When Sunderland were relegated to the third flight for the only time in their history, fans were determined to show their support, to make clear that however bad the previous season had been, their faith remained strong. The first game of 1987/88 was away at Brentford, a team Sunderland hadn't played for 40 years, so thousands of fans made the journey south to London and squeezed into the away end at Griffin Park.
Sunderland had made major changes to the side that summer, ditching a lot of the old guard who had led them to relegation and replacing them with bright young talent. Most fans had seen them only in blurry photos in the paper, so nobody really knew what most of the new squad looked like. When a team ran out wearing red-and-white stripes, the Sunderland fans roared their support; a few seconds later, a team in familiar blue with Tuborg written across their chests trotted out and, with a sense of sheepishness, Sunderland fans recalled that Brentford also wore red-and-white stripes and that they'd cheered out the wrong team. Nobody's likely to make a similar mistake when Sunderland face Fulham at home on the opening day of the season next month, but there probably hasn't been a time since 1987 when so many of the squad are so unfamiliar to the crowd.
Amid all the furore surrounding Paolo Di Canio's appointment, what seems to have been widely overlooked is that his coaching credentials are exceptional. He finished top of his year at Coverciano and in his only job took Swindon Town to promotion and had them second in League One when he walked out. Of course his feisty personality may lead to confrontation, and of course Premier League players have more power and thus are more likely to ignore him than those lower down the divisions, and so to an extent his appointment was a gamble, but his achievements are a significant counterweight to the doubts.
The press-conference he gave at White Hart Lane after the final game of last season, when he eviscerated his squad for their lack of discipline, was widely portrayed as a rant, as the first sign of a combustible character losing self-control, but actually it was a very calm, probably premeditated, statement of intent. Here, he said, are the standards I expect: live up to them or get out. The timing was clever: use the stick in May to focus minds so that he can use the carrot as pre-season training begins to try to ensure morale is high when the season gets underway. Given Di Canio's past record and given his thinly veiled irritation at the lack of fitness in the squad he inherited from Martin O'Neill, there's little doubt that Sunderland will be among the best conditioned teams at the start of the season.
"We are going to build a very, very good team with a very good work ethic," Di Canio said. "That will be crucial on the field - we are going to face the opponents, we are going to challenge the opponents.My team and the players I select will always have to wear this shirt with honour, dignity and respect, otherwise they can't play under me."
After years of signing mostly British and Irish players with Premier League experience - the likes of Steven Fletcher, Adam Johnson, John O'Shea and Wes Brown - there has been a complete change of policy. Now young and foreign is the policy as the club begins to seek out bargains from outside the overpriced UK market. The central defenders Modibo Diakite and Valentin Roberge, both 26, have arrived from Lazio and Maritimo respectively; the 24-year-old Cape Verdean holding midfielder Cabral has come from Basel; the 25-year-old Vito Mannone will compete for the goalkeeper's position with Keiren Westwood and the awkward, physical 23-year-old USA international centre-forward Jozy Altidore provides another option to Fletcher at centre-forward.
Emanuele Giaccherini the hard-working versatile winger, is likely to complete an improbable move this week while, even less plausibly, Sunderland have been strongly linked with another Juventus forward, Alessandro Matri.
What's most interesting, though, is the really young players. Although the full-back Benjamin Mendy preferred to join Marseille, the French forward El-Hadji Ba signed on Wednesday, the 19-year-old Swedish forward David Moberg Karlsson has come from IFK Gothenburg and the Argentinian defender Gino Peruzzi is expected to complete his move later this week. There have also been strong links to the Greek creator Charas Mavrias. It may be that the players who don't deliver on their potential, but they are exciting. Financially, of course, it make sense: younger players cost less both in transfer fees and wages and for a club looking to cut losses of £27million in 2011/12 they are the way to go.
But they are also better for fans: Sunderland have spent six seasons hanging around lower mid-table, trying to avoid relegation: familiar Premier League triers are simply a recipe for more predictable stodge.
The new policy is riskier but it is also more fun: it is less predictable and, while Sunderland's chances of being relegated have probably increased, so too have their chances of challenging for Europa League qualification. Survival is all well and good but at some point a little entertainment, a glimmer of striving for the glory the game is supposed to be about, is very welcome. If nothing else, Di Canio has added some intrigue to life on Wearside.