The Lars Word: and the winner is … Paolo Di Canio

Lars Knutsen
Lars Knutsen

Lars Knutsen and Monsieur Salut disagree on one matter – whether Sunderland AFC’s handling of the Paolo Di Canio appointment was exemplary or poor – but that is an honest disagreement which will be familiar to many other supporters. Where we can probably all agree is that the appointment itself has so far, on purely footballing grounds, been thoroughly vindicated. PDC has given the club a spark just when it desperately needed it …

The Italian has had
a baptism of fire in top-level football with the Black Cats.

In these first few weeks as Sunderland manager, he entered unwittingly into a modern media storm about his supposed fascist connections and political affiliation. I was in England, fully exposed to the media when Martin O’Neill was sacked for the first time in his football career after that limp surrender against Manchester United at the Stadium of Light.

After firing the bullet, the chairman and owner Ellis Short afterwards provided the same reason as used when disposing of the services of Steve Bruce – “a year of poor results”.

O’Neill was obviously surprised, but he must have been aware of the tightrope he was walking by presiding over a terrible barren run of eight games yielding just three points, and not the first run of this kind on his watch.

The Lads had been losing their way and had surprisingly been playing low-key defensive football without the belief or passion which have been the normal hallmarks of the Northern Irishman’s teams. And at one time this season we spent half a day in the bottom three, something even Steve Bruce never managed to achieve.

That is all history now, and looking back, both Di Canio and the club dealt with the political controversy pretty well.

It gave David Miliband the reason he needed to walk. Nobody ever questioned Alan Shearer’s raised arm salutes when he scored, at least not until now, as we have seen in this clever YouTube spoof …

But the winner has been Di Canio himself, who must be pinching himself after making such an impact – in a top club, in a very short time, in the best league in the world. His charisma has given the team belief, and even though so many key players have been missing, it is clear that the ones operating under him now want to play for him.

Football is inherently a simple game, and the secret to management is to motivate well-paid players to perform above themselves and to sweat blood for each other, as well as for the team.

This was something Peter Reid achieved during the promotion of 1999 and those two subsequent top seven finishes in the Premiership. His favourite line was “do it for me”!

Di Canio has succeeded in two of his first three games, and even if he resigns his job tomorrow he will never be forgotten by Sunderland fans for the systematic demolition of New****le on their home turf. That performance was staggering both in its execution and significance.

Not many supporters are looking over their shoulders or mentioning the “r”- word now, but we are obviously not quite out of the woods yet, despite another passionate and disciplined performance yielding a rare three points against Everton at the Stadium of Light. That result along with the win at St. James pulled teams like Stoke, Norwich and our Geordie, horse-punching neeeigh-bours right into the mix at the bottom.

The media, especially Radio 5’s 606 phone-in, have been speculating whether the impact and dynamism that Di Canio has brought can be sustained, especially when conflicts arise, as they inevitably do in a large complex organisation such as a high-profile, top-level football club, with its huge associated professional and media network.

Clearly Sunderland’s new head coach is able to motivate his team in an amazing, unique and focused way, but he left Swindon citing broken promises, which shows his integrity.

There were some conflicts, as reported by BBC Sport in February – see, and there will be times I am sure when a man with the passionate and volatile personality such as the Italian has will throw his toys out of the pram. But Sunderland is a bigger stage, with more checks and balances; a good Chairman such as Short will use Di Canio’s talents wisely, when push comes to shove, so to speak (I am not the first person who has used that phrase). He is already working with talented international players who he will find easier to respect for their talent.

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Thinking fans will have noted that Di Canio has taken the head coach role – which plays to his obvious strengths. Does this mean will there be a “Director of Football” slot to be filled at the Stadium of Light? That was position held last de facto by Niall Quinn.

One more win and the club can make plans for another season at the top level, and that will be fascinating to follow.

21 thoughts on “The Lars Word: and the winner is … Paolo Di Canio”

  1. Dave, I won’t be going whilst PDC is there however I do not think you are a hypocrite. My value systems are for me and I wouldn’t dream of imposing them on you. Life is full of such compromises and the fact that you even reflected on the moral dilemma (you face) speaks volumes. A conscience is a funny thing. Enjoy the football……time to move on methinks

