Sunderland primed for Man Utd upset
A new book on north-eastern football reports an audacious attempt in 2009 by Niall Quinn, then chairman of Sunderland, to sign Louis van Gaal as manager.
Michael Walker, the author of "Up There: The North-East, Football, Boom & Bust," says Quinn's approach was restricted to telephone calls. Van Gaal's wife, Truus, answered one of them, telling the former Irish striker: "Keep working on him, I want to go to England.'"
It would be flattering to believe, though perhaps stretching things a little, that this amounted to a firm desire on the part of LVG's wife to settle quite so far north as Wearside. In any event, Quinn's recruitment mission went no further and Steve Bruce got the job.
But on Sunday, Van Gaal will at least get a glimpse of what he and his wife missed when he sends out his Manchester United team at the Stadium of Light.
His instructions will be clear. United must put out of their minds their unscripted start to a season of supposed post-Moyes recovery -- that 2-1 defeat to Swansea City at Old Trafford.
In Van Gaal's favour, Sunderland have a rotten record against Manchester United in the Premier League.
Leave aside the tremendous, season-saving win at the Theatre of Dreams on May 3, and recent pickings have been thin indeed. That victory was the first by Sunderland, home or away, in 23 Premier League games against United. The last time the fixture ended in a win for Sunderland was in 1997; it was, from memory, a terrific display, but they went down anyway.
Could this be another opportunity for an upset, preferably without the same conclusion to the season? United's shaky start, and admirable Sunderland performances against them under Gus Poyet last season, will surely encourage the former Old Trafford stalwarts Wes Brown and John O'Shea that the game is winnable.
Last season, as well as the 1-0 win at Old Trafford, the winner coming from Seb Larsson as the high point of his storming contributions to the ultimately successful battle for survival, there was the victory over two legs in the Capital One Cup semifinal.
Poyet must make his players believe they can emulate those results and do to United what, in each of the past four seasons, they have managed to do to Manchester's other, lately more buoyant side, and emerge triumphant.
The opening-day draw at West Bromwich Albion revealed lingering weaknesses as well as resilience in Poyet's side but was a decent enough start to the season. Against that, United generally play well at the Stadium of Light, so Sunderland must expect to be punished even more severely for defensive lapses than was the case at the Hawthorns.
And with the clock ticking towards the closure of the transfer window, Poyet's squad still has an unfinished feel to it.
No one seems to know what will come of reported interest from Hull, West Ham and elsewhere in Steven Fletcher and Connor Wickham, and the mind boggles at the prospect of losing both without adequate replacement. The frantic pursuit of Fabio Borini may not have petered out altogether, but it does seem increasingly forlorn.
Poyet is reported to have had crunch talks this week with Sunderland owner Ellis Short and director of football Lee Congerton to thrash out strategy for what remains of the window. But it appears more and more likely that loans rather than outright purchases, though not greatly favoured by supporters, may be the best to hope for.
Poyet knows he still lacks a defender, a striker and possibly another midfielder. But even that wish list is liable to change in the event of a key departure or two.
The best that can be said about the squad at his disposal when facing West Brom is that it looked a little stronger than the one he had to work with last season. That implies a safer passage through the new Premier League season but also, if progress is to be made, the need for further strengthening.
But there is plenty of excitement among the supporters as the Manchester United match looms. All but the most fervent United-haters relish visits from one of the world's greatest clubs and the chance of pulling off a surprise win, or at least the avoidance of defeat.
Even a draw on Sunday would be seen as an advance on last season, especially if it could be followed by an arguably bigger result -- three points at QPR -- six days later.