Mark Douglas: Players still have a point to prove at Sunderland

Mark Douglas thinks it is now time for Sunderland's players to stand up and be counted

Paolo Di Canio during the game against West Brom
Paolo Di Canio during the game against West Brom

In the gleeful rush to trample on Paolo Di Canio's monstrous ego over the last few days, we have neglected an uncomfortable red and white truth.

It goes like this: if Di Canio’s management style was so maniacally unhinged, why were so many on Wearside ready to embrace it so wholeheartedly?

Optimism was the emotion as Sunderland supporters filed into the Stadium of Light on a sunny August afternoon to see Di Canio’s re-booted Sunderland take on Fulham.

The club had sold a large enough number of tickets to make a point of it, while the respected fans’ site Roker Report had carried out a poll of their writers which threw up an average mark of 7/10 for the club’s pre-season business. Then the football started.

This is not meant to be a dig at Sunderland’s long-suffering support because optimism spread to this correspondent too.

After seeing Sunderland’s opening pre-season fixture in Hong Kong I felt their gentle opening fixtures might be the perfect platform for a team which looked well-organised and attack-minded and seemed to have momentum behind it.

The enthusiasm began to curdle in Denmark, when Di Canio’s reaction to a friendly win raised red flags, but it would be remiss to pretend foreboding spread over the whole summer.

The reason for this is not stupidity, wishful thinking or a base lack of insight (I will leave you to judge on the latter).

It is because Di Canio railing against the squad struck a chord with supporters who have felt collectively short-changed by this group of players in recent seasons. A

That – more than anything – is why Sunderland have not vanquished their problems with the removal of Di Canio.

This is a serious issue for the players to address.

It is not that, individually, they are unpopular.

Lee Cattermole’s name was sung on Tuesday night and there is enthusiasm for many others, including the genuine Craig Gardner, Steven Fletcher and Seb Larsson.

Jozy Altidore’s honesty has won him admirers, even if his goal-scoring record is yet to match his endeavour.

Collectively, though, they are less than the sum of their parts in the eyes of supporters who have suffered through too many false dawns in recent seasons. Just when they are encouraged to believe – as they did when Steve Bruce re-energised the squad after their escape from relegation in 2010 or Martin O’Neill seemed to be turning a corner – the team settles into a familiar slump.

While the name on the manager’s office changes, too many of the players have remained the same.

It is hard not to have some form of sympathy for them given the way Di Canio behaved. Bullying in any form is to be condemned and some of the Italian’s antics were simply unacceptable - especially singling out players who had only just arrived in the country for poor treatment.

However, it felt a bit over the top for them to be hailed as “heroes” for their coup, as they were in one national newspaper this week.

Having been spared the reporter’s dictaphones in the aftermath of Tuesday’s win – an understandable reaction by the club, if frustrating for anyone trying to ascertain what actually happened in the dog days of Di Canio’s regime – the onus is now on them to supply answers with their performances.

For Di Canio didn’t arrive completely out of the blue. He was appointed by an owner fed up of underachievement and who wanted to inject a dose of adrenaline into a camp which had gone as flat as their former manager. He picked up on a popular theme with his criticism of the players.

When Di Canio then went on the war-path, confronting the professionalism and integrity of the squad, he seemed to have the ear of most supporters.

I always thought his criticism was outrageous but there have been examples where players have not come up the required standards - such as when players have fallen foul of the law on nights out or sent ill-advised social media messages.

A common theme when it was claimed one player had said he was ready to “run through brick walls” for O’Neill was if he did, it was difficult to remember it in his later days. Looking at the results, that’s a fair point. With a new manager heading to the Stadium of Light, the onus is now on the players to prove Di Canio was completely wrong about them.

Tuesday was a good start, but if Gustavo Poyet is given the job they will have another task-master with eccentric tendencies to work with.

Now is the time for individuals in the group to stand up and be counted. The relationship with the people of Wearside needs to be repaired.

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