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 http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/football/21496692, 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.
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.