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New manager must get the Black Kittens up to scratch against Newcastle

History points to a draw in Tyne-Wear derbies but recent form suggests anything goes this weekend in the Premier League

by Amy Eustace | October 24, 2013

Courage, Ernest Hemingway said, is grace under pressure. Few clubs know more about pressure right now than bottom of the table Sunderland.

Last year’s 17th place performance didn’t exactly inspire hopes that the Mackems would challenge higher up the table, but while Paolo Di Canio could halt their relegation spiral then, he couldn’t budge them from the back of the line this time around.

Di Canio was, in fact, the antithesis of grace under pressure. A poor on-pitch display was usually followed by a public tirade against his players. He called them ‘snobby’ and ‘lazy’ and ’empty in the brain’. Even after his departure, he appeared to refuse any responsibility for their lowly league position.

For Gus Poyet, baptisms don’t come much fierier than a 4-0 away defeat to Swansea followed by a Tyne-Wear derby. His Black Cats were more like Black Kittens at his first game in charge. A bright first-half was forgotten when Swansea (including Sunderland’s own Phil Bardsley) put three past Kieren Westwood in the space of just eight minutes.

[Sunderland v Newcastle: Gus Poyet stats | click to enlarge]

Gus Poyet infographic, for Amy Eustace copy, October 2013

Pride (in the name of Wearside)

That scoreline flattered to deceive; it could have been much worse if Swansea had been that bit more clinical. If Poyet was under any illusions about the size of the task ahead, he isn’t any more. He faces an uphill struggle to restore a sense of pride on Wearside, and most of it is all in the mind.

Under caretaker Kevin Ball, Sunderland put in much stronger, gutsy shifts against Manchester United and Liverpool, but they have had 11 managers since the Premier League’s inception. Of those, just Steve Bruce was appointed in the close season. Now, more than anything, they need someone they can count on being there for a long time.

Poyet has fallen victim to unfavourable comparisons with his predecessor, and by appointing a former player without any real Premier League managerial experience to speak of, Ellis Short appears to be applying the same template as he did when giving Di Canio the job.

Poyet’s risky record…

Poyet is another risky punt based on youth and flair, rather than a decent resumé. His Brighton were a joy to watch, and he won a greater percentage of his games as their manager than any of Sunderland’s previous five coaches did at the helm, but Poyet knows that the Premier League is a different beast, and his record in the Championship hardly suggests he’s the right man to put a wayward Sunderland ship back on course. Whether he has the right CV for the job, Poyet has been at pains to show his eagerness to get fans and players alike onside.

“They’re not asking for a lot,” he said of Sunderland supporters. “They’re just asking for a win, which is fair enough and we should be good enough to do that.”

He appears to understand that Sunderland’s problem isn’t purely tactical, and unlike Di Canio (below), he’s taking a good-cop approach. His squad has proven itself to be a team of delicate, sensitive little flowers whose confidence has been shaken even further by Di Canio’s tactless press mutterings. He seemed to reinforce their insecurities with frequent public and private criticism of their behaviour and work ethic.

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  • Who’s got the edge in the derby? Get the latest odds from Paddy Power here >

Don’t bet on Bardsley winning over fans

The Uruguayan, on the other hand, hinted at addressing his player’s lack of bouncebackability in a softer fashion: “I think nowadays in football the mental side is key. The managers need to be kind of psychologists.” Di Canio employed his own inflated self-worth to demonstrate his authority, dropping players left, right and centre and taking no prisoners in the papers. Poyet, however, took pity on the outcast Phil Bardsley, who was last seen passed out on a casino floor covered in money circa last May.

Poyet restored him to the side for the Swansea defeat, much to the dismay of supporters. His choice wasn’t exactly vindicated and Bardsley even scored an own goal, but in giving him a second chance the new manager proved that all who wander on Wearside are not lost, that there’s a way back for everyone and that his arrival represents, at least figuratively, a clean slate for Sunderland’s disgraced and humiliated players.

What they need is a kick in the proverbial cojones, as Poyet might say, but tough love didn’t work for Di Canio, so the new coach has to find a balance between coddling and punishment. Guts are non-transferable, and even if Poyet could draft some brave player in to make up the deficit, there’ll be no squad changes for the next two months at least.

Ahead of this weekend’s Newcastle tie, his opposite number has had no such guts deficit. If Saturday’s 2-2 draw between Newcastle and Liverpool is anything to go by, Alan Pardew (below) doesn’t have that headache. The Geordies, who have been unspectacular this season and last, had plenty of positives to take from the home draw, most notably that they showed a grit and determination that the North East has lacked in general, which, going into derby day, couldn’t have come at a better time.

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Newcastle United v Sunderland - Sports Direct Arena

Damning with faint praise

With Joe Kinnear breathing down his neck like the ghost of Newcastle’s past and Mike Ashley running the club like a hyperactive toddler Pardew’s job is anything but easy. The manager recently described the owner as a well-meaning moron.

“He loves football but he sometimes can’t understand how it works and it confuses and upsets him, and when he is upset, he does things that aren’t brilliant for the football club.”

He spared some sparring words for Sunderland’s new boss too. “Gus will find it difficult there,” Pardew claims. “The side that he’s managing need a bit of maintenance. They need their confidence building up. That first derby will be a shock to him. He might think he’s ready for it but it will be a shock.”

This weekend will be a proper litmus test, both for Pardew’s burgeoning confidence and for Gus Poyet’s chances of inspiring Sunderland to safety. Perhaps it’s too much to expect the Uruguayan to turn their fortunes around to the tune of a derby day victory, but if Di Canio did it, why shouldn’t he? Poyet simply can’t allow his second match in charge to go like his first.

Giving up is not an option, and Sunderland supporters won’t stand by in the event of another spineless display. It’s time his players showed the kind of fighting spirit, or else they’re as good as doomed.

  • Who’s got the edge in the derby? Get the latest odds from Paddy Power here >

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