A HEADMASTERLY air has hung around Paolo Di Canio this week.
With Sunderland’s Premier League status assured, Di Canio has added an entire new chapter to the rule book at the Academy of light.
Discipline is the head coach’s watchword.
Holidays will be slashed if Sunderland mentally hit the beach prior to Sunday’s final game at Spurs, while Di Canio has taken a swipe at Connor Wickham; warning the England Under-21 striker of the dangers of leading a “playboy” lifestyle.
Unsurprisingly, supporters have welcomed Di Canio’s message, hailing a manager prepared to burst the pampered bubble of a modern Premier League footballer.
Whether all of Sunderland’s players respond as positively remains to be seen.
But motivating a group of young millionaires is the big quandary of top flight management today.
Unless players are working in the win-at-all-costs environment of a Manchester United or Barcelona, a complacency can and does set in among Premier League performers, who are often financially secure for life by the time they reach their mid-20s.
Di Canio discovered the dangers stemming from football’s trappings, even when he was operating in the more humble surroundings of League One or Two with Swindon Town.
Now that the Italian is managing in the top flight, he admits that players need guidelines and boundaries to ensure their careers remain on track.
“It’s obvious that it’s easy to lose a sense of reality when you are 20 and have got £600,000 or £700,000 from nothing,” said Di Canio.
“I found it difficult in League Two. People with no money, even when they got £1,000 per week, £4,000 per month, there was a big change.
“They had a new Mercedes straight away.
“You can imagine it even more at this level.
“You can imagine when they are 20 years of age, blue eyes, look like Brad Pitt, have a car and are single!
“It’s really difficult and we have to help them.
“We know we have to be intelligent and help them to understand to behave as a professional.
“Many of them need help, otherwise they will burn their potential out in a few years.
“We have to make sure they change their mentality, otherwise it’s really, really difficult. But we can do this.”
Di Canio believes the cult of celebrity which has accompanied the Premier League era is partly to blame for players becoming more notorious on the front pages, than on the back.
The 44-year-old reflects back to his own formative days, coming through the ranks at Lazio, when players would be lambasted for leaving the confines of their home or the training pitch.
“Football is now big business, not like in the past,” he said.
“We’re never going to stop this kind of attitude from outside.
“In the 80s in Italy, if you used to go out on a Wednesday night at 10pm and the people saw you sitting at the table in a restaurant with your family, you were a bad professional.
“You had to stay at home to recover.
“Now, the people ask for the player to join the party or the sponsors’ party, even on a Thursday night.
“I discovered here in a crucial week of the season that I had to cancel a meeting to the horse-racing. When do we train then?”
Di Canio is keen to avoid tarring all players with the same brush though.
The Sunderland boss stresses that there are several model professionals at his disposal at the Stadium of Light.
Stand-in skipper John O’Shea ranks high in Di Canio’s estimation after the Ireland international learned his trade under Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford.
But Di Canio also praises Sunderland academy product Jack Colback for his dedication on the training field.
“It’s not only footballers and not all of them behave like this,” added Di Canio. “There are many fantastic professionals, like John O’Shea.
“And even the younger ones too.
“Jack is a typical young lad, but when he trains, he is one of the best professionals.
“He is really focused, wants to improve and is really intelligent.
“You can see it reflect in his football.
“Forget the individual’s quality in terms of technique, but you can see he’s got hunger and wants to become a winner and stay at the top for many years.”