Catch the short midday hop from Edinburgh to Copenhagen and you pass almost directly over Herning, a pleasant, impeccably clean Danish city of industrial importance that is more famous for its trade fairs than its flair footballers.
The frustration is that when you land in the oldest capital city in Europe, you’re still some five hours by road and four by train before you arrive in the 11th-biggest urban base in Denmark.
There are worse ways to kill a day than watching the beautiful, rolling Nordic countryside pass you by from a train window, but it is still some trek for a pre-season friendly confirmed at just eight days’ notice by Sunderland.
Still, the effort is worth it as we go in search of the soul of Paolo Di Canio’s summer revolution, which just happens to be one of the most ambitious rebuilding jobs attempted in the history of the Premier League. Uncertainty, excitement and anticipation swirl around Wearside with a week to go, and Di Canio has added to the intrigue by keeping such a low profile during the weeks that have passed since he fired the first shots in his battle with Sunderland’s under-achievers in a stuffy press room at White Hart Lane back in May. Di Canio carried out his media duties in Hong Kong but his entire focus in the close season seems to be trained on his players, to the extent that he is yet to get round to fulfilling interview requests made by the Premier League’s legion of new overseas rights holders. No doubt American rights holders NBC will eventually get their man, but Di Canio’s single-minded approach has built up a deep sense of mystery around his new-look team.
With so few opportunities to witness the fruits of the wholesale changes made by Di Canio and director of football Roberto Di Fanti, it is inevitable that the hardier souls among the Black Cats’ intrigued support will make sure they’re in the away end of the MCH Arena this afternoon for the third and likely final of the public tune-ups arranged by Di Canio.
With apologies to the supporters (and us media) who would have liked to see the team before the big kick-off, the Italian is canny enough to have planned it just like this. Sparse as it might have been, this threadbare pre-season programme has probably been designed with the intention of depriving his rivals of the chance to glean any undue hints about what his team might be capable of delivering next season. The element of surprise can be a powerful one, but the question that occupies us all now is whether Sunderland are hiding their strengths or weaknesses. For their early rivals it will be a problem, because Di Canio has offered only a slim volume of evidence about how his team will play next season.
You would assume that first-day visitors Fulham would have funded a trip for one of their match-day assessors, while Southampton and Crystal Palace would have been well advised to do the same.
So what do we know about Di Canio’s Sunderland version 2.0? They will be physical, for a start – boasting brawn right through the spine of the team with the addition of Modibo Diakite, Cabral and Jozy Altidore.
But all three of those players will balance that physicality with football intelligence and slightly more “worldliness” than Sunderland fans might be used to from a midfield that took its lead from the occasionally reckless Lee Cattermole. Muscle and mentality: it’s not a bad place to start.
Di Canio has also told new signings that he wants the team to be able to “play out from the back”. Craig Gardner and Jack Colback, still the starting full-backs despite a summer spent sourcing new ones, have been told they will play almost as wingers – such will be the emphasis on attack. After previously telling Stï¿½phane Sessï¿½gnon (pictured left) he could leave if an offer came in, Di Canio now seems ready to trust the Benin forward again. He and Adam Johnson (a “fantasy player” according to Di Canio) will be the main survivors from last season – along with the impressively professional John O’Shea, a real Di Canio favourite and the new captain.
If they play as they did against Spurs in the first game of their Hong Kong jaunt, there are reasons for optimism. New arrivals have been sold a grand plan and Altidore thinks there is room for growth.
“I think this is a very good club. You look at the supporters. You get 49,000 a week and you have an unbelievable training ground that most top clubs don’t have,” he said.
“The foundations are there, it’s just about putting together a team that the club and the fans can be proud of. We have the pieces now, we have the great manager and some great players.
“It’s just a matter of putting it together. It won’t happen overnight, but I think when we get that it will be a fantastic club because it has everything else in place.”
The intelligent, pleasant Altidore was put up by the club on Monday to offer a few insights into the Sunderland revolution but, barring a reference to that “mentality” point Di Canio keeps making, even he was staying relatively tight-lipped.
“We’ve just been focusing on getting fit and making sure the squad is ready for the season. Just trying to find an identity as a team and be ready,” he said.
“Paolo wants us to be a good team but you can’t see the future. We all want that, but at the end of the day it comes down to what we are as a team and what our identity is. We’re trying to find that and we’ll only find that going forward and hopefully we’ll be successful.”
He comes with a burning desire to do better. His first stint in English football was not successful but as he points out, he was the age of Mikael Mandron when he played for Hull first time around. Like Di Canio and the rest of the squad, there is a point to be proved.