Dick Advocaat was formally introduced as Sunderland manager on the morning of the recent eclipse. Unfortunately the unveiling was not at the Stadium of Light. Such imagery would have been appropriate for Wearside’s mood.
Advocaat has entered a club where the sun has barely risen over a bleak season. Sunderland have won just two of 15 home games in the Premier League, scoring a mere 12 goals, and the squat, jaunty Dutchman recognised the local depression when he spoke this week of sparking different sounds and emotions, of “laughing” and “happiness”.
The new manager has encouraged both and a curiosity of his timing means that like his two predecessors, Gustavo Poyet and Paolo Di Canio, Advocaat has an immediate opportunity to remake the sound and feel of Sunderland’s season.
Di Canio’s second game in charge of Sunderland was a 3-0 victory over neighbours Newcastle United at St James’ Park in April 2013; Poyet’s second game was a 2-1 win over Newcastle six months later.
Having lost his first game, at West Ham a fortnight ago, co-incidence has Advocaat’s second game against Newcastle. And, as it was for his predecessors, Sunderland’s situation is again black and white. To stay up, or to fall.
“I’m coming in the middle of a situation,” Advocaat said. “I have to lift them up. If you saw the game with Aston Villa, there was something wrong.” Sunderland 0 Villa 4 was the last match at the Stadium of Light, and there was much wrong.
It was 0-4 before half-time, the ground was emptying and Sunderland were left one point above relegation. The players appeared to have lost faith in Poyet and two days later so did the club.
No one knew then that Advocaat was deemed the man to rebuild Sunderland players’ shattered confidence, though he did. He had been contacted by someone who does not work for Sunderland, Frank Arnesen, three weeks earlier, to see if there might be interest.
So Advocaat was watching the Villa game on TV in Holland and said he “would have been on the pitch” to remonstrate with the players had he been manager.
The attitude fits with the pugnacious image of a man who looks younger than his 67 years, thanks in part to a successful hair transplant. Advocaat exhibits vitality, at least for now.
“He works hard,” said Boudewijn Zenden, in Holland. Zenden, who finished his club career with Sunderland, had Advocaat as his manager twice – with PSV Eindhoven and the Dutch national team. “He lives and breathes football, day in, day out, and in that sense is a workaholic,” Zenden added.
“This is a different situation for him. In the past he’s been involved in teams at the top or national teams. He doesn’t have a reputation for stepping into clubs in this position year after year.
“This is a relegation battle and the games are not the easiest. The last two are Arsenal and Chelsea away. So this is a new challenge for him. He’s a good manager and works very hard on tactics.
“I think he’ll try to keep a simple 4-4-2. In eight games there’s probably not time to try fancy systems.”
But novelty does not seem to deter Advocaat. After an 18-year playing career that began in his native Den Haag, took in Chicago and ended with Utrecht, Advocaat began coaching. He earned a tag – the “Little General” – though Sunderland already have one of them in Bobby Kerr, the 5ft 5in Scot who lifted the 1973 FA Cup.
In Britain, Advocaat is known mostly for four years with Rangers, which started well until Celtic rediscovered themselves under Martin O’Neill, but that is as long as Advocaat has stayed anywhere.
In the 13 years since departing Ibrox, this is his 12th posting. He won the Europa League with Zenit St Petersburg in 2008; his last job was three-games long with Serbia and ended in November. He knows about hitting the ground, running or otherwise.
Asked what he has changed in training at Sunderland, Advocaat said: “The first thing is to give players confidence with the ball. I heard there was a lot of running [before] but I think you play football with a ball. There’s definitely some players you can see with confidence. The instruction is: ‘I am better than you’.
“I have to be softer, definitely. I still say to them: ‘If you don’t do what I want I can take you out,’ but I’m treating them differently than when I started out at, say, Rangers. Let’s put it that way.”
Advocaat offered a compliment to his returning “controller”, Lee Cattermole, having already brought Adam Johnson back into the fold. Johnson scored the winner at Newcastle in December.
It’s common sense but fits with another insight from Zenden: “I was a youngster at PSV and had to work really hard to get in the team. He likes to give responsibility to senior players. And as a player Advocaat liked to put in a shift. He likes his players to do the same. He likes players to put their foot in.”
Sunderland players did not do that against Villa, so if they do against Newcastle, Advocaat will have changed one thing. But Sunderland’s picture is bigger than that. If he becomes known as Wearside’s Little General MkII, Advocaat will have remade the weather.
Sunderland v Newcastle United is on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 4pmReuse content