On Sunday evening Jack Colback was both happy and proud.
For a Sunderland player to be either of those things in this miserable season is big news.
The start of the Black Cats’ campaign has been record-breakingly awful. Eight Premier League games, one point, bottom of the table. Before the clocks turned back plenty of pessimists had already written off Sunderland’s hopes of playing top-flight football this time next year.
Whether Sunderland’s fortunes changed with the clocks remains to be seen, but the mood around the Academy of Light has already shifted.
With the dictatorial Paolo Di Canio off the scene, happiness is once more allowed at Cleadon. Permitting support staff to make eye contact with the first-teamers – yes, that was actually banned under Di Canio – helped, so did a greater emphasis on football over fitness in training.
Poyet’s general demeanour has lightened the mood, as did the team meal (complete with wives and girlfriends) he insisted on last week – but one thing more than any other should always determine the mood of a club – results.
No victory can put a bigger smile on Sunderland faces than one over Newcastle United. On Sunday the Magpies were beaten 2-1, lifting the Black Cats off the bottom.
It had even greater significance for Sunderland’s Killingworth-born midfielder. Did Colback try to sneak home to Newcastle hiding under a hood?
“No I put my head out of the window,” he jokes. “It was nice to be out and about after a win. When you have one point and you’re bottom of the league you feel half-embarrassed going out.
“Sunday has given us a massive lift. It was a big relief to get that first win. The longer it goes on the more difficult it gets, we know how important it is for the fans here to beat Newcastle so it was massive for them, we haven’t been giving them too much to cheer about so far this season.
“It was a good result but that’s gone now. We need to make sure we get something from (today’s opponents) Hull otherwise the effects won’t last. During the build-up to the game against Newcastle a few people were saying, ‘Just win this one for us,’ that’s how much it means to the fans.
“When people come up to you and want you to do well it does inspire you. You want them to have the bragging rights. We need to forget about that now and make sure we turn up this afternoon and put in a good performance.”
Colback has been one of the beneficiaries of Poyet’s commonsense approach. The new coach has come up with a radical idea – using his players in their correct positions. Before Sunday, Colback had only played in central midfield four times this calendar year.
“From the first time I saw him play a few years ago he was always a midfielder,” says Poyet. “He can give you a hand as a left-back, but (only) a hand. From the second day we trained, he was always a midfielder for me. If I can I won’t play him left-back, I will play him in midfield because that is where he is at his best and that was proved on Sunday.”
It has not yet persuaded Colback to extend the contract due to expire at the end of the season. “It just takes time,” he argues. “With the position the team is in there have not been a lot of talks at the moment. When we start winning that might pick up a bit.”
At first it looked like Poyet’s stance might count against Colback. For his first game in charge, at Swansea City, the previous week, Colback was spared a stint at left-back – to sit on the bench.
“I’ve had it before when new managers have come in with new ideas,” he shrugs. “It was difficult because he only had the full squad for two days. That was the team he chose to pick, I respected that, and he wanted to get people in their proper positions.
“I found myself on the bench but I was picked for Newcastle. As a player all you want to do is stay in the team.
“The first day the new manager came in, he pulled me to one side and said ‘I know you are not a left-back and I want to play you in midfield’. That was good to hear. It was up to me to show I had enough ability to earn his trust there. It’s nice to know what the manager’s thinking. If you’re not in the team and he pulls you aside to explain why, that’s good to know. You can see what you’ve done wrong and maybe try and improve on that.
“At left-back I was always just filling in and trying to do a job for the team but I never really thought I want to pursue that.
“I’ve always seen myself as more of a midfielder. I think I can offer more to the team there. It felt a lot more natural last weekend.
“Playing left-back has improved me defensively. Especially in the last few games, we’ve done quite a bit of defending! It’s nice to learn a new role and a new position.”
Returning to midfield could give Colback chance to strike up a partnership with Lee Cattermole, who could have a more expansive role to play under Poyet’s masterplan.
“Lee does all the dirty work but he’s also very good on the ball,” Colback stresses. “That gets missed – but he can play as well. Anyone you play with you try to play to their strengths and weaknesses. We worked well together on Sunday. Lee has certainly got confidence in his ability and it often gets missed that he’s a good footballer because he does the other side of it so well.
“He’s so good at breaking up the play his possession of the ball often gets overlooked but the new manager often says he wants to get us passing the ball. It’s a style which has not been seen much up here.
“It’s going to take time but we can really do it well. It will be nice for the fans to see that style of football.”
It is an approach guaranteed to find favour with footballers – if it works.
“Ever since the boss and his staff came in the mood has been good,” insists Colback. “They were very positive and confident about what they had to do. With the training we’re doing we’re seeing more of the ball but we’re getting the fitness as well.
“It’s the right sort of fitness, we’re playing a lot of small-sided games, it’s what you enjoy and what you want to do. When you know you’re getting the fitness as well it’s ideal.
“It’s a style of play I want to be involved in. I relish keeping the ball and passing it around, hopefully that will progress into winning games.”
The contrast with Di Canio’s time is telling, but direct criticism of the Italian goes unspoken.
“It didn’t quite work out under the previous manager,” he says. “We’re focused on doing well and winning games.”
Maintaining the post-derby feel-good factor will not be easy. Today’s hosts, Hull City, are unbeaten at home and in the top half of the table, two places below Manchester United, three behind Manchester City. At least with so many familiar faces at the KC Stadium, Sunderland will know what to expect.
“They’ve had a solid start, they’ve got quite a few points already,” Colback says. “It’s no surprise with Steve Bruce at the helm. It’s good for lads like (David) Meyler who I played with since we were in the reserves together, it was good to see him go there and do well.”
If Sunderland should know how Hull play, learning how the Black Cats are supposed to could be less straightforward. Poyet has big plans to change things.
“He has to get his ideas across on the way he wants to play as quickly as he can,” Colback acknowledges. “In the situation we’re in, you kind of run out of time with each defeat.
“Only having the full squad back for two days before Swansea he had to try and get across what he’d been saying to the rest of us (non-internationals) very quickly, but now I think he’s doing it gradually and slowly.”