It seems almost as if an age has passed since Paolo Di Canio was appointed as the new Sunderland manager to steer the club away from relegation, with Martin O’Neill quickly becoming a forgotten man due to the Italian securing two victories out of his first four games.
He was initially criticised for his political beliefs and self declaration of being a fascist, but with vital wins over Newcastle and Everton, a consensus has emerged that Di Canio’s energy and vibrancy has rubbed off on the players enough to give the Black Cats a good chance at maintaining their Premier League status.
It may well provide the feel-good factor and instantaneous honey-moon period that often accompanies a new manager, but seeing as the Sunderland board granted the former West Ham man a two and half year contract, it begs the question as to whether the decision was made amid a knee-jerk reaction, or if the long-term implications of such a controversial and hasty appointment were truly considered.
So far, you’d argue that Di Canio’s incredibly short tenure has gone rather well, despite their recent 6-1 drubbing at the hands of Aston Villa. Sunderland have netted six times during the 44-year-old’s four games in charge, a stark improvement on their previous ratio of less than a goal per game, and similarly, taking six points out of a possible twelve is the level of progress required from them at this point in the season, in comparison to the Wear-side club picking up just seven victories prior to Di Canio taking over at the Stadium of Light.
Should the former player successfully lead his new club away from relegation, he of course deserves the right to continue his tenure next season, with the privilege of the transfer window to mould the squad within his own vision of how to take Sunderland forward. Yet, I have a lingering concern that the Italian, no matter how well the team perform on the pitch, is a ticking time-bomb with complete catastrophe only around the corner.
The fact is, his managerial credentials are sufficiently limited in the grand scheme of things. Di Canio’s only experience as a head coach prior to becoming Sunderland boss is his incredibly successful two years at Swindon Town, where he lead the club out of League Two, and furthermore, until his controversial resignation earlier this year, had The Robins in line for a potential consecutive promotion into the Championship.
But in comparison to his predecessor, Martin O’Neill, or the other managers in the dog fight at the foot of the Premier League table, the Italian’s achievements are minimal, and thus I have my doubts as to whether Sunderland’s recent rise in form is due to any particular capability on Di Canio’s part or simply the typical effect of players desperate to impress a new manager.
Furthermore, the Italian was offered the job predominantly out of his self-created availability, having resigned as Swindon boss after falling out with the chairman over the club’s financial problems and the threat of administration. At the time, alternatives were few and far between, with Nigel Adkins opting to join up with Reading and others deterred by Sunderland’s controversial timing of relieving O’Neill from his duties.
Di Canio’s managerial ability however is not my only concern. Although I will always defend the Black Cats gaffer’s right to his own political preferences, as indeed prejudicing against them in the form that many critics suggested of barring him from the English top flight is in itself a fascist notion due to its forbidding of a man’s political freedoms, you get the feeling it will not be long before the issue re-emerges. The difference between racism and fascism has not been fairly documented and debated in the media in regards to Di Canio’s views, and we are no doubt one authoritarian statement or murmuring of a discipline over-kill at Sunderland’s training ground away from the former Lazio forward’s beliefs once again becoming back page news.
Most worrying however, is Di Canio’s personality, and whether it is suited to the Premier League. He appears to have dropped the passionately rash and dramatic displays of literally kicking his players up the backside and subbing off his goalkeeper after just 21 minutes that were in heavy supply during his days at Swindon, yet his addiction to the limelight remains.
He’s desperate to make it into the photo opportunities – rushing to his players to celebrate upon almost every goal scored by the Black Cats and walking around with his arms aloft after every victory as if to funnel the supporters’ adoration into his soul – and doggedly determined in every press interview to come across well-informed and surprisingly educated, in a bid to assert that there is some logic to the madness.
While you might argue that it is simply the man’s passion for the game, an admirable attribute indeed, and furthermore, there are plenty Premier League prima-donnas, too concerned with their trendy haircuts and evidence of a healthy tan rather than focusing on their trade, that deserve a kick up the bum to keep them in check, there is a dangerous flipside that is exactly why Di Canio’s style of management makes him such a rare breed.
The glory hunting, the desire to be the centre of attention, and the moments of controversy and drama, all add up to taking the attention away from the team. Although in some instances, this can be incredibly beneficial, and a tactic often used by Jose Mourinho, utilising his reputation, charisma and enigmatic personality to deflect the media circus away from his players, the negative effect can be a trend of the manager taking full responsibility for the team’s successes, but at the same time, holding the players to account for failure and distancing himself from defeats, already shown by his apparent blasting of the Sunderland squad following their 6-1 loss on Monday night, according to Alfred N’Diaye and Sky Sports News.
Perhaps I am judging Di Canio too soon, I am charging him with incompetence, arrogance and controversy, without actually having committed a crime. But the warning signs are already there that his occupancy as Sunderland boss will end in tears, and the Italian, due to his passion, personality, style of leadership and political views, is very much an accident waiting to happen.
But my criticism is not of him, it is rather the Sunderland board. They are yet again a shining example of another club jumping the gun, and believing hiring and firing without long-term consideration will bring success, despite it being a naturally short-term solution to a long-existing problem.
The desperation is embarrassing, the lack of respect in regards to Martin O’Neill by disallowing him the opportunity to prove himself – a right he surely deserves based upon his credentials, reputation and prior successes – is shocking, and the hastiness of Di Canio’s appointment, with little consideration for next season, or the year after, is truly worrying.
When the Italian’s tenure ends in even speedier and more outlandish circumstances than its incarnation, do not be surprised.