It was a disastrous start: a 4-0 loss to Swansea. Sunderland were bottom: 8 games played, -15 goal difference, 1 point, 6 points from safety, no wins. New manager Gus Poyet had inherited a side who, at best, were bereft of confidence, at worst, simply not good enough for this league; a series of overpaid, gutless drunkards. In his first game, things got even worse; out from the cold came Sunderland fans' enemy number one, Phil Bardsley. After being dropped from the team under Paolo Di Canio, he spent the first game of the season (a defeat to Fulham) laughing at Sunderland on Instagram, but here he was lining up against Swansea.
Not only did Poyet select him, but Bardsley went and scored an own goal. For all intents and purposes, the Black Cats were destined for the Championship.
Well... as all good dance pop songs go, things can only get better... and how!
In the last 14 games, Sunderland have only lost twice – one of those was the 2-1 defeat to Manchester United in the Carling Cup semi-final second leg (which Sunderland got through on penalties), which I'm not sure really counts. Their latest result, a 0-3 win over rivals Newcastle, completed a league double against them, and was the culmination of all of Poyet's hard work with the team up until this point.
So what has changed? Well, the most obvious thing is the good feeling around the training ground. Poyet has gotten all the big characters in the dressing room on side, and as a result, all the messages coming out from the club seem to be good. Under Di Canio, all we heard was fairly bland, scripted stuff, unless it was from Di Canio himself, who could rant for... umm, well, Paolo Di Canio – he wouldn't want to do it for anyone else, would he? Anyway, now the contrast is obvious, just about everybody and their uncle are giving the newspapers quotes. There are even positive noises coming out about players like Bardsley, Seb Larsson and Jack Colback signing new contracts; under Di Canio's reign, this was virtually unheard of.
Poyet has also got people playing in the positions that they want to be playing in, and in the positions Poyet wants them playing in. Under Di Canio, I don't think a single Sunderland fan could have predicted what team would play from one week to the next. However, under Poyet, the side has been stabilised, the back four is as solid as Sunderland has had in years. By having a clear formation in mind, Poyet has been able to work with the players on what he requires from each position. Bardsley is a good example of this; out in the cold under Di Canio, he has been brought in, and as the best right back in the squad, he is playing... you guessed it, at right back. Adam Johnson is also another shining example; under Di Canio, he was asked to essentially be everything to the team - "give the ball to Johnson and he'll do the rest" - now, he has been asked to play on the wing, track back as a winger, go forward as a winger, if the ball is on the other wing, get in at the back post. As a result, he has become essentially everything to the team. No player has scored more goals in the league in 2014, and no player is more deserving of a re-call to the England squad.
Poyet has used this good feeling to get people believing in him and the squad. Instead of the tense atmosphere that can be a problem around the Stadium of Light sometimes, there should be nothing but positivity. Of course, Sunderland are not quite out of the woods in terms of relegation yet. They are only two points clear, and a loss against Hull at the weekend could see them back into the danger zone. But as it goes, Sunderland are very much on an upward trajectory, which is so important as the season comes down to the business end.
With a cup final to look forward to, an FA Cup draw that could see them into the quarter finals, and a real shot at escaping relegation, Poyet has been a magician in his short Sunderland career. From where Sunderland started, they sure are sitting pretty.