Graeme Anderson feature: Don’t mention the F word – unless it’s football

Paolo Di Canio meets the media at the Academy of Light after his appointment as new Sunderland manager.
Paolo Di Canio meets the media at the Academy of Light after his appointment as new Sunderland manager.
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PAOLO Di Canio met the media for the first time yesterday in his new role as Sunderland head coach and, like so much else since his appointment, it did not go smoothly.

GRAEME ANDERSON reflects on a dramatic day and what the future holds now.

I THINK the one thing we can all agree on – and there’s been precious little agreement around Sunderland in the last 72 hours – is that this is a mess.

One awful, massive mess.

Even Paolo Di Canio would nod his head at that.

And all we can do – in the wake of so many unfavourable headlines and a difficult situation still unresolved – is wait to see how this plays out, because it is about politics now as well as football, and a week is a long time in both.

No one involved in his appointment appears to have seen this coming.

Not owner Ellis Short, who one suspects will have been stunned to see the club portrayed so destructively on the front and back pages of English newspapers.

Not chief executive Margaret Byrne, whose quotes in a club statement on Monday left her open to accusations of burying her head in the sand when she claimed: “to accuse him of having fascist sympathies is insulting not only to him but also to this football club.”

This at a time when the rest of the world was poring over the comment: “I am a fascist, not a racist” that the new head coach undoubtedly made.

Not the club’s PR department, who have been in the eye of the storm and who have been criticised both for the Byrne statement, and to the insistence – always going to be ignored – that the media should not ask about Di Canio’s political views.

And finally, not Vice Chairman David Miliband, whose resignation undoubtedly escalated the scrutiny of Di Canio’s political views.

At a stroke, the former foreign secretary’s announcement upped the ante dramatically.

It shifted Di Canio’s image from footballing maestro and eccentric oddball who may have questionable politics, to that of the face of fascism in football.

Miliband himself has probably been taken aback by the level of criticism directed at Di Canio and Sunderland, and seems to be repositioning himself by making clear he holds no animosity towards the Italian personally.

In light of comments Di Canio has previously made, Miliband was well within his rights to resign – his Jewish family having arrived on these shores in 1940 as refugees fleeing the forces of fascism – even if the Italian’s supporters would argue that much of what he has said has been taken out of context.

Just as unfortunate from the club’s point of view but equally understandable, is the reaction of the Durham NUM in asking for their colliery banners back because they do not want to be associated with the new head coach.

Equally as sad, but also predictable, is the reaction of many decent, stalwart Sunderland fans – typified by Dave Bowman, founder of Greater Manchester SAFC Supporters’ Association – who plan not to go games while Di Canio remains in charge.

This is the way of the world – politics divides, where football unites – and the need for the club to move itself on from the current debate is obvious.

Sunderland have chosen to address the situation by not allowing the media to interrogate the new manager about his politics. The line will be that this is about football, that other aspects have no relevance.

It might prove to be a difficult position to defend.

But it is possibly the only route that the club feels it can go down with Di Canio unprepared to disavow personal views inherited from his recently-deceased parents.

His understanding of fascism is vastly different from those who see it as Nazi, or neo-Nazi.

In his mind, saying your beliefs are fascist is as legitimate as saying your politics are communist.

In yesterday’s Press conference at the Academy of Light though he was desperate to extract himself from the whole issue.

He pointed out that his best friends in football have been black – Trevor Sinclair at West Ham; Chris Powell at Charlton and that his agent, Phil Spencer, is Jewish.

“I do not understand this because in 45 years this has not been a problem for me,” he said.

“Ask anyone – there are no stories about me. I don’t have a problem with anyone. I haven’t had a problem in the past and I don’t know why I have to keep repeating my story.”

With so many individuals and organisations now involved though, the question is whether or not the issue will go away.

When he was asked the direct question: “Are you a fascist, yes or no,” he was non-plussed. As Press Officer Louise Wanless intervened, the situation threatened to get out of hand.

Aware they were being shut down, reporters began to ask questions on top of each other all addressing the fascism question or arguing that they should be allowed to continue.

Di Canio for his part, began to talk about his parents’ values, starting to get angry and for a second we had a glimpse of that famous, combustible personality before order was restored and the Press conference brought to a premature close.

It was a shame for the Italian and the PR department because he spoke charismatically and eloquently about football in the minutes before and afterwards.

He had shown the passion which Sunderland fans will respond to when they see it deployed in their favour.

And he had shown the eagerness and enthusiasm which his players will need to adopt if they are to survive this season.

The questions remain, though, about how Sunderland will emerge from its biggest controversy since the Bank of England scandal of the 1950s.

Perhaps though, the words of Di Canio’s former chairman at Swindon chairman Jeremy Wray, are relevant.

He said: “I’ve known him for two years and I don’t think politics was ever discussed once.

“Paolo will have many strong views. He probably has a strong view on whether Italy should be in the Euro, gay marriage, or the endangered Siberian tiger, but I doubt if it is really relevant to keeping Sunderland in the Premier League.

“Nothing like that was ever discussed during his time at Swindon. He was focused on success for us and that’s what he’ll do for Sunderland.”

Wray is convinced the Italian will keep Sunderland up and be a roaring success at the Stadium of Light.

Di Canio would agree – he smilingly referred to himself yesterday as ‘a unique one’, when asked to compare himself to ‘special one’ Jose Mourinho.

Somewhere along the line, football games are going to break out for Di Canio and for Sunderland – games against Chelsea, then the derby against Newcastle and all of them are going to be big events with the Italian at the helm; all of them coming under the microscope along with the new head coach.

If he is to succeed at Sunderland and survive all the slings and arrows which are still likely to come his way, he has to use these games to get people talking about football rather than fascism.

He and the club have to change the agenda so that the only question being asked is: “Is he really going to be as good a Premier League manager as he believes he is?”

Until that moment, Wearside holds its breath. And waits.