Sunderland gambles on former self-proclaimed 'fascist' Di Canio
It's quiz time! Your club is one point outside of the relegation zone and sinking fast. Do you:
a) call your players and coaching staff together for an energetic pep talk
b) sit in the dark and allow a few tears to roll down your cheeks and into your single malt
c) sack the manager and appoint a man of whom the newspapers have plenty of stock images -- you know, the ones in which he is giving a straight-armed salute
Sunderland's move this week -- sacking Martin O'Neill and his coaching team and replacing them with former Swindon Town manager (and until-very-recently self-proclaimed "fascist") Paolo di Canio and his backroom staff -- is either one of the worst ideas ever, or a masterstroke.
A terrible idea because the club has had to spend 99 percent of its time since making the appointment managing the brouhaha that has followed; the furor may not have been entirely reasonable or indeed sincere (Di Canio has, after all, been managing in the lower leagues for two years without anything like this discussion, even after the GMB trade union withdrew its sponsorship of Swindon), but it was arguably predictable.
Sunderland's precipitous slide -- from 11th place to 16th in two calamitous, winless months -- was unlikely to go unspoken about in the wake of that painfully meek 1-0 defeat to Manchester United at the Stadium of Light last weekend, but front- and back-page stories are an unwelcome spotlight for a club with seven matches left to save itself, and none of them easy. Saturday: Chelsea. After that: the derby against Newcastle United, at St James' Park, and then Everton. And after that come meetings with Aston Villa, Stoke City and Southampton. "Six-pointers," as things stand. All of them now pushed up the news agenda, cranking up the atmospheric pressure.
Di Canio's arrival alienated at a stroke a section of Sunderland's support, with the Durham Miners' Association (DMA) removing its banner from the stadium and David Miliband resigning from the board in reaction. The trouble with going about calling yourself a fascist is that, even if people suspect it is underpinned less by ideology than by a need to bond with supporters (Silvio Berlusconi described Di Canio, banned for one match after the infamous salute to Lazio's ultras, as an "exhibitionist"), they must consider how the idea stands with their principles. Even if the appointment does not gnaw at their insides, how can they fail to make an issue of Di Canio's previous declarations?
"The club is there to play football, but it has built a very, very good name as a community club," said Dave Hopper, of the DMA. "It's record working with the community and on racism is second to none. ... Now that good name has been tarnished."
The headlines this week may have made merry with proportion but the Dean of Durham's open letter on the topic captured the problem. It is not normal for former teammates of a new manager to have to make calls to the club's black players to reassure them. And though former West Ham teammate Trevor Sinclair said he was happy to vouch for Di Canio -- "Paolo's comments should be taken with a pinch of salt because he's as mad as a hatter" -- he also urged the new Sunderland manager to clarify his beliefs.
Di Canio took his time about it, walking out of a press conference earlier in the week having refused to answer further questions on the topic, but did on Wednesday issue a statement through the club's website.
"I am not political, I do not affiliate myself to any organisation, I am not a racist and I do not support the ideology of fascism," read the key sentence. "I respect everyone."
Such statements are not generally the mark of a recruitment masterstroke, and perhaps this will turn out simply to be a messy highlight in an otherwise mediocre slump into the second tier, but let's see how the case holds up.
While Di Canio has been fielding questions about fascism, he has not had to go in to too much detail about how he plans on getting Sunderland out of trouble (and it is in trouble; with key players out of form or injured, there has been no sign of the verve that characterized O'Neill's early matches in charge). The press has focused almost completely on the new manager rather than underperforming players, and Di Canio is the sort to absorb all that heat happily. His message to Sunderland fans -- "they have a manager who will work 26 hours per day" -- sounds like a platitude, but he was devoted to Swindon. He joined volunteers clearing the pitch of snow ahead of a match in January, and offered personally to fund three players' wages if it meant keeping them at the club.
Despite his success with Swindon, Di Canio is not really a manager who has been on the express train to the Premier League; his appointment smacks of a club desperately seeking an injection of fire, of passion. The former West Ham player once described scoring against Manchester United in the FA Cup as "like having sex with Madonna," and has said that "talent without attitude is nothing." If survival is to be had from Sunderland's difficult run-in, spirit must play a part, as it did in the best of O'Neill's results there.
"I have passion and sometimes when the players are tired they really need to hear your voice, to encourage them, or give instructions," he said. In recent weeks O'Neill's usual pitchside exuberance (there cannot have been a headed goal that he hasn't also nodded in) had faded entirely.
"[Di Canio]'s come in and everything has just been turned upside down so quickly," said Adam Johnson, one of the players looking to rediscover his best form. "He's full of enthusiasm and energy, he demands the best from his players. That's probably what we need."
Di Canio has said that he will be no different as manager of Sunderland, despite the leap from third division to first: if players underperform they can expect to find themselves on the bench, even if that means being taken off in the first half. They can expect the usual manhandling if the manager thinks they need to be reminded of what's at stake. They can expect the same affection if things go well.
Will they? Under siege is the sort of working condition that suits Di Canio down to the ground, but we will have to wait and see if the same can be said for Sunderland.