    Peace and love brothers and sisters

  2. I am a labour voter and have managed to justify to myself continuing to attend the games and support the club by deciding that PDC was a little ill-informed in his earlier days! That would not be unusual in a footballer. There is a big difference between Italian fascism and Nazism that became blurred when Italy and Germany became allies. My understanding is that Italian fascism is most simply defined as state before individual. I know there is more to it than that but I am a simple man. This could also be seen as a simple definition of communism and is also the general principle by which people committed to fight in the war. It is only recently with Thatcher and Reagan (and then right wing Labour leaders such as Blair) that the view in this country has changed from state to individual in terms of importance (and I don’t know many people who feel that the North-east is better off as a result).
    I have read the quotes from his auto-biography on immigrants and the way Italy chooses to not make them welcome and I would challenge anyone to disagree with them.
    I am still uncomfortable with the man and don’t join in the chanting of his name and if I ever see Sunderland supporters deliberately raising 1 arm when chanting his name then my position will change, but I am prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. The way he handles black players within the club will, for me, be the most telling and it will be a while before we can see how that goes.
    I accept that my position may well be seen as hypocritical but there it is.
    One thing I am certain of is that if the media were braver, there are a number of other, bigger targets that they could go for. I don’t remember many Chelsea or Arsenal board members resigning due to the source of their Russian owners money or at Man City when Shinawatra saved them (or even now – Qatar is not exactly a friendly place to foreign immigrants).
    PDC is an easy target because they can make lazy, unproven links to racism (the lack of any suggestion of racism is the main plank of my possible delusion) without properly debating the wider point of ownership/management of football clubs.

    • Dave – a really articulate contribution – enhancing the quality of debate on these Salut! pages.

      I was pleased to see that four black players were used by Di Canio against Everton – who cares about origin as long as all the players wear our shirt with pride and perform on the pitch? The club’s “Invest in Africa” context is important.

      The biggest example of the blurring of the fascist, national socialist and communist boundaries must be China, where people are locked up for just questioning the government. Blair and others refused to expose the Chinese human rights record and lack of democracy; trade is seen as more important. The Chinese are not big investors in football yet, but that will surely happen.

    • Dave,
      That is a sensible well explained post and not hypoctrical.This being a traditional working class area it was bound to have raised some concerns.

      That is why a local owner would maybe have thought about this a bit deeper.I am sure Ellis never even considered it an issue.

      Facism has been tarnished with the Nazism link,you could do a whole thesis(as many have) on the ins and outs of it all.As you say are they any different to say the BNP who, love them or loathe them, are a legitimate UK political party.

      But I guess none of that concerns the average supporter.As you say its about how he treats his players.There will be a falling out or two, it is inevitable,but I hope he is not hamstrung if every time he wants to release a black player…..that would be too much of a restriction on him.

      We will see how it pans out of course,but it just another thing people and the press will be watching out for.Whatever happens Di Canio does have this “baggage” around him now.

  3. You’d have thought someone at the club would have researched this a bit better and maybe had some inkling of what might coming the clubs way.

    My view is ES now runs this club top to bottom,he is far more hands on than when he first came to the club,yet he is not here 100% of the time and the staff here would likely not be in any position to query the decision in any way.

    ES underestimated the fuss,no doubt about it,maybe we can excuse his American background,and he is a busy man with other interests.Yes it looked clumsy and could have been managed better,but how long are we going to keep going on about it?A mistake was made in not putting out a disclaimer quicker…it was eventually done and we need to move on now.

    Milliband should not have been so quick to judge either…was this more about him than the club?…good riddance I say.

    We now have two exposed racists still playing PL football,one that even thinks it acceptable to sink his teeth into an opponent,and an FA that thinks that is alright too…8 match ban….pathetic

  4. I just want to express my appreciation for the quality of the articles and comments on this site. It is a joy to find good writing, wit, commitment, thoughtfulness, perspective and knowledge – and all about my club! Pete, Jeremy, Keith, Colin, Keith, Neil, Ian and all the rest – a sincere thank you.

  5. The Salutsunderland commentary above is articulate and balanced. It’s why this site is valued

    Keith, maybe….just maybe, the Milliband family history shaped his decision. In terms of seeking political gain he has turned down an opportunity to return to front bench politics. He chose to stand down from a safe seat. His career lies away from politics……so why seek to gain politically by resigning from SAFC? Just doesn’t add up.

    He gave a speech last year at a local University at which he came over as sincere and principled. Certainly the students I spoke to afterwards perceived him to be solid and down to earth. His constituents rated him highly as an MP. So people who have met him seem to respect him.

