Sunderland: The Uncertainty Of Di Canio

There's a fairly good reason why Paolo di Canio, a man appointed in March, is fourth-favourite to lose his job. Philip Cornwall's latest season preview looks at Sunderland...

Last Updated: 06/08/13 at 15:24 Post Comment

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Premier League17th FA Cup third round League Cup fourth round

Manager Paolo Di Canio (since March 2013) Odds on being first out of his job 10-1 (4th=)

Players in Jozy Altidore (Alkmaar, £6.5m), Emanuele Giaccherini (Juventus, £6.5m), David Moberg-Karlsson (IFK Gothenburg, £1.5m), Vito Mannone (Arsenal, £1.5m), El Hadji Ba (Le Havre, £380,000), Modibo Diakite (Lazio, free), Adilson Cabral (Basel, free), Valentin Roberge (Maritimo, free)

Players out Simon Mignolet (Liverpool, £9m), Danny Rose (Tottenham, end of loan), Ahmed Elmohamady (Hull, £2m from loan), Matt Kilgallon (Blackburn, free), Alfred N'Diaye (Eskisehirspor, loan), Danny Graham (Hull, loan), Titus Bramble (released)

Club turnover in 2011-12 £78m (11th)

Handicap betting to win Premier League +38 points (14th=)

Paolo Di Canio was a volcanic presence on the Sunderland touchline in the closing weeks of last season and he has been no less active this summer. If Martin O'Neill happened to drop in on one of Sunderland's opening games of this season he would struggle to recognise the home team from the one he was in charge of for 16 months until the end of March. The scale of changes make it difficult to predict how they will fare this season - though it should be confessed that not a very good job was done of that last year.

After replacing Steve Bruce, O'Neill seemed to have reinvigorated Sunderland, with form that across a full season would suggest progress to eighth place and I expected them to be the right side of halfway, at least away from the strugglers. Instead his team lost their way and he lost his job, on 30 March, with the team 16th, having picked up 31 points from 31 games.

Di Canio's appointment attracted all sorts of attention, much of it a surprise to Ellis Short and the Sunderland board. More of the fascism furore in a minute but the noise generated distracted from analysis of the job done: at the end of the season, they had 39 from 38, a marginal improvement on O'Neill's 2012-13 record. Replicated across a full season, eight points from seven games would suggest a total of 43-44, barely worth writing home about. Indeed, Di Canio's success was largely dependent on a single game that added to the obfuscation: the 3-0 victory at Newcastle was critical in winning over supporters and in securing Premier League status. Only one further victory, at home to Everton, followed and a 6-1 thumping by Aston Villa helped another former O'Neill club finish above his most recent ex-employers.

Di Canio's achievements at Swindon - the League Two title, runners-up in the Johnstone's Paint Trophy, a League One play-off spot at the time of his resignation - were more than could be reasonably demanded of him. As a top-flight manager, though, the evidence is too scant.

He certainly likes to keep busy. Out have gone Simon Mignolet for Liverpool's irresistible £9m and, equally damaging, Danny Rose has gone back to Spurs. But recruits this summer include signings from Italian, English, Dutch, Swiss, Portuguese, French and Swedish teams, most notably the striker Jozy Altidore from Alkmaar and the winger Emanuele Giaccherini from Juventus at £6.5m each. More are on the way and Di Canio has been happy to defend this approach: "We knew before that we were going to make a revolution. Obviously, the numbers were as important as the quality." That smacks of change for change's sake, a criticism that could also be levelled at the replacement of O'Neill with a relatively untried manager.

What of the storm over Di Canio's far-right links? First, the fact that he received largely sympathetic coverage as a "colourful" character when at Swindon largely explains the Sunderland board's bewilderment at the backlash. The attention spans of the media as well as of teenagers are inadequate these days and the unsavoury nature of some of his acts and opinions had been forgotten when he was in a backwater. On my way back from England's game with San Marino I changed trains at Bologna, and saw there the plaque commemorating the victims of the 1980 railway station bombing that killed 85 people; in 2010 Di Canio attended the funeral of Paolo Signorelli, who was jailed for eight years for his complicity in this piece of fascist terrorism. Signorelli won an appeal against that conviction but not against others related to violent overthrow of the state; and the pictures from his funeral show mourners using the fascist salute. The fact that the GNM union withdrew its support from Swindon over Di Canio's politics was not widely known because League Two clubs struggle to command the attention of the national media even when they have a famous manager, but the protests at Sunderland were not novel developments.

The precise details of his opinions remain opaque; the presence of a tattoo with the Latin version of Mussolini's title is clear enough. So, too, is the difference between what is acceptable in Italy and what is expected here. In Sunderland's corner of England, the Northern League is the competition in which Bishop Auckland, Billingham Sythonia and Ashington play football; in Di Canio's homeland the Northern League - or at least the Lega Nord - is a political party one of whose senators can compare the country's first black minister to an orang-utan and get away with calling it a "friendly joke".

With all the changes and the manager's lack of top-flight experience, Sunderland's future is in some ways hard to forecast. But throughout his career Di Canio has never strayed too far from controversy and, though he usually lasted a couple of seasons or so, he was certainly much-travelled as a player. There are reasons why the bookies rate a manager appointed in March as joint fourth favourite to be the first out of his job.

Sunderland's August is reasonably generous, with a home game against Fulham followed by trips to Southampton and Crystal Palace, but the autumn matches at the Stadium of Light offer opportunity and danger: Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United, Newcastle and Manchester City are the next five visitors. Whatever happens in those games and whatever you think of Di Canio, his reactions are likely to be worth watching.

Philip Cornwall

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