for various misdemeanours perceived by Di Canio as indiscipline, he may not be the last.

It is a dangerous game Di Canio is playing in trying to temper the behaviour of modern-day millionaire footballers, but it is a policy few supporters will disagree with.

Results alone should be sufficient to back up Di Canio’s argument that drastic changes in mentality are needed on Wearside.

But while the changes will be sweeping if Di Canio has his way, it would be staggering if any of the makeshift back four who performed so doggedly at White Hart Lane are jettisoned.

If Di Canio brings in the “12 or 13” fresh faces he is looking to sign – as he suggested after yesterday’s defeat – then none of John O’Shea, Carlos Cuellar, Seb Larsson or Jack Colback may be in the starting line-up come the opening day in August.

All four have been the subject of supporters’ flak at various stages of the season.

Yet all four also have the characters and professional attitude which Di Canio is keen to see on both the training ground and in games.

While Sunderland shipped six goals at Aston Villa after the O’Shea-Cuellar axis was restored, the two have been by far and away the best central defensive partnership of the season.

Again they impressed at White Hart Lane in keeping Sunderland’s defensive line together and ensuring a rigorously well-drilled team shape remained intact. That was the biggest factor in thwarting Spurs time and again.

But it was the full-backs who really caught the eye.

Larsson has played at right-back for Sweden, but his time there at Sunderland has been confined to the emergency situations when the Black Cats have been chasing games.

Yet, due to Sunderland’s disciplined two banks of four, Larsson was a solid proposition, despite the alternating options Spurs played on the flanks.

It started off with Clint Dempsey on the left, then went to Gareth Bale and ultimately concluded with Aaron Lennon there.

Larsson was fortunate when referee Andre Marriner was so far behind play that he judged Bale to have dived, albeit the Welsh winger did go down softly as the Swede grabbed him.

But other than one slip when Benoit Assou-Ekotto was able to get the better of him too easily during the second half down the left of the area as he tired, Larsson proved an effective stop-gap option.

Colback was the real hero of the defence though, in contributing towards restricting Spurs to a reasonable level of opportunities.

The 23-year-old’s progress seemed to have halted for much of the season, but last year’s upward curve seems to have been reinstated under Di Canio’s stewardship.

Excusing the pun, Colback can be tarred by being a Jack of all trades.

But he is a dogged, committed performer and he epitomised the determination to end the season on a high point, which Di Canio has been drilling into his squad.

In the early stages, the deceptively pacy Colback intercepted both Kyle Walker and Lennon, when they looked to beat him one-on-one.

And when the mercurial Bale moved from the hole onto the right, Colback was equally undaunted.

The telling moment came on the hour mark when Bale got a yard on Colback as he burst down the touchline, only for the Sunderland man to keep up with him and force the winger to check inside.

Although Di Canio accepts that Colback’s technique and natural ability is not comparable to some in his squad, it is the attitude of reliability which attracts him to the Tynesider.

That was an attribute which was missing from those further up the park yesterday.

Di Canio was raging throughout at Danny Graham and Connor Wickham’s inability to keep hold of the ball or concede possession with a slack piece of control.

After just 15 minutes, he was tempted to replace one of them with Mikael Mandron and had the 18-year-old warming up vigorously on the touchline.

Boosting his options up front, even when Steven Fletcher returns from injury, will be one of the many key areas he looks to rejuvenate in the close season.

Thankfully, regarding the incomings, Di Canio does not have a bloated squad where he has to sell to buy. That is the one blessing of Sunderland’s paper-thin options.

That is also one of the blessings of altering the make-up of a side which has struggled so torridly during a horrendous campaign that is finally, mercifully, over.