    I accept he won’t be on your Christmas card list…..PDC won’t be on mine however I intend to respect the wishes of this site’s hosts and not bang on about his politics. Maybe you should do the same a la Milliband

    MON is a decent man who made good signings. It didn’t work out. Short exercised his right to manage his property as he saw fit. From a marketing and PR perspective the furore was predictable and the response of the management was poor bordering on amateurish. Denial rarely works. Neither does transference. Yet that’s all that was offered. Short needs to have a word with his management team.

    MON will have had his contract paid in full. Like Bruce before him we need to remember that they tend to walk away well compensated for any bruising that their ego may suffer.

    What I hope for is sustained success without the management merry go round …..think Everton. Can’t see PDC as a long term solution. I may be wrong. I’m particularly happy however that Pardew is on a long term contract. Long may his bromance with Ashley continue

    For me the recent results are bitter sweet. But for friends and family who are not politicised and who go week in week out I’m delighted with the last two results.

  6. Keith’s comment deserves a full reply. SAFC were fully entitled to appoint any manager they saw fit. I believe a more astute operation would have anticipated the furore but, even without the most sophisticated grasp of effective public relations, would have acted sharply to defuse the Miliband bomb. It doesn’t matter what his motives, or part of his motives, may have been; for a former minister of the Crown, a very senior one at that, to resign in protest – even if you dispute his sincerity or suspect mixed motivations – is a clear and legitimate news story and it inevitably made the move all the more controversial. Again, whether you agree with them or not, the trade unions and others who felt the appointment at odds with the traditions of Sunderland, its core support and the region cannot be dismissed as if they simply don’t matter. PDC’s track record was in the public domain and, again, could not be treated as non-existent. It has emphatically NOT been invented by the wicked media and the club’s initial statement, implying that this was the case, was intellectually wrong-headed and factually incorrect. Bashing the media is a handy trick, especially when trouble comes along, and works with large sections of the population, but that doesn’t make it right, at least not on every occasion.

    PDC’s ultimate statement of what he is and what he is not was exactly the one that should have been issued at the outset, rather than the defensive nonsense we saw. It enabled some of us who initially felt uneasy to conclude that PDC’s past links with fascist symbolism and gestures probably told us relatively little about the man. There is not a hint of evidence that he has ever been a racist, and that is rare, in the world’s experience of fascism, for a true fascist. It is also crucial in influencing my own thoughts about him. I have been bashed at ESPN by fascist apologists but none has so far identified any example of a cuddly form of the doctrine in practice. Therefore, the questions raised about PDC were entirely justified. I am happy to take his belated responses at face value and congratulate him on his excellent start to his role at SAFC. But the club’s initial stance allowed a one-day wonder sort of story to rumble on for the best part of a week.

    • “..But the club’s initial stance allowed a one-day wonder sort of story to rumble on for the best part of a week.”

      A bit more than a one-day wonder, perhaps, but I take your point. I suspect SAFC’s handling of the situation will be used as a case-study of not how to handle a situation for years to come.

    • I believe what we have witnessed at Sunderland in the past few weeks shows the fickle nature of media these days, when something one did or said at Primary School can end up on Twitter…the media seem to have an attention span of a 2-year old child at times. Nobody is really talking about this now, as what happened on the pitch has claimed the headlines.

      I do not like Fascism, but during the backlash against PDC, nobody seemed to define it. One definition I learnt at college is “that the State is more important than the individual” – that shows the similarity between Nazism and Mussolini. There are parallels with the Arab Spring, which of those countries are now democratic?

      Many modern states seem to practice low-level fascism by the definition above, without using the word. I truly believe in democracy, but football is unfortunately wrapped up in all sorts of political and ethnic squabbles worldwide. The book “How Soccer Explains the World” by Franklin Foer is a great read on this topic.

      • Sorry, Lars, but you seem to be having it both ways: fascism is nasty, authoritarian and ultra-nationalistic/who are we to say it’s all that bad? You cannot leap from disapproval of events in the Arab world to the notion that fascism may be getting a raw deal.

        I never support the excesses and idiocies of the media but any attempt to blame it for the reaction to PDC’s appointment is, in my opinion, lazy and lame.

      • I don’t think you are appreciating the point I am making – it’s more about the nature of the media debate that took place, Colin. Fascism is bad in any context, no question about that, but nobody in the media really defined it, so we did not know what the debate was about.

        Given that we instead heard a lot of emotive discussion on the topic from those who were lucky enough to flee from these regimes into the freedom we enjoy in the UK. And I speak as someone whose mother endured five years of her life in Nazi occupied Norway before coming to Sunderland in the 1950s; my father’s brother disrupted life for the German army in Norway as a parachutist in the Norwegian expat force based in Scotland, supported by Churchill’s government. They are both in their 90s now and alive to tell their stories. This is a football page, but football always has a national context, which is often not the one we are lucky enough to have.

