THE new Premier League season begins today with Sunderland boss Gus Poyet desperate to avoid a repeat of the “miracles” that resulted in the Black Cats retaining their top-flight status in the final month of last season.
With six games of last season remaining, Poyet’s side looked certain to be starting their next campaign in the Championship, such was the parlous state of their position in the relegation zone.
However, an unexpected draw at Manchester City was followed by an even more remarkable win over Chelsea, and by the time Sunderland had followed up those results with wins over Cardiff, Manchester United and West Brom, safety had been secured with a game to spare.
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Having predicted his side would need a miracle to survive, Poyet engineered exactly that, but as he prepares to start his first full season as Sunderland’s head coach with a trip to West Brom, the Uruguayan is hoping for a stress-free campaign rather than a repeat of this spring’s heroics.
“I want no more miracles and no more suffering,” said Poyet. “I don’t want to suffer any more. I have never had a season like last year – never. Not as a player, not as a coach.
“It was incredible, and I would like to see my team normally every week playing in a certain way and not having those ups and downs that we had last year. I don’t want those dramatic ups and downs like our spectacular January, that month-and-a-half when we couldn’t win a game and then that incredible miracle.
“That is not the right way because it means that the team is not convinced about what they need to do on the pitch. We need to maintain a little bit more consistency, learn about the new players and what we need to do, and bring in players that are going to give us something special.”
Sunderland have made seven signings so far this summer, with Will Buckley becoming the latest addition when he completed a £2.5m move from Brighton earlier this week.
However, the key part of Poyet’s recruitment jigsaw remains missing, with Fabio Borini still on Liverpool’s books despite Sunderland having a £14m bid for his services accepted a month ago.
With Steven Fletcher, Connor Wickham and Jozy Altidore currently the only centre-forwards in the Sunderland squad, there is a chronic need for another striker or a wide attacking player who can also play down the middle, like Borini.
Given that Borini travelled to the United States for Liverpool’s pre-season tour within a couple of days of Sunderland agreeing a price for his transfer, it has been widely assumed that the Italian is reluctant to re-join the Black Cats, having spent last season on loan on Wearside.
However, Poyet insists that is not the case, even if he concedes that a transfer is proving incredibly difficult to complete.
“It's still ongoing,” he said. “I can assure the supporters it's not over. Please trust me - I can't tell you everything because it's not fair on everybody.
“It's not that Borini doesn't want to come. I have talked to him and things are clear, but it's a matter of doing it at the right time. In any case, he is just coming back to fitness and wouldn't be available against West Brom.
“We need a player in that position and are ready to move on and have another option. But it's impossible to say it will happen tomorrow, Monday or the 31st of the month.”
Sunderland’s attacking situation is further complicated by the lack of clarity surrounding Wickham, who is competing with Fletcher for the right to lead the line at the Hawthorns this afternoon.
The Black Cats rejected West Ham’s £4m offer for the 21-year-old earlier this week, but with Wickham having entered the final year of his current contract and the Sunderland hierarchy adamant he will not be allowed to leave for nothing next summer, his position will remain uncertain until either the transfer window closes or he signs a new deal.
Poyet remains confident Wickham will agree a new contract, but is braced for further offers as the transfer deadline nears.
“I'm ready for someone to come in for any player because that's football,” he said. “When you start the season with the transfer window open, you have to be ready for bids.
“Connor has been in my plans from the last eight games of last season. I am looking forward to seeing the same kind of form - him playing for us and scoring goals.”