WHAT a surprising season this has been. GRAEME ANDERSON looks back on the 2012-13 campaign.
IT has been a season of contradictions and conundrums.
Maybe they all are, if you look closely enough, but even by the up-and-down standards of the Premier League, this one seems more topsy-turvy than most.
Who would have thought in that “Ag-guer-roooohhhh!!” moment at the Etihad last May, that exactly a year to the day later, Roberto Mancini would be sacked?
Sacked despite reaching an FA Cup final and finishing a comfortable second in the Premier League?
No-one imagined then that Robin van Persie would join Arsenal’s bitter rivals Manchester United, or that the Dutchman would move for so much money and enjoy so much success.
It is not such a surprise that United should win the title, but what would the odds have been for the two Manchester clubs ending this season without BOTH Mancini and Sir Alex Ferguson at the helm?
Ferguson is likely to be a shoo-in for Manager of the Year. Who would argue against that?
But consider his unlikely rivals.
The controversially-appointed Rafa Benitez, such a hate figure on the Chelsea terraces, has steered the Blues to Champions League qualification and taken them to Europa League final success.
Roberto Martinez has won the FA Cup with lowly Wigan while enduring a last-ditch relegation with a dignity which won over everyone.
New arrival Michael Laudrup earned Swansea the first major trophy in their history by winning the League Cup, as well as guiding the Welshmen into their first ever top 10 Premier League finish.
Just like the Swans and the Latics winning the domestic silver this year, these are not turns of events that could ever have been predicted.
At the season’s end, a remarkable eight of the Premier League’s 20 clubs will have parted company with their manager, with Roberto Di Matteo at Chelsea, Nigel Adkins at Southampton and Brian McDermott at Reading, the victims of particularly perverse and ruthless boards.
Sunderland too, lost their manager.
And that simple fact disguises a contradiction inside a conundrum.
Sunderland fans might have gone into this season prepared for many things, but Martin O’Neill being sacked by the end of it was not one of them.
By common consent, Sunderland had punched above their weight in procuring a boss of his pedigree.
It seemed a perfect synergy of manager on a mission – boyhood fan O’Neill accepting the challenge of reviving a drifting giant of English football – and fans’ favourite – Sunderland supporters loving the fact that one of the best managers in Britain was one of their own.
Paolo Di Canio has had an impact on his arrival at Sunderland – two wins in six going into the final game of the season, but his predecessor managed a far bigger bounce.
After taking over in December, O’Neill won five of his first seven games and, having kept a relegation-threatened club in the Premier League by March, things seemed set fair for this season with the summer arrivals of Steven Fletcher, Adam Johnson, Danny Rose and Carlos Cuellar.
With a fair wind, a top 10 finish seemed realistic; good cup runs almost certain, with O’Neill prioritising them.
Once again though there were conundrums – how to get the best out of a team whose parts showed signs early on, of being greater than their sum.
And contradictions – why were Sunderland’s most creative trio – Stephane Sessegnon, Adam Johnson and James McClean – so regularly their least productive in the first third of the season.
Against this backdrop, O’Neill appeared inflexible both in terms of selection, substitutions and tactics and the failure of his January signings to sparkle signalled the beginning of the end for him.
When it came though, after a run of one win in 10, it was still something of a shock.
O’Neill was a manager of genuine national significance, still held in great affection by many fans.
The club’s decision smacked to many of the knee-jerk, despite his record this season.
And it will forever be a moot point just whether he would have kept the club up again this season had he not been given the bullet.
Either way, O’Neill has joined a long list of previous managers who have tried and failed on Wearside.
Each of them has had phrases and keywords which tend to become associated with them over the course of time.
With Steve Bruce, it was constant mention of the “pressure of expectations” from the fans. He was right about that by the way, but not in the way he thought he was.
Bruce felt fans were wrong to expect too much from a club that had achieved so little in recent decades.
Personally, he felt that pressure acutely and ultimately he was powerless to prevent it being transmitted to his players. It became a self-fulfilling prophesy as the squad wilted under pressures self-imposed.
But fans’ expectations of Sunderland under Bruce were only that their side played well, and with pride, and show signs of progress.
It was mediocrity – and they’ve had plenty of that – that they baulked at, in the Tynesider’s final months. The truth is that through the decades of under-achievement, supporters have never fully lost sight of their club’s past status in the game or their own innate sense of Sunderland’s worth.
Their expectations are simply that there’s no reason why Sunderland cannot still potentially rub shoulders with the best in the game. Bruce never really appreciated the distinction.
O’Neill did and he encouraged those expectations. Sunderland fans were right to think big he said. He was thinking big.
“Sunderland can be a top six club,” he said.
His mantras this season became: “we have a lack of self-belief” and “confidence is such a big thing in football”.
It was the opposite side of Bruce’s mirror.
Ceaselessly this season, he talked about the importance of instilling belief in his players, in getting them to play with confidence – usually after another disappointment.
But it could hardly have helped nurture self-belief when he himself revealed he had expected a struggle from the start of the season, and spoke near the end of “a lack of true ability” in his squad.
Still, it was a landmark moment for the club when O’Neill was unceremoniously binned by transatlantic phone call from owner Ellis Short at the end of March.
If O’Neill, with his standing in the game and commitment to the cause, could not revive the club, it made you wonder whether anyone could.
Might not even O’Neill’s tutor Brian Clough have gone the same way had he joined Sunderland in the 1970s?
With two experienced Premier League managers having tried and failed to succeed at Sunderland in little more than two years, perhaps the club was proving unmanageable?
Maybe it was a perennial poisoned chalice? Maybe you needed to be a bit mad to even consider taking it on?
Step forward Paolo di Canio – a man whose credentials when it comes to a certain craziness stand comparison with anyone in the game.
It was a radical step by Short, but, in order to succeed at Sunderland, maybe that streak of maverick madness is what is needed.
Peter Reid, one of the more successful Black Cats’ managers, said that with 40,000-plus strong opinions to compete against, Sunderland needed a strong manager; a manager with complete self-belief.
In Di Canio they have found one – a man who believes he is always right, and that even when he is wrong, he is probably right anyway!
He has been given the opportunity of reshaping Sunderland in the way he sees fit, to finally bring a period of sustained Premier League success.
It will be a fascinating experiment, one which will likely end in tears or cheers.
This season has been one of contradictions and conundrums.
Next season could well be one of extremes...
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