PHIL BARDSLEY has thanked Gustavo Poyet for wiping the slate clean and enabling him to salvage his Sunderland career in the last two months.
Bardsley’s time at the Stadium of Light appeared to be at an end when Paolo Di Canio banished him from the first-team squad and publicly questioned his professionalism following a late-night visit to a casino towards the end of last season.
To make matters worse, a frustrated Bardsley posted derogatory comments on social media in the wake of Sunderland’s opening-day defeat to Fulham, and he would almost certainly have moved on in August had he not suffered a foot injury.
Di Canio’s departure offered the possibility of a lifeline, but Poyet could still have kept the full-back out in the cold following his appointment in October.
Instead, he offered him an instant recall, and while Bardsley’s return to senior action might not have gone to plan as he scored an own goal in a 4-0 defeat at Swansea in his first appearance of the season, his subsequent displays have been a significant factor in Sunderland’s recent upsurge in form.
“When the manager called me back into the squad, I knew I had more to offer this football club,” said Bardsley. “I’m thankful for the opportunity he gave me, and I have to repay him with performances.
“He said something along the lines of, ‘You never judge a book by its cover’. I’d never met him, and he could have just taken his opinion from what he’d seen and heard, but he never did that.
“He pulled me in, we had a chat, and he was brilliant. He’s a really nice guy, a genuine guy. He’s a proper football person trying to get the best out of the lads, and I think the lads are buying into that. It shows in our performances on the pitch, and hopefully that can continue.”
The implication, of course, is that Di Canio was the total opposite, and while Bardsley has avoided the opportunity to mount a direct attack on Poyet’s predecessor, it is clear the pair suffered a breakdown in relations that was always going to be irreparable.
The same was true of Lee Cattermole – another player to have reemerged to produce some hugely influential performances under Poyet – and it is only now that Sunderland are beginning to shake off the negative effects of Di Canio’s chaotic six-month spell in charge.
While Valentin Roberge is expected to follow Cabral out of the exit door before this month’s transfer deadline, it will take at least another couple of transfer windows for Poyet to fully repair the damage that was inflicted under Di Canio’s watch last summer.
However, in terms of morale and squad unity, the rehabilitative process appears to be all but complete, with last weekend’s 4-1 win at Fulham marking the culmination of a sustained improvement that began almost as soon as Poyet was appointed.
“When he came in, we had a point on the board,” said Bardsley. “But since he’s come in we’ve had 16, and it should really be more if you look at games like West Ham and Villa away (when Sunderland drew 0-0 despite dominating for long spells). There’s games where if we’d put our chances away, we could probably be tenth.
“There’s a very good spirit, and that’s what you’ve got to have. That was beyond dead (under Di Canio), I think. He’s given the players a new lease of life and we’re all taking our opportunities and chances.
“We’ve all bought into the way the manager wants to play. The philosophy’s all new to a lot of the players, but we just have to keep working hard on the training pitch and we’ll get there.”
After a rare seven-day spell without a game, Sunderland return to action on Saturday when they entertain Southampton.
While they have only lost one of their last nine matches in all competitions, they have not recorded a home victory in the Premier League since November 10.
Given they still have to travel to seven of the current top eight, their home form between now and the middle of May is clearly going to be crucial, and Bardsley accepts his team-mates will have to be more clinical in order to translate their improved form into much-needed points at the Stadium of Light.
“If we can just be a little bit cuter at home and put away our chances, we’ll be okay,” he said. “Everyone gets a little bit anxious in front of goal when we’ve not scored. People try shooting from everywhere and making wrong decisions sometimes. But if we keep plugging away and creating chances, we’re going to start scoring.”
Meanwhile, Nottingham Forest are hoping to agree a permanent deal for midfielder David Vaughan this month.
Vaughan’s current loan deal at the City Ground is due to expire on January 29, but Forest owner Fawaz Al Hasawi has confirmed a desire to retain the Wales international.