After Sunderland’s game at Chelsea on Sunday, Dick Advocaat is set to leave the club as a nine-game legend. Other recent Sunderland managers – Gus Poyet, Paolo Di Canio and Martin O’Neill – improved results and kept the team in the Premier League only to see their initial hard work undone, forcing their replacement by a new saviour.
Advocaat is a more accomplished manager than Poyet or Di Canio, but even if he were to stay at the club beyond his interim spell – which looks very unlikely – then who knows if that cycle would be repeated. Whatever, happens, though, he will always be the man who kept them up against the odds.
Sunderland, slightly implausibly, have now gone five games unbeaten. Their 0-0 draw at Arsenal on Wednesday was a triumph of Advocaat’s management. He had seen how Swansea City pinched a 1-0 win there the previous week. Sunderland defended well, changed system, were dangerous on the break and had better chances to win the game than Arsenal. When Steven Fletcher stopped to talk afterwards, he was full of praise for the veteran coach.
“It’s been a remarkable turnaround since Dick came in,” the striker said. “He’s been great. He’s got his style of play that he put in place straight away and it’s reflected in the points we’ve put on the board.”
Advocaat inherited a club on its knees, the playing squad almost devoid of motivation and organisation. But he has imposed structure and belief again, making changes to restore unity – team meetings, team meals and so forth – which have revived a spirit that had spluttered out. He has taken the club to heart, and when he walked over to the Sunderland fans at the end on Wednesday he was in tears.
“He’s only been here for a couple of months but you could see at the end what it meant to him,” Fletcher said. “He’s a very passionate man. We see it in training every day. He’s been good with the players.”
Advocaat will meet with the Sunderland owner Ellis Short next week, but Fletcher and Jermain Defoe were clear they hoped Advocaat would still be at the club next season. “It would be brilliant for us if he did stay because the job he’s done here has been fantastic,” said Fletcher. “We’ll try our best to make him change his mind. He’s warmed to all the players but it’s down to the board to see if they can keep him.”
Defoe, too, has impressed, not just for his goalscoring instincts but also for his defensive work. He has played as a defensive-minded left-winger, doing the work that helped improve Sunderland’s record at the back and keep them in the top flight.
“It would be nice if the manager could stay,” said Defoe. “All the lads want him to stay. But it’s down to him, his decision. I’ve played for a lot of managers and Advocaat is right up there. What’s impressed me is that even before games like against Arsenal he is always so relaxed and that rubs off on the players.”
Advocaat, though, is 67 and has a family in the Netherlands. This is likely to be the end of his brief managerial stint in England, meaning that Sunderland will have to look for yet another new man this summer, someone who can build rather than just fire-fight.
“Every time a new manager comes in he’s working with someone else’s team,” said Fletcher. “It’s important we get a long-term manager in who can sort the team out from day one.”
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