John McCormick writes:
Malcolm Dawson was editing this but to save an unavoidable delay I’ve stepped in to finish. Those of you who are as old as Malcolm and myself might remember a rock band by the name of Ten Years After, one of whose albums was entitled Positive Vibrations. This tenuous fact allows me to introduce a new writer, Michael Lough*, who Ten Years After his first visit to the SoL (or was it Roker? Work it out for yourselves), puts pen to paper to bring you his thoughts. Does he have positive vibrations? Make your own mind up as you get to grips with Michael’s take on the media’s response to the hiring and firing of Paolo Di Canio:
From the moment Paolo Di Canio was named the new head coach at Sunderland, the media, particularly left-wing tabloids and broadsheets, decided he was doomed to failure …
Pat Murphy, the Midlands football correspondent for BBC Radio 5 live and conveniently renowned for being Martin O’Neil’s most trusted media ally, stated that Black Cat’s fans had boycotted the Stadium in their thousands.
Seemingly, every left-wing politician or group became an expert on Di Canio’s personal beliefs and Sunderland became the target of much disdain throughout among football supporters and non-followers alike.
The biggest example of this was the political opportunism of David Miliband in resigning from the club in mock, moral indignation at the appointment and the elaborate demands of David Hopper, leader of the Durham Miners Association to get its flag back from the Stadium of Light.
This was music to the ears of the press and they instantly started claiming that all SAFC fans were against the appointment on political grounds. From then on, they have took great delight in informing us all that Di Canio’s “radical” new methods wouldn’t work. So, naturally, now Di Canio’s coined “revolution” has ended in the premature sacking of the confrontational Italian, they have took great delight in saying, “I told you so”. Of course, they were ultimately right, but not for the reasons that they highlighted.
Firstly: the Daily Star’s headline on September 28 stated, “Sunderland caretaker-boss Kevin Ball shows his bottle”. This of course is a reference to the now infamous “Ketchupgate”, PDC having banned Ketchup, coffee and mobile phones from the Academy of Light. So, Kevin Ball has now allowed players to consume such items and use their phones, that surely means he’s a certainty to get the job (or not).
Surely, the only newsworthy story to arise from the Ketchup ban was that it wasn’t already banned in the first place, especially in this era of sports science and strict dietary regimes.
Do people really think that players such as John O’Shea, who was believed to have led the “revolt” against Di Canio, the same John O’Shea who played under the ultimate disciplinarian, Sir Alex Ferguson, for much of his career, would be so annoyed over a lack of Ketchup in his system? I highly doubt it.
This is also true with regards to the Italian’s fitness regime, many of the players have played under managers before Di Canio who are also harsh on fitness and discipline. Usually, when a manager implements strict dietary requirements and gruelling training schedules, he is praised for his “refreshing” attitude. But evidently not in the case of Di Canio.
The reality is that the players would have tolerated being made to be ultra-professional under his reign if results had been more favourable. Di Canio was sacked as a result of shocking displays against Crystal Palace and West Brom and for his tactical naivety – and yes, man-management was obviously a key part of it. However, it was his constant refusal to blame anyone but himself for the Wearsiders’ abysmal start to the season and his continuous public criticisms of his players, as well as some bizarre behaviour in the aftermath of the West Brom match, which ultimately cost Di Canio his job. Public criticism of players can occasionally serve a purpose up to a point by getting a reaction out of them. But if a boss resorts to this week after week, surely it becomes counterproductive.
I believe that Di Canio’s departure was indeed hastened by his strict methods. But the writing was on the wall because of some bizarre decision-making. A prime example was his sometimes inexplicable team selection. When Cabral joined Sunderland from Basel, he was expected to be a superior version of Alfred N’Diaye, a combative midfielder capable of playing a holding role and having the ability to get forward when appropriate.
During pre-season, this looked to be the case and a good performance vs Fulham on the opening day was further proof of his credentials. However, without proper explanation, he was simply dropped and hasn’t started a league game for Sunderland since.
Instead, Di Canio preferred to play David Vaughan, Seb Larsson or Craig Gardner in the central midfield role, recalling frozen-out Lee Cattermole only out of desperation in the second half versus West Brom. This left Sunderland’s back four woefully unprotected as the centre of midfield failed to provide them with adequate cover. This was just one example of Di Canio’s naivety; he also had a tendency to drop a player after only one mistake, Roberge providing an example of this.
Certain members of the press did highlight some of these points. However, I have found that, in the main, lazy judgements were reached on why Di Canio was sacked. The Ketchup story, while always being intended as light-hearted, still makes Sunderland’ players sound pampered. People could also gain the impression that player power was being exercised in the extreme. In reality, the extent of the problems ran far deeper than a lack of Heinz produce on the training ground.
* Michael Lough on himself:
I’m 18, a Sunderland season card holder from Tow Law I’m currently living in Pallion and studying sport journalism at the University of Sunderland. I’ve been regularly attending Sunderland matches since 2003, my first game being the infamous 3-1 home defeat to Charlton Athletic, a real baptism of fire. Despite the worst possible start to my Sunderland supporting life it didn’t put me off and after many years of regular attending, I took the plunge and bought my first season card for the 2009-10 season. My favourite game of my time as a fan has to be the 3-2 win over Burnley which all but secured promotion to the Premier League. Supporting Sunderland is a certainly a struggle and there’s certainly always plenty to debate and discuss, which is partly what to inspired me to start writing about football and Sunderland AFC.