Ahead of our game on Sunday against Sunderland we at The Faithful have invited Michael Graham from SB Nation – Sunderland to answer a few questions for us on both Manchester United and Sunderland.
TF: Provide a brief review of Sunderland’s 2013-14 Premier League season?
MG: Brief? Urrrgh,that’s not easy. I’ll give it a go though..
Who are all these new players? Oh Christ, what’s Paolo doing? Oh sh*t, what’s Paolo done?!? We may go down here. We are probably going down here. CUP FINAL!!! We are definitely going down. I hate everything. How the hell did we stay up ?!?!?!. We are INVICIBLE!
That probably just about covers it as briefly as I can.
TF: What was the thinking behind appointing Paolo Di Canio as Sunderland manager the abrasive Italian having a reputed feisty nature, as an example the Black Cat’s went 31 matches prior to his appointment as manager without a red card, but had 3 players dismissed in 7 matches under Di Canio. Tell us about his approach to management, stick or carrot, discuss?
MG: Hiring Paolo Di Canio was about trying to send a whirlwind through the club to wake it up. A lot is said and written about the Di Canio era, and yes it was a total disaster. But in terms of damage to the club, Martin O’Neill posed the greater threat, and that was a huge surprise.
He is generally famed for his energy and enthusiasm, but under him Sunderland were sleeping walking into oblivion. His football created a cloud of apathy that threatened to engulf the club. Di Canio was brought in to breeze that cloud away, and in fairness he did that. He kept us up and we survived to fight another day.
In terms of his approach to management, it’s pure dictatorship. He seemed to invent crazy rules – such as banning the players from eating ketchup – to test how far people would be willing to follow him. That’s probably why it worked well in the lower leagues, where he had a special profile and air of superstar about him. It’s not something Premier League players have to put up with though and they didn’t.
TF: Is it fair to say that Sunderland were effectively relegated with 6 games to go at the tail-end of last season, bottom of the league 7 points away from safety, to go on a magnificent run, drawing 2-2 at Manchester City. Winning four games on the bounce including victories away against Chelsea and Manchester United to attain a 14th placed league finish. Is Gus Poyet Sunderland’s long-term saviour does the Uruguayan’s halo grow heavy, it must be like wearing a tiara round the clock. Discuss?
MG: As Sunderland fans, we have learned to abandon all long-term hopes. For us as a club, it just doesn’t work that way. We tend to run in cycles of 6-8 games at a time that vary wildly from the last. Going from being totally down and out with six games left to surviving courtesy of some crazy results is a great example of that. You could say the same about how we went from Wembley highs to being down and out in the first place in a similar time span.
It goes back even further though. In 6 games, Roy Keane went from derby-day hero and Sunderland’s big future to being out of a job. It’s just our thing, I think.
As for Poyet himself, he presents the biggest upside and potential I have seen in a Sunderland manager in an awfully long time. Tactically he is more sophisticated than any Sunderland manager in my lifetime, and he has a demeanour that energises a club. I don’t think he’ll be a long-term saviour, though. We don’t do long-term here. I’ll just strap myself in an pray for the best, as ever.
TF: Can you recall Gus Poyet’s sacking live on television after an apparent fall-out with the Brighton board over budgetary belt tightening and lack of squad depth. Are you happy at Sunderland that you have an improved squad in numbers and more players of better quality than last season. Comment?
MG: I can remember that, though I’m still none the wiser over the specifics of it. Something about a shat on the floor, apparently. It’s probably best we don’t know details…
But it’s tough to be content with the squad depth at Sunderland right now. We’ve lost a lot of fairly important players from last season – Fabio Borini, Ki Sung-yueng, Marcos Alonso, for example – and are still waiting to replace most of them.
TF: Three victories against Manchester United last season two at Old Trafford. Tell us your thoughts on the Capital One Cup semi-final second leg win, after extra-time and penalties. Rubbing salt into the wound the 1-0 win in the Premier League in May 2014, Larsson scoring for the Black Cats to register your first outright win at Old Trafford since 1968. Happy days?
MG: We were almost able to become blasé about getting the best of Manchester United last season, which is remarkable considering how the season went for us. Granted, right now United are nothing like the force they once were and I’m sure will be again, but they remain something of a scalp.
In fact, many Sunderland fans consider the semi-final win at Old Trafford to be the greatest night of their lives supporting the club, never mind of just last season. Most of that has to do with the sheer drama involved, though.
TF: Is it reasonable to say that ex Manchester United utility man – centre-back, 33 year old John O’Shea is one of Sunderland’s key players (along with Lee Cattermole and Wes Brown) providing calmness, consistency and Premier League knowhow?
MG: John O’Shea has an odd kind of dynamic with the Sunderland support. He is, without question, an important player and an exceptionally good captain for the club, especially off the pitch. He is obviously a very good player too. The problem O’Shea has found at Sunderland is that too often he has played in systems and behind midfields that kind of brutally expose his weakness – primarily a lack of top-level mobility. It has sometimes seen him become a scapegoat to fans.
