A look back at Sunderland’s 2012/13 season.
Having finished the second half of the 2011/12 season as one of the most in-form teams in the Premier League, there was plenty for Sunderland fans to be optimistic about for 2012/13. Martin O’Neill had done a great job since taking over as manager, and looked to have made some decent-looking summer acquisitions. Big money was spent on bringing in skillful winger Adam Johnson from Manchester City for £12million, and prolific Wolves striker Steven Fletcher for the same price. O’Neill also made some shrewd moves for Carlos Cuellar and Louis Saha on free transfers from Aston Villa and Tottenham respectively, while Danny Rose also joined from Spurs on a season-long loan deal.
Fans were hoping for a strong mid-table finish and perhaps even a challenge for Europe, and things got off to a promising start with a hard-fought 0-0 draw away to Arsenal. They showed great resilience in defence to keep the Gunners out despite wave upon wave of attacks from the home side. They remained unbeaten in their first five games, gaining further draws against Swansea, Liverpool and West Ham before a 1-0 win over Wigan, with new signing Steven Fletcher looking in lethal form in front of goal for the Black Cats.
However, their unbeaten start came to an end with a 3-0 defeat away to reigning champions Manchester City, when it must be said they were thoroughly outplayed. They responded with draws against Newcastle and Stoke, though they were clearly not scoring enough goals, finding the back of the net more than once on only one occasion so far this season. They were then stunned with a 1-0 home defeat to Championship side Middlesbrough in the Capital One Cup, and followed that up with defeats to Aston Villa and Everton in the league, sending them down the table.
They produced a better performance to win 3-1 against Fulham at Craven Cottage, with Adam Johnson and Stephane Sessegnon showing great potential in an improved attacking display. However, they were then winless for a further four games with three defeats to West Brom, Norwich and Chelsea, and a draw with Queens Park Rangers. They were failing to beat the sides around them, and that was a worrying sign for this underachieving side as they approached the end of the year.
A 3-0 win over Reading stopped the rot, though they were then beaten 3-1 by Manchester United at Old Trafford, still they followed that up with a 1-0 away win at Southampton, and then even more impressively with a surprise 1-0 win at home to Manchester City, with none other than Adam Johnson scoring the winner against the side he left in the summer.
They finished the year with a somewhat unfortunate 2-1 home defeat to Tottenham, and then started the new year with a rather limp 3-0 defeat to Liverpool at Anfield. Striker Danny Graham was brought in from Swansea to help the club find more goals, after the signing of Saha had not worked out and he was quickly released by O’Neill. Sadly, Graham himself did not prove the best piece of business either, and failed to score in eleven appearances for Sunderland for the rest of the season.
A 3-0 win over West Ham was sandwiched in-between another shock cup exit, this time in the FA Cup to Championship side Bolton, who won a replay 2-0 at the Stadium of Light. Sunderland bounced back with a 3-2 win at Wigan, but then went on a terrible run of nine games without a win, losing six times to the likes of Reading and Queens Park Rangers, who were both fighting relegation. They also gave a very disappointing display despite only losing 1-0 to Manchester United, leading many pundits to express their surprise at seeing an O’Neill team with so little spark and passion. The Northern Irishman was sacked shortly after this game, and the club looked to wildcard Paolo Di Canio as his replacement to steer the club away from this unexpected battle with relegation.
The Italian was famous for his days as a player in the Premier League with West Ham, and looked to be making good strides in management with Swindon Town. His was a controversial appointment though, due to his reported allegiance with Facism. Still, he won over the fans with his team’s performances soon enough.
They were unfortunate to lose his opening game against Chelsea, going down 2-1 in a close game at Stamford Bridge, but then responded with a memorable result, winning 3-0 away to rivals Newcastle, their first win at St James’ Park for 23 years, and one that was achieved in style with some impressive attacking football.
Di Canio continued to impress, as Sunderland won their next game 1-0 at home to Champions League hopefuls Everton. This looked like doing the job in terms of fighting relegation, though they were shocked in their next game as they were thrashed 6-1 by fellow-strugglers Aston Villa at Villa Park. Suddenly they were in big trouble again, though draws against Stoke and Southampton in their next two games did the trick as results below them saw Wigan confirmed as the final team to be relegated along with QPR and Reading.
Sunderland gave a strong display on the final day of the season, only losing late on to a wonder goal by Gareth Bale, showing that they were determined to play their part in keeping Tottenham from making the top four, which they failed to do anyway due to Arsenal’s win.
Best player: Simon Mignolet
The Belgian goalkeeper has been a stand-out performer in many games this season, helping his side’s cause with a series of excellent saves. One feels they almost certainly would have gone down without him, and they sadly could now lose him with plenty of bigger clubs showing an interest in this talented shot-stopper.
Worst player: James McClean
After an extremely promising first season for the club, this was a very disappointing campaign for the Irishman, who only managed 2 goals and 3 assists in all competitions all year. A one-season wonder perhaps?
Final grade: D
A strange season that started with a lot of promise and then went wrong for unclear reasons. Better attacking players are needed to help the club climb the table, and hopefully Di Canio’s more adventurous approach can spark them into life, but a poor campaign that ended up as a relegation fight with many insipid performances along the way.