VENI. Vidi. Vici!
Paolo Di Canio probably won’t thank anyone for comparing him to Roman leaders right now.
But Julius Caesar’s fabled phrase somehow fitted perfectly on a day when the 44-year-old Italian came, saw and conquered at St James’s Park.
It was a victory for firm and unwavering leadership – the jut-jawed head coach having been meticulous in the preparation of his players, even down to standing at the exit doorway of the team bus to slap each player on the back as they ran the gauntlet of the away support underneath the main stand.
His predecessor, Martin O’Neill, lost neither of the derbies he was involved in, but nor did he win one.
And yesterday’s thumping victory, you felt, was only accomplished because of the new man’s brio – his players reflecting his vivacity and confidence going into the game, despite having so many odds set against them.
They had the weight of history of course – just one win for Sunderland in the last 16 derby encounters – a shockingly bad record which several previous Black Cats sides could be ashamed of.
But they also had the disadvantage of form after a winless run extending to nine games going into yesterday’s match, while Newcastle had the momentum of three home wins in their previous four on Tyneside.
On top of that, Sunderland’s small squad – deprived of leading scorer Steven Fletcher and skipper Lee Cattermole already for the rest of the season – was further depleted by the loss of Connor Wickham to injury and Craig Gardner to suspension.
Despite that, and the oppressive atmosphere of a fully fired-up home crowd, Sunderland showed spirit, starting brightly from the very first whistle, when Adam Johnson and Stephane Sessegnon combined to make progress up the right.
Simon Mignolet had to be off his line smartly in the sixth minute to gather a long ball over the top from Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa which Papiss Cisse was in danger of getting to first.
But this was a subdued start from Newcastle and Sunderland were the better side in the opening stages.
Di Canio made three changes to the side which lost to Chelsea – fit-again Carlos Cuellar preferred to Matt Kigallon at centre-half, while James McClean came in for Gardner and the recovered Danny Graham took Wickham’s place.
Much had been made of Tynesider Graham and Wearsider Johnson’s boyhood support of the Magpies, but their performances yesterday in Sunderland shirts gave the lie to that – they were no Michael Chopras.
It was the willing Graham who had good claims for a penalty on the quarter-hour, when Steven Taylor pulled him back by the shirt as he tried to get on the end of Stephane Sessegnon’s rolled pass.
And with McClean struggling for form down the left, the much-improved Johnson was often Sunderland’s best outlet down the right, where his ability to hold on to the ball and find space was invaluable.
Newcastle made five changes to the team which went out of the Europa League on Thursday – though there was a case for arguing it should have made the Tynesiders a better side.
In came Yoan Gouffran, Sylvain Marveaux, Cheik Tiote, Mathieu Debuchy and Steven Taylor for Anita, Bigirimana, Haidara, Simpson and Williamson.
Debuchy, Taylor and Tiote should have been real boosts, but with skipper Yohan Cabaye a pale shadow of his usual self, and midfield enforcers Tiote and Moussa Sissoko failing to boss proceedings, Sunderland prospered through their sheer appetite for the battle.
Debuchy was a threat, but Danny Rose performed excellently and, with Sunderland looking comfortable in midfield, it was not that much of a surprise when they took the lead in the 27th minute.
McClean intercepted Jonas Gutierrez’s misplaced pass inside the home half and fed the ball forward and inside to Sessegnon, who eluded Gutierrez’s desperate attempt at a recovering tackle before picking his spot from 22 yards out and driving a low right-foot shot into the right-hand corner of Tim Krul’s goal.
Taylor might have closed the African down quicker, Krul might have felt disappointed not to get a fingertip to it, but the placement was perfect and, all of a sudden, there were shock-waves around St James’s as Sunderland fans celebrated madly and Di Canio leapt along the touchline.
Home nerves should have been calmed within minutes.
But in-form keeper Simon Mignolet made two wonderful saves – the first denying Cisse with his torso when the striker was set free just six yards out; the second a stunning low dive to his left which blocked Cisse’s goalbound shot – the ball somehow sticking in the keeper’s glove when it seemed certain to bounce over his arm.
