Paolo di Canio at Sunderland: What went wrong?

Blog by: Aditya

Paolo di Canio: didn't last long at Sunderland

Paolo di Canio: didn’t last long at Sunderland

There are some who naturally attract controversy; they just can’t help it. They are the flame to controversy’s moth, and if there was ever one such as this, it is definitely ex-Sunderland manager Paolo di Canio.

Ever since his playing days, the feisty Italian has been “noticeable” to put it mildly. Having played for teams such as Lazio, Juventus, AC Milan, Napoli, Celtic and West Ham United among others, he had been quite the journeyman. But, it seems, controversy is his constant companion, and he carried it along wherever he went. His career has seemingly oscillated between “genius player” to “controversy-courting fascist”.

Two instances from his playing career typify and summarise this trait. The first is a testament to the Italian’s talent – while playing for West Ham in a league match versus Wimbledon F.C.(now rechristened Milton Keys Dons), di Canio produced a moment of magic that still makes football fans gasp in admiration, and makes Hammers fans sigh with fond remembrance. Receiving the ball from the right, di Canio struck it on the volley with both feet off the ground, seemingly defying the laws of physics by producing that much power from such a position. The goal was, rightly, voted as the Premiership’s goal of the decade by Sky Sports’ fans in December 2009.

The other incident sums up the controversial nature of di Canio’s playing career. The Italian, a self-confessed fascist, made the infamous “fascist salute” on at least two well-documented occasions while playing for Lazio. He stated that it was a “form of expressing a bond with the Lazio fans (a large part of whom profess the right-wing ideologies)”.

When di Canio moved into management in 2011, it was thought that age might have mellowed the Italian, or at least given him much-needed perspective; but it was to no avail. After his tumultuous, yet successful, spell at Swindon Town, di Canio was catapulted to the big-time league, so to speak, when Sunderland’s owner and chairman Ellis Short decided to replace outgoing Martin O’Neill. This time around, di Canio made his impact on the club even before he set foot into the club, with former UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband resigned from his positions as vice-chairman and non-executive director of Sunderland in protest. This might have well been an omen for things to come.

What was good

It was not all bad for the Italian. When he assumed control of Sunderland, they were precariously poised in the league – just one point above the relegation zone. In his first match in charge, he suffered a narrow defeat to Chelsea; but even as Sunderland lost, the fans felt that the team had put up an encouraging showing. His second match in charge though, assured that his time in charge of the club would never end in anonymity, if nothing else.

His Sunderland team beat fierce rivals Newcastle United 3-0 in the Tyne-Wear Derby. That prompted the infamous celebrations by di Canio, all of knee-slides, arm-waving and fist-pumps. Ultimately though, Sunderland beat the drop, and guaranteed Premier League football for another season at least. Many sections of the fans also viewed di Canio’s strict enforcement of discipline as a good thing, believing that the modern-day footballer to be more interested in the luxuries that the game brings, rather than playing.

He enforced curfews and deadlines for the players before matchday and brought-up a strict “do’s and don’t’s” list. It looked like the Italian’s no-nonsense reign would reap dividends in the long run. His focus on fitness was also hailed in many quarters of the game. Sunderland fans also didn’t have to worry about transfer window inactivity as di Canio brought in 14 new recruits, ensuring that the squad will have the required depth to avoid the drop in the new season, and hope for maybe more.

What went wrong?

One of the earliest instances of alarm from the Sunderland camp came with di Canio fining seven players for a night on the town. The players were fined for misconduct and were reprimanded by the manager. This prompted the PFA to launch an investigation into the merit of the fine.

Di Canio's crazy celebration did not impress everyone

Di Canio’s crazy celebration did not impress everyone

A more famous incident was that of full-back Phil Bardsley. Bardsley demonstrated an exemplary lack of reasoning for a professional footballer when a picture of him lying on £50 notes in a casino went viral on the internet. The photograph showed Bardsley flat on his back covered in £50 notes, with his arms splayed out. Di Canio was swift to condemn the incident, and rightly so, but what shocked the footballing community was his 24-minute rant against the player.

Also, his decision to indefinitely freeze-out both Bardsley and Matthew Kilgallon, who was also in the same picture, was thought to be slightly excessive. He then threatened that the players will be sold off the next year, and that he had the backing of the owner in his actions. His blanket ban on players consuming alcohol also came as a surprise to many, considering the culture in England. It was then that whispered reports began to emerge from the dressing room that the players were unhappy with the authoritarian rule of the manager, with some calling it tyrannical.

Did he deserve it?

No doubt that di Canio’s methods were controversial and non-conformal, to say the least, but it was to be seen if the tactic that worked at Swindon Town would work at a Premier League club, where players had bigger reputations. Now, looking back, it seems like it was a failure, but was it the only factor in di Canio’s downfall at the club?

Tactically, the Italian played an almost 4-2-4 system, with an emphasis on passing. But, it was the height of naïvety to expect that this would be enough in the Premier League. His system revolved more on the work-rate of the players than positioning or movement. Di Canio put an emphasis on the players tracking back and covering, which while being important, still needs to be complemented by solid tactics. This is where di Canio failed the most, because once the players started becoming disenchanted with his methods, their effort on the pitch also declined.

Also, the sale of Stéphane Sessègnon led to unrest among supporters. Sessègnon was, more often than not, Sunderland’s most outstanding creative force, even though he was as unpredictable as he was talented, prone to moments of lethargy and disinterest.

Though, the final nail in di Canio’s coffin arrived with the abysmal run of form exhibited by Sunderland this season. Out of the six matches Sunderland have played this season, their only win came in the Capital One Cup; a laboured 4-2 win over MK Dons, after coming from two goals behind, through a good showing from England under-21 international Connor Wickham, who scored twice after