Sunderland fans can be forgiven for the somewhat luke-warm reception they’ve accorded David Moyes since his arrival on Wearside.
New managers are becoming a bi-annual tradition at the Stadium of Light, and although most of them have duly presided over a late-season climb out of the relegation places (and an obligatory thrashing of rivals Newcastle along the way), there has seldom been any sense that the Black Cats are truly a club on the up.
By popular consensus, Moyes did himself no favours when he predicted his team would struggle in the wake of a disappointing home defeat to newly promoted Middlesbrough on matchday #2. In truth, this was as much down to cynical reporting as anything else: the Scot had already made his feelings perfectly clear during his inaugural press conference – presumably after spending a couple of hours watching his new team train.
On the other hand, PR has never been Moyes’ strong suit: the former Manchester United manager was immortalised in a cruel internet meme after his unveiling at Old Trafford, and never quite managed to master the juggling act of being deferential to his new employers’ rich history, and managing external expectations.
In some ways, Sunderland and their new appointment represent the perfect marriage. Moyes is a down-on-his luck manager who, having failed to set the world alight during his second chance in San Sebastian, has a big point to prove back in the Premier League. The Black Cats, meanwhile, are a club seemingly forever balancing on the jaws of relegation, pulled away from its grasp every season by a combination of the famed “new manager bounce”, together with the woeful shortcomings of their opponents (take note, Newcastle and Villa).
Stability. The buzz-word with which the Scot, despite being abruptly relieved of his duties before season’s end by both United and Sociedad, is still closely associated thanks to his decade-long stint in the hot-seat at Goodison Park.
The parallels between Sunderland and early 2000s Everton are pretty clear – although the footballing landscape in general is vastly different (a point Moyes himself has been keen to make to the nation’s press). This is why turning Wearside’s struggling dynasty into a bona fide Premier League mainstay has proved a challenge too great for messrs Di Canio, Poyet and Advocaat before him (let’s reserve judgement on Allardyce, who jumped ship before the stormy second season tide).
For a manager frequently charactised by caution, Moyes’ first steps have been positive. Instead of battle-worn Premier League veterans, he recruited a couple of young defenders in Paddy McNair and Donald Love, together with creative-types like Adnan Januzaj and Steven Pienaar (the latter of whom, at 34, is hardly a spring chicken, but is far more about incisive through balls than safe sideways passing). True: Papy Djilobodji – at eight million pounds – is a dubious signing, but he appears to have the raw tools to be a successful centre-half in England (provided he can cut out the calamitous own goals).
The injection of youth and quality into a Sunderland squad liberally sprinkled with steady workhorses who are a little short on technical ability has been much needed, but Moyes has more work to do before the market closes. Most pressingly, the Black Cats are starved of goals, relying too heavily on the fitness of Jermain Defoe, who is now well into his thirties. Given that they may also be in the new market for centre-half if and when Lamine Koné departs for Everton, you get the feeling the last few days of the transfer window could make or break Sunderland’s – and their new manager’s – season.
Can Moyes arrest the club’s seemingly inevitable slide down the divisions? Already, he has been unable to prevent them from enduring another awful August (they’ve not been victorious in the Premier League’s opening month since 2010). But the abrupt nature of his arrival should see him afforded the time and patience to genuinely make his mark on the team. If he manages to keep them afloat while laying some of the building blocks for a brighter long-term future, the Scot will surely claw back some much-needed credibility.