Wes Brown, we haven’t seen anywhere near enough of due to injuries, but we are certainly a better team with him in it. I must congratulate you on surely being the first recorded person to associate Lee Cattermole’s name with a concept of calmness too! That’s not a criticism, however. He is a remarkably good footballer, good enough for England in my opinion, and one who is far too often judged on reputation rather than his product. There isn’t a more popular player at the club right now amongst the support. Connor Wickham grabbed the headlines at the back-end of last season, but no one did more than Cattermole to keep the club up.
TF: We have heard a lot about the potential of 21 year old striker Connor Wickham with in excess of 140 senior appearance’s do you believe his 5 goals for Sunderland in the final 6 matches of last season will provide Wickham the confidence to establish himself at the club?
MG: Wickham has everything to prove as we don’t know what the real Wickham is. Was his rally at the end of last season just a purple patch or is there something more substantial behind it? The truth is, even Sunderland fans don’t know.
From a technical and physical point of view, he has everything in his locker to reach the very top. The question exists over whether he is hungry and committed enough to his career to do it. For the moment, he remains a huge enigma.
TF: Tell us your thoughts on the free transfer of Jack Colback to fierce rivals Newcastle United, some described the 24 year old Newcastle fan, as the most underrated midfielder in the Premier League?
MG: It’s been a strange one with Colback. For a start, I don’t believe the rubbish about him being a Newcastle fan. That was just propagandist guff peddled by the club to try and sell him to the supporters. It was needed too, because he very publically and repeatedly mocked them at St James following Sunderland derby wins. It’s easy to spin some rubbish designed to tug on the heartstrings when you have just signed a 6-year deal and need the good graces of the fans following a controversial move, but his actions have spoken far more loudly than his words ever will.
He’s gone from being pretty underrated at Sunderland to massively overrated at Newcastle. That tends to happen in the north east. It’s reflective of the nature of the clubs, really. Sunderland are fairly understated and humble as a general rule, which probably comes from years of brutal underachievement. Newcastle, by contrast, are very in-your-face with quite astonishing overblown sense of self-importance – which, so far as I can tell – comes from a few years of over-achievement under Kevin Keegan 20 years ago.
The truth about Colback is therefore tough to really pinpoint as it is almost constantly caught in a tide between the two clubs. Personally, I think he’s a good little player, who is very good off the ball against the big clubs to stand out, yet not good enough on the ball against the rest to unlock anything. I’d have liked to have seen him stay at Sunderland, but he hasn’t been particularly difficult to replace.
TF: Your marquee summer signing £10m Jack Rodwell from Manchester City, what do you expect from him?
MG: We expect – well, demand – quality from him. It’s a huge outlay for us and a lot will be expected. We have been short of some genuine class in the centre of the midfield for years now, and in theory he should be capable of providing it.
He has to prove his fitness, but what I’m personally expecting of Rodwell is for him to provide the club with the kind of consistency only quality central midfield players can.
TF: Why was Phil Bardsley allowed to leave on a free transfer to Stoke City, did a previous casino incident and mocking Sunderland on a social media site, have some baring on this decision. Enlarge?
MG: I don’t think there has ever been a more polarising figure to the Sunderland support than Phil Bardsley. For some fans, he is the infallibly lovable underrated trier who gave everything to the club. To others, he is an overrated conman in a footballer’s boots.
His social media mishaps last summer definitely hit his popularity hard, and probably swung the majority from the former to the latter, but they paid little part in him leaving. In truth, Gus Poyet wanted to keep him and offered him a new deal. Fact is, Stoke wanted him more and offered him a better deal. Ultimately, he gave the best years of his career to Sunderland and deserves credit for that. It was probably his natural time to more on. Whether or not Sunderland will regret not making a greater effort to keep him is one of the curiosities of the season for me.
TF: Best away fans to visit the Stadium Of Light?
MG: Well, Manchester United are up there, no question. However, all the big teams from the north west tend to impress. Liverpool, Everton, United… even Manchester City despite us having a right hoodoo over them at home in recent years.
The away section of the Stadium of Light is where the north/south divide is very prominently played out. Northern tend to be vociferous whereas teams from the south tend to disappoint. I have to make special mention of Southampton fans, though. Very long journey and visited our ground last year – all at stupid times – without a win. Not many made the trips, as you cab imagine, but those who did deserve immeasurable credit.
TF: What are Sunderland’s aspirations for the season?
MG: A simple, stress-free season of progression would be blissful. I’ve forgotten what it’s like to watch a relegation battle from afar at this point. We’ve been back in the Premier League for years now, but it almost feels like we have to go back to a newly promoted mentality: find our footing, learn to walk, and build ourselves up from there.
