The Stadium of Light has been a fortress this season, but not in the way Sunderland wanted. Until Saturday, they’ve succumbed to the stifling pressure of playing at home. That was before the revitalising effects of the effervescent Italian.
“The crowd really got behind their team, and every decision was challenged,” Moyes reflected, after seeing his side fall to the Wearsiders for the first time in his 11-year tenure at the 20th attempt.
Moyes added: “It was an intimidating atmosphere.”
Di Canio has worked his new charges hard, but has also combined the carrot with the stick. Not that the squad he inherited from Martin O’Neill are the only ones being shown a bit of love by the 44-year-old.
“I got a cuddle before kick-off,” Moyes added. “I don’t know him that well, but he’s started off very well.”
A return of six points from his first three games, the latest secured by Stephane Sessegnon’s strike in first-half stoppage time after a mistake by Leighton Baines might have been beyond the realm of optimism a few weeks ago and though they had to hang on at the end, they were three deserved points. Not that salvation is yet guaranteed. “It’s a long road this management lark, you know,” Moyes added.
The immediacy of his impact is something even the ultra positive Di Canio couldn’t have hoped for amidst the maelstrom of his appointment three weeks ago. He said: “When I looked at the fixtures, I couldn’t have expected to take six points from these first three games, although we should have had a draw at Chelsea, so it could have been more. I suppose I’m never going to be happy.”
He was certainly happy at the final whistle, though his unwillingness to repeat the touchline knee slide celebration that marked the victory at Newcastle in favour of some rather more modest fist-pumping was perhaps the only downside for the majority of a 44,000 crowd who more than played their part in a first home win in seven attempts.
“It’s a huge three points for us,” James McClean, who enjoyed a full-blooded battle with compatriot Seamus Coleman in an intriguing sub-plot to the drama, said. “There’s no doubt there’s a new-found confidence in the team – the manager’s instilled that into the players. He’s come in and given everybody a lift and given us the confidence that we were lacking as a team.”
Moyes conceded his side’s top four challenge is now a forlorn one, after a six-match unbeaten run was brought to a halt in a contest where his side came closest to scoring courtesy of a bizarre 40-yard backpass from Seb Larsson that required a fine save from Simon Mignolet to prevent the Swede registering a stunning own goal.
The Everton manager will not allow his players to entertain early thoughts of impending summer holidays with almost a month of the season remaining. “I’m really disappointed that question is even being asked,” was his reply, when questioned as to whether his side can respond to a first defeat in 12 years to the Wearsiders.