PAOLO DI CANIO faces his first taste of a Tyne-Wear derby this weekend, with the extra burden of Sunderland’s increasingly precarious position in the relegation dogfight.
But, far from being daunted by the prospect, Sunderland’s head coach is relishing the responsibility of carrying Wearside’s expectations, as CHRIS YOUNG discovered.
PAOLO DI CANIO has done his homework.
The Italian needs no briefing about Sunderland’s appalling recent record against the neighbours or their knack of wilting in the derby cauldron.
“The last time we won away was in November 2000 with (Niall) Quinn and (Don) Hutchison. That’s too far,” he says without any prompting.
“This is the time to renew the moment ... and then win again next year and the year after that.”
Watching Di Canio gesticulate with every sinew to convey his passion – at one point he stretches out his arms and demands of his players “the heart has to be big like this” – there is no hint of trepidation or fear at the white-hot atmosphere awaiting at St James’s Park on Sunday.
His predecessor plus one, Steve Bruce, was paralysed by the pressure which came with derby day and his need to banish the doubts over his heritage once and for all.
It transferred to his players and Sunderland trudged away from Tyneside with their heaviest defeat against the neighbours since the 1950s.
Martin O’Neill enjoyed the occasion far more, particularly after experiencing the similar razzmatazz of the Old Firm.
But while O’Neill would always concede it was a “big game”, there was never any hint of addressing the galleries with bold, big statements.
With Di Canio, any accusation of under-playing the occasion is laughable.
The 44-year-old delivers a monologue of pure, unedited desire to see Sunderland deliver sheer ecstasy to their supporters – almost five years since the last success against the Magpies.
If Di Canio had not been on Wearside for less than two weeks and if his chat wasn’t delivered through a thick Italian accent, he could almost be boasting the teenage enthusiasm of one born a stone’s throw from the Stadium of Light.
“The derby, is the derby, it still counts for three points, not six points,” he said.
“But it counts in terms of dignity, honour and pride for 2,000 games.
“Especially away from home, it would be fantastic to allow our fans to celebrate in their houses.
“Obviously we need three points, but the most important thing is for red and white scarves to be celebrating.
“Then it would be a day to remember for many years.
“It’s a time to give satisfaction.
“We have the quality to beat them and we have to feel the confidence that we have the team to beat them.
“The people have to see that we are the best warriors for them and fight for them.
“It’s similar to when you’re playing in a cup final because there is a target that is close.
“You know that if you win, the people will celebrate into the night and they will remember it for another 10 years.”
Di Canio enters the room wearing a thick smile and soon reveals it stems from the encouraging signs on the training ground over the last two days.
He believes his players already appreciate the gravity of Sunday’s game, describing his job in overseeing Sunderland’s challenge as “easy”.
Di Canio said: “For some of my players, they have already got it. They have a joke: ‘Are you a Geordie? Are you a Mackem?’
“It’s good to see them smile to reduce the tension.
“But, for me, it’s easy to prepare this game.
“You need a strategy and the tactics over how you go into it, but you also need 100 per cent commitment.
“I can already see the fire in them and that’s made me smile.
“I’m positive in general, but in this environment, with the quality we’ve got, I’m very happy.
“As a player and now as a manager, this is the stage you wait for.
“I can’t imagine they won’t give their best, but I’m sure they’ll give much more than their best.
“So because of this I’m fully confident.”
Di Canio has also tried to convey the importance of the occasion to Sunderland’s overseas imports, with midfielder Alfred N’Diaye the predominant figure facing his derby debut.
“We have to feel the responsibility,” said the head coach.
“Those who have come from other countries, I ask them ‘Were you a fan when you were young?’. They say ‘yes’.
“So I presume they know the feeling of a local derby and they need to feel the same on Sunday.
“It doesn’t mean we have to go overboard, but it means we have to feel responsibility because there are people who hope we win this weekend.”
While Di Canio’s message revolves around the need for passion and desire, he is also aware of the dangers of over-exuberance.
Stephane Sessegnon’s red card in last season’s corresponding fixture arguably cost Sunderland all three points at St James’s Park.
And although Newcastle’s Cheik Tiote was the player dismissed in October’s meeting between the two clubs, Sunderland had collected four red cards in the previous derby encounters.
“Obviously we have to be intelligent,” added Di Canio.
“I study the character of my players and tell some to have fire and then others to be calm and breathe.
“I know what’s happened in the last few derbies, there’s been incidents on the field.
“We know the psychological way to work with our players.
“If we do the best we can, then we’re going to win.
“If we don’t go there with maximum desire and maximum passion, then we need a psychiatric clinic!”