TF: Provide an assessment of Sunderland’s next 6 league matches this season, QPR (a) Tottenham (h) Burnley (a) Swansea City (h) Stoke City (h) and Southampton (a)?
MG: It’s tough to know at this point at this point as what happens in the remainder of the transfer window will have a huge influence on our season, but I don’t believe there is anything to fear in those fixtures. Nothing comes easy for clubs like Sunderland in this division, of course, though I genuinely think you have to go into every single game believing we can get something. That’s what separates the Premier League from the rest for me. It’s not the best league in the world, technically. Far from it. It’s just the most unpredictable, as we have probably proved better than anyone by still being in it.
TF: What is your worst season scenario?
MG: In a word – relegation.
It’s something we have to accept the possibility of every single season. In fact, for probably more than half the league it looms like a menacing spectre over everything you do. In terms of smaller goals, an early exit from both cups would be tough to take after last season. A cup run can really energise a season for clubs like us.
TF: Which three teams do you believe will be relegated from the Premiership this season and why?
MG: If you’d have asked me about a week or so ago, I wouldn’t have even considered Crystal Palace for the drop but now I find it tough to see how they can survive. They have got themselves in a right mess at the worst possible time, caught directionless between good intentions and good planning, just seemingly going round in confused circles. A bit like my Mrs at a roundabout, actually.
I worry a little for Hull too. They overachieved last season and that was without the demands of the Europa League. They have also lost Shane Long on the eve of the season and managed to get Robert Snodgrass injured too. Right now, they are, for me, weaker than last season with more to do. I think they’ll run West Bromwich Albion close for the last relegation spot.
Burnley look frantic yet chronically short on quality. They have a good manager, but I think he’ll lack the tools.
TF: Your impression of Louis van Gaal in the Dutchman’s tentative days at United?
MG: I’m more intrigued by Van Gaal than anything else. He obviously has huge pedigree, but whether he can deliver it I just don’t know. United is a very tough job right now and I don’t think he is getting anywhere near enough quality support from the top.
Every day I read about another top class player available who would breath precious life into Manchester United, yet the deals never seem to get done. For a club of United’s stature, that just isn’t good enough.
Tactically, I like Van Gaal a lot, though. Playing three at the back, when done well, can often deliver great things, allowing you to get an extra forward on the pitch without sacrificing the midfield numbers that are generally required in the modern game. It won’t be easy to implement, especially with the defenders available, but the long term I think it will pay dividends.
TF: Where do you think Manchester United will finish in the league table?
MG: I fancy United for a slow start and a blistering finish to grab the final Champions League spot. It wont be a smooth transition, but I think it will ultimately be a successful one.
TF: Fantasy time, you have a choice of three United players to transfer to Sunderland who would they be, and why did you choose them?
MG: Jonny Evans, without question. We had him on loan twice and loved him. I think he’s a really underrated defender too – an old fashioned stroller in the era of athletes. He’s a quality player, and the fact he can perform at such a level against big overpowering brutes of forwards demonstrates just how good he is.
Beyond that, Robin van Persie is a gimme. He’s just one of those explosive strikers who can turn with a single flash of his boot out of nowhere. Wayne Rooney too, for all the modern fashion seems to be to knock him, remains a brilliant player.
TF: Your favourite Manchester United blog-forum to read (exclude The Faithful) ?
MG: Hand on heart, the only one I read is SBN’s United blog, the Busby Babe. That sounds terribly corporate of me doesn’t it! Generally though, I find Sunderland tough enough to keep up with sometimes, never mind anyone else.
TF: Choose between either Manchester United’s favoured 24 year old – son – Danny Welbeck or Liverpool’s on loan at Wearside, Fabio Borini?
MG: Sorry chaps, but it’s got to be Fabio. He scored in both games against Newcastle, he scored at Wembley, he scored the winner at Chelsea that changed our season. He’s that lovely mixture of raw passion and subtle quality that fans love. I’m not sure Liverpool realise just what a good player they have there, if I’m honest.
TF: A slice of spurious fun for the penultimate question. The most ridiculous transfer rumour associated with Sunderland during this summers free – for – all lunacy?
MG: There have been many it’s almost tough to keep up! The whole Fabio Borini thing has been the most ridiculous rumour though, well, sub-rumours at least. I think I’ve heard just about every reason why he hasn’t signed yet at some point or another.
My favourite was when he was pictured on a train headed for London, and every possible reason was mooted for his trip. Except the actual one, which was that he was going to see the Lion King with his fiancée.
TF:Finally Michael your score line prediction for the match on Sunday?
MG: I think it’s a good time to play United, but probably a good time to play Sunderland too. I’ll risk the splinters and sit on the fence. 1-1!
We would like to thank Michael for taking the time out to share his views, you can follow Michael @Capt_Fishpaste on Twitter.