Sunderland responded – Graham shot straight at Krul in the 33rd minute while the unmarked Cuellar’s header from Seb Larsson’s corner seven minutes later seemed certain to bring Sunderland’s second goal, but it too was directed straight at the Newcastle keeper.
It would have been a perfect time for Sunderland to score – but the same applied to Newcastle – and the half ended with Mignolet tipping away a Gutierrez cross which threatened to sneak in before Larsson hooked clear a shanked Cisse shot on the goal-line from the resulting corner.
Sunderland had got to the break with their noses in front, but they would have known there was still much to be done in the second half with Newcastle’s penchant for late goals and United manager Alan Pardew having earlier revealed he was going to bring on skilful midfielder Hatem Ben Arfa and inexplicable Sunderland nemesis Shola Ameobi.
Ameobi was introduced immediately on the restart, with Newcastle switching to 4-4-2 in a bid to try sparking themselves into life after an opening half in which they had been largely second best.
But the first real chance fell to Sunderland in the 50th minute when Johnson’s attempted lob failed to clear Krul and then Graham couldn’t quite get a header on target from a free-kick.
Krul was unluckily injured in that incident – dislocating his shoulder and having to be replaced by Rob Elliot – but minutes later came arguably the game’s pivotal moment when Newcastle felt they had equalised.
Mignolet and Cisse had been enjoying their own personal duel and just a minute after the keeper parried away a swerving shot from distance, Cisse had the ball in the back of the net.
From a left-sided free-kick, the ball was diverted to the Newcastle forward by the otherwise anonymous Ameobi and Cisse clipped home from a narrow angle on the left of goal, only to suffer the agony of seeing the offside flag raised.
Replays showed that he was fractionally onside, but this was one of only several wrong decisions by the officials – as well as the missed Graham penalty incident in the first half, there was another in the second period when Yanga-Mbiwa clearly handled a Graham header, only for the incident to go unnoticed.
Had Cisse’s 61st-minute goal stood, United would have have gained traction.
As it was, they continued to press in their best spell of the game.
Ben Arfa was brought on seconds after the disallowed goal, but he was lively rather than electric.
The Frenchman headed a good chance over the bar, while Cisse clipped another one wide and, as the home crowd’s tension grew, the minutes continued to tick down.
The game was still in the balance, but Sunderland then scored a dazzling second in the 74th minute.
Larsson did well to retain possession and feed the ball out wide to Johnson, who advanced before cutting inside and, with no challenges slowing him down, had the time to curl a ripping left-foot shot around the United defence and into the inside side netting of Elliot’s goal as the keeper almost got a glove to the shot, diving to his right.
The scenes were chaotic as the Easington-born winger sprinted towards the corner flag – Sunderland fans celebrating high above him and Di Canio sliding down the touchline on his knees.
But better was to come.
With the game entering the last 10 minutes, the pendulum had now swung firmly Sunderland’s way.
But the three points were made certain of in the 82nd minute. Man-of-the-match Sessegnon found substitute David Vaughan, on for McClean, on the left of goal and the Welsh international took a second before unleashing an unstoppable left-foot shot across Elliot and into the very top left-hand corner of the goal.
Pandemonium once more as Sunderland celebrated wildly again on Tyneside turf before the final minutes were played out with the home team spent and demoralised – the Wearsiders might even have added another, such was their superiority of possession, had they not decided to wind the clock down.
It mattered little.
It was Sunderland’s biggest derby win since Gary Rowell’s hat-trick in 1979.
And it was a personal triumph for Di Canio, whose first fortnight in charge has been characterised by some awful lows and then this stunning high.
At the final whistle, he advanced up the pitch to give clenched fist acknowledgement of the ecstatic visiting support and, before heading down the tunnel, he took time to beat a fist on his heart in the direction of jeering Newcastle fans.
There was one last moment for him to look around the ground, drinking it all in before he disappeared down the tunnel – emperor of all he surveyed.