They came from every corner of the field. Wherever you looked, red and white shirted footballers ran at pace to celebrate a third round Capital One Cup goal against League One Peterborough United with Emanuele Giaccherini. The right back, the left back, the centre halves, players on the wing, all moving in unison to jump on the goalscorer. The distance did not matter.
Formerly beleaguered Premier League players stood in united celebration next to the goal of Bobby Olejnik. Every single one of them, bar the goalkeeper Keiren Westwood, was there. It was a celebration that made a statement. It was a celebration that told everyone in Sunderland what the players thought of the manager who was sacked after a row too many on Sunday night. No more Di Canio. They could not hide the relief.
That the scorer was Giaccherini, a player who was substituted at half-time in Sunderland's defeat at West Bromwich Albion on Saturday and later clashed with Di Canio after the game, added to the intensity of the celebration. As did the fact the goal's creator was Lee Cattermole, another who rowed with the manager in the heat of the Hawthorne's visiting dressing room, when the misdirection of a football club changed. He had already been stripped of the club's captaincy for questioning the manager's abrasive style.
When the goal came, their first opportunity to show outwardly the inner dislike and turmoil, they took it. It added to the sense the players had not just scored against Peterborough, but their former manager as well.
Di Canio's treatment of his players was called a 'systematic destruction of their self esteem and self worth,' by an insider at the club to the Independent.
It was a goal despite Di Canio, almost to spite Di Canio.
At the half-time whistle, Adam Johnson, who had warned the former manager last week that he risked killing the players' confidence with his confrontational methods, turned as he walked off the field towards the dugouts and applauded all of his team-mates.
By the finish, the substitute Valentin Roberge had scored with a late header but this was no highlight reel victory. It was not about beating Peterborough, more about exorcising some of the demons that have befallen the players. What happens for the rest of this season will define much of their reputations, damaged as they currently are, rightly or wrongly, like the football club and the city they represent.
Losing to Peterborough was unthinkable, but the thought had clearly been there that it was possible.
Kevin Ball, care-taking his football club for the second time, dropped four of the players who started at West Bromwich Albion. Three of those had been bought in the summer. Cattermole was back, Carlos Cuellar was back, Seb Larsson was back. It looked more like Martin O'Neill's team than Di Canio's, although two of those were Steve Bruce signings. They are doing way too much change at Sunderland and it never works.
What did tonight was a sense of spirit.
Margaret Byrne, the chief executive, who, along with the owner Ellis Short, and the director of football Roberto de Fanti, must attempt to redeem themselves with the next appointment, spoke of her disappointment that Di Canio had failed. “After Paolo saved us from relegation, we gave him an opportunity to take the club forward this season,” she said in her programme notes. “When it became obvious it wasn't working, we had to take the decision to part company with him.”
That the decision has drawn unequivocal backing from the dressing room was undeniable. It was everywhere you looked tonight.
Man of the match Johnson.
Match rating 4/10.
Referee M Naylor (South Yorkshire).
Attendance 18,126.Reuse content