Di Canio revolution at Sunderland is over quickly

Paolo Di Canio
Paolo Di Canio
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AN ORDERLY queue has already formed of those proclaiming “I told you so” over Paolo Di Canio’s self-destruction.

It’s a neat narrative.

The dictatorial manager arrives, issues his decrees, repeatedly has to discipline subjects who dare to fall out of line and then is eventually usurped by those who have endured their fill of discipline.

But while there were plenty predicting Sunderland’s demise under the Italian during the close season, the mood among both supporters and the dressing room just two months ago was far more optimistic.

Despite the easy two-dimensional portrait of Di Canio as an unhinged authoritarian, his ideas about changing the mentality at the Stadium of Light was largely welcomed on Wearside itself.

Sunderland needed change. For the last two years, they have been bobbing above the water-line of relegation.

That long-held dream about establishing the Black Cats in the top 10 of the Premier League has never materialised.

Fans disillusioned by the pampered and wealthy modern footballers saw in Di Canio a figure who wouldn’t accept any nonsense and introduce some much-needed discipline on the training field.

It was the same factor which attracted Ellis Short back in March.

And speaking to Sunderland’s players during pre-season, their genuine enthusiasm for Di Canio’s methods shone through.

Every player was uber fit, everyone knew their job in the team and they were developing a far more attractive brand of football than the stodgy style under Martin O’Neill.

Under all the bravado, Di Canio’s coaching made sense. Several players remarked that it was as good as they had experienced at the club.

Even Di Canio’s hard-line approach to diet was accepted.

As has been well-publicised now, there was no ketchup, no coffee and no ice in the Coca-Cola.

Kettles were even removed from the players’ rooms during the pre-season training camp in Italy to prevent them making a cuppa.

Such was the stringency of the pasta, pasta, pasta, diet, that Sunderland’s players resorted to sneaking into McDonalds, during their one afternoon allocated to exploring Hong Kong during July’s Barclays Asia Trophy.

They were lucky they weren’t caught. At Swindon, Di Canio had deployed his backroom staff to monitor the various McDonalds branches in the town.

At that stage though, the stealthy consumption of a Big Mac was the extent of the rebellion.

Sunderland’s players - several of whom were well-versed in such techniques on the Continent - were happy to go along with Di Canio’s extreme methods if it meant an end to the club’s perennial relegation worries.

It showed during Sunderland’s impressive 3-1 victory over Spurs in Hong Kong.

But Di Canio needed results in the Premier League to justify such dedication.

Without the reward of points, an element of ‘why are we doing this?’ would inevitably begin to seep in.

The opening day against Fulham was arguably the most important game of the season, yet Sunderland succumbed to a side which mustered just one meaningful effort on goal.

Had Sunderland emerged victorious, then it would have bought Di Canio time to gel his new-look side and demonstrate that there was method behind the madness.

But from that point, the stack of cards began to collapse and performances only got worse.

A raft of team changes per game, with one player taken off at half-time in every league match after Fulham, was hardly a show of faith from Di Canio in those who he selected.

The most high-profile of those, Cabral, mystifyingly found himself out of favour after a man-of-the-match contribution on the opening day.

But it was the public criticism of his players which undermined all of Di Canio’s efforts to instil a “revolution” at the Stadium of Light.

It began with the rant against Phil Bardsley and Matt Kilgallon on the final day of last season at White Hart Lane after the duo were ostracised for celebrating Sunderland’s survival at the casino.

Among Sunderland’s senior players, there was a concern during the summer of more public rebukes and they advised the club’s hierarchy of their reservations.

But Di Canio couldn’t help himself.

Perhaps it was brinkmanship, but Di Canio was unnecessarily stern in his assessment of Sunderland’s performance against FC Midtjylland in pre-season, and it left the players nervy and uncertain – choosing their words carefully as they gave their own appraisal of the game.

That was nothing though compared to the rant at Selhurst Park.

When Di Canio singled out Ji Dong-won – days after he had praised the South Korean and revealed why he didn’t want to sell him during the summer – and more damagingly, captain John O’Shea, it was the beginning of the end.

The seeds of rebellion were sown and it eventually blossomed on Sunday morning at the Academy of Light.

Some supporters will think players are precious for not simply accepting such stinging criticism, but for those steeped in the motto of ‘keeping things in the dressing room’, Di Canio’s words were poisonous.

He got away with it at Swindon when he was winning games, had less established players and his every word was not magnified and preached around the world.

But the Premier League is a completely different arena.

There was no compromise, no personnel skills and the atmosphere soured as a result.

Staff walked on egg shells around Di Canio at the academy, while the stewards at the Stadium of Light were told not to even make eye contact with the players on a match day in case they should distract them from the job in hand.

Players even became reluctant to give interviews, for fear of repercussions from anything they might say.

Such an environment was not healthy and certainly not conducive to producing a bond of unity.

Di Canio undoubtedly had the right ideas for completely altering the make-up of the club and introducing some discipline into the training regime.

He was a deceptively intelligent guy, with a superb eye for detail.

But he lacked any man management nous, whether through inexperience or simply the individualist character he displayed during his playing career.

Ultimately that led to the premature rebellion and gave Short no choice but to dismiss his head coach and begin the search for a fourth incumbent in the dug-out in less than two years.