From the archives: as John O’Shea departs, let’s look back at looking at Paolo

'You decide,' as Jake used to say. But is there a middle ground?
‘You decide,’ as Jake used to say. But is there a middle ground?

Monsieur Salut writes: Pete Sixsmith’s piece on the departures of John O’Shea, Robbie Stockdale and Adrian Tucker – a fond farewell but measured and excellently argued – got one or two talking about Paolo Di Canio. ‘JoS stood up to the ridiculous bullying of Di Canio,’ Pete wrote. Jeff, in response, felt PDC went ‘because players didn’t want to work hard and John was part of that’.

I have a good anecdote that concerns the infamous drinking culture at the club and supports the Sixer view of John O’Shea, but it is probably not one I can yet share without my informant’s consent. Ken Gambles, however, reminds me of a piece he wrote here back in 2014, at the time of the controversy about PDC’s man-management techniques and that can be repeated ….

Is it possible to believe both that Ellis Short was utterly right to dismiss Paolo Di Canio when he did and that not every scathing appraisal of PDC was fair? Ken Gambles regards the merits of the sacking to be proper ground for debate but finds unjust and unpleasant the almost cliched view of the Italian as a man not quite right in the head …

Oh no! Not Paolo revisited, you may be thinking.

Well, I don’t write this with the intention of re-opening the PDC debate, for certainly attitudes are deeply entrenched. Merely I make an attempt to be fair to the man without recourse to kneejerk sloganising. A bit of a reconsideration, if you like, now that the dust has settled.

The one aspect of the anti-Paolo camp I find particularly unpleasant is the sobriquet “lunatic” which is on a parallel with that Conservative mantra about “the mess Labour left us with”.

Both statements have the intention of stopping any debate as if they are self-evident truths when, in fact, the reality is far more complex. Whenever I hear the terms mentioned I immediately sense that the speaker’s argument is superficial.

So why “lunatic”? Volatile, certainly and – as his chairman at Swindon – said “management by hand grenade”. Yes, he was determined to be in control and was clearly opinionated, but these traits have been common in other managers such as Clough, Ferguson and Mourinho and no one calls them “lunatics”. I feel the term is an undeserved one.

Is he “lunatic” because he banned tomato sauce perhaps? Well not really; diet and nutrition are key elements in full fitness, and surely this was making the point about being careful with food, especially too much salt and too much sugar. Even “Victorian” Sam Allardyce was very keen on nutrition when he was at Bolton.

Perhaps he was “lunatic”, then, for stopping players laughing, as reported by Fletcher. Of course the context isn’t known but I suspect if a schoolboy maintained “we weren’t allowed to laugh at school” what he’d really mean is that during lessons and assemblies etc, disruptive behaviour and fooling about were forbidden.

The ostracism of Phil Bardsley was considered another “lunatic” thing to do, and I agree that Bardsley did later make an important contribution to the season. But I wonder how many people would have felt the same as Di Canio, especially following Bardsley’s “Ha-ha” Instagram message after the opening-day Fulham defeat?

Younger players not being allowed to share the facilities at the same time as first team players was also held to be a sign of lunacy. Yet other such “lunatics” as Don Howe at a very successful Arsenal felt younger players had to earn the privileges granted to senior players, which to me seems fair enough.

If you don’t like Di Canio’s politics, feel he did a bad job, left the club with major problems then fair enough. Those are opinions that can be argued about but please, he was not a “lunatic”.

Our very own Sunderland-supporting Louise Taylor, the excellent North-eastern football correspondent of The Guardian who met him almost every day, said he was most personable, a witty and intelligent man. All right, he possibly said too much for his own good and wore his heart on his sleeve (which I found refreshing) but that is hardly lunacy and surely the club could have prevented him saying too much if they had managed the press conferences more professionally.

Surely there is no doubt that there was a campaign against him in the media following the “fascism” furore after Miliband’s resignation, which does incidentally show the same bias as in “Labour’s mess” so that any sensible analysis becomes clouded by an agenda. To some extent the bad press is still there: witness the speculation about Poyet leaving and of course the Ji/points deduction farrago (whatever happened to that campaign?).

On paper Di Canio’s record looks poor but with no Fletcher, a 10-man comeback to draw with Stoke and a good performance at Spurs with a lightweight side showed real resilience, then followed by promising pre-season performances in Hong Kong. OK the Villa game was an embarrassment, but we’ve had plenty of those this yea, too.

As for the transfer dealings this summer perhaps one day we will genuinely find out who had the final say. If it was Di Canio then he quickly realised the paucity of his squad and was desperate for “an English mid-fielder” and better quality overall. Training must have improved because we have looked much fitter and have suffered far fewer injuries. Even Wes Brown played for most of it! And yes we bought some duds, but the acquisitions of Mannone, and Ki and Borini on loan, were crucial in the final analysis. A number of the players bought were for the future anyway.

This is beginning to sound like an apologia for the man when really all I wish to do is to offer a more balanced perspective. I suspect some of the “dislikes” this piece may attract will say it’s me that’s unbalanced, but so be it.

We did survive this season and it did feel like a miracle. Although some still doubt Gus, I sincerely hope he has more control next season and more of the players he wants. I remain optimistic.

Meanwhile, Paolo Di Canio’s tenure at the club still splits the support, though more and more seem to fall back on the shorthand kneejerk idea that he was indeed a “lunatic”. There are powerful arguments to be made on both sides of the more reasoned debate, but it is more complex than the simplistic sloganising that does no one any favours. To call him a “lunatic”, well you must be mad.

Ken Gambles: a plea for reason
Ken Gambles: a plea for reason


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* This was Jeff’s reponse:

As always, a brilliant piece BUT….. the reference to PDC annoys me.
If he had been allowed to carry on what he was trying to do we would surely have been relegated that season but in my view, would have been back better and stronger than ever by now.
What he did was to get the players working hard, extra training, coming in on a Sunday… getting fit!!! I always remember his reply to the question, “if you are getting the players fit why aren’t you winning matches?”. His answer “you won’t see the results of this fitness work till Christmas” and was he right???? Remember us getting to Wembley by running both Chelsea and Man Utd off the park in extra time?
He was criticized for stopping tomato ketchup…. No ketchup at Real Madrid or Barcelona or Man City etc etc.
He was trying to sort us out pretty much like what is happening now… getting rid of Cattermole for smashing cars up in Newcastle, getting rid of Beardsley for lying drunk covered in £50 notes.
O’Shea helped get rid of him when he could of been our savior and should hang his head in shame, lovely guy that he is.
I do have to qualify this emotional ramble by adding that DiFanti ( not sure about the spelling but you know who I mean) could have jeopardized everything.
In closing, Leeds lost Clough and I have a bit of a niggle that we might have done the same thing with PDC because players didn’t want to work hard and John was part of that.
Love this site though!!

M Salut then tweeted as follows – and several SAFC-supporting followers posted ‘likes’ …

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