        I do observe a collective ADHD in some, but not all parts of the media. I was very much aware of the initial local backlash against PDC, but things have moved on and the crowd seemed to most observers, including myself, to be on his side after the Everton game on Saturday.

      • I do appreciate that the main thrust of your attack was on the media and, since I am a (frequently critical) part of it, you wouldn’t be surprised to see me offer a defence. Some people predictably complained that questions were asked at the first press conference and subsequent broadcast interviews. As someone who has edited, I’d have been very unpleasant to any reporter who came back to the office having failed to do so.

        I accept you did say you dislike fascism but the complaint that no one reporting on the controversy defined it seemed to me to leave it open to doubt as to whether it was really such a bad thing, necessarily, at all. And that is where we would have parted company. Your fuller views remove that doubt.

  7. I don’t believe the handling of the appointment was poor, were Sunderland expected to go on the defensive and justify their desire to give the job to PDC. They were extremely swift and had every detail in place before the anouncement. Did they see the political impact it would have had I doubt it. Had Miliband been honest with them is the question as VC did he voice his objection on political ground prior to the appointment, did he even know. His very immediate resignation points to the fact he did know, but I doubt he raise any concerns otherwise the unjustifiable onslaught that followed woul have been anticipated and we wouldn’t have been caught on the hop and all the bandwagon jumpers would not have had a voice. Miliband used this for political gain placing himself on the moral high ground and that to me in his position at the club is a huge betrayal, if he had any concerns they should have been raised in private

  8. Peter Reid’s finest achievement was keeping us in the Championship in 1996 and then getting us up the next season with a team of players who bought into his “We are all in this together” philosophy. The likes of Kubicki, Howey, Ord and Russell were able to understand what he was on about.
    This situation is different in that we have a far more cosmopolitan group of players and we have players who are not used to being in relegation situations. Cuellar, O’Shea, Sessegnon, Johnson are all winners and have been for their entire careers.
    Players need guidance and need to be told what to do. Look at how Di Canio speaks to them and tells them what to do and, more importantly, how to do it. Look how intently they listen to him. Look at the warm ups they do before the game and (for the subs) at half time. Organisation, method and careful planning.
    Young, ambitious managers bring this to a club whereas older ones fall back on what they did 20 years ago and genuinely believe that it still works. Peter Reid knows he will never be a manager again, but he knew how to press the right buttons 15 years ago.
    The game has come a long way since those days.

    • Yes, the Premiership is an entirely different beast from the late 1990s, and I was an instant admirer of Peter Reid when he brought us into the Prem. in 1997-8, and we were unluckily relegated on 40 points. It was a hand to mouth operation, and we essentially had Craig Russell, Niall Quinn (mostly injured), Thomas Hauser and a very young Michael Bridges as strikers, and I seem to remember that Kevin Ball and Russell were joint top scorers on 4 goals! The defence was outstanding though, and we won a number of of games 1-0. I am glad the Board and Bob Murray stuck with Reid, as it gave us those later glory years under him.

      The standard is much higher now and we have a really good squad, when everyone is fit. I had friends who suggested Reid could have been a caretaker now but they made a bold move with Di Canio – looks as if it is working out OK, Peter.

      Best ever football trivia question – who was the first West German to score in the Premiership? Thomas Hauser of Sunderland.

      • Hauser didn’t play in the Premiership, surely? I base this on that he was at Sunderland when I was just starting to go to Roker Park as a young kid, the Gates and Gabbiadini era.

        Premier League started in 92 or 93? It was 96 when went up and I was fifteen by then, I can safely remember that Hauser was nowhere near Sunderland at this point. Russell, Stewart, Mullin, Bridges and Quinn from my memory.

      • Goldy – you are right.

        I just checked on the great Sunderland stats page, and he did pre-date the Premiership – see

        On 27 May 1992 the FA Premier League was formed, and Hauser was a Sunderland player from 1989-91. He scored once in the first division

        So the best ever football trivia question – who was the first West German to score in the top league in England? Thomas Hauser of Sunderland.

        He predated Jürgen Klinsmann’s stay at Spurs from 1994-95.

      • Actually I forgot about Paul Stewart who Peter Reid brought in on a free – he joint top-scored with Russell on 4 goals. Bridges and Ball each had 3 – not great stats for a Premiership season. Amazing that we got to 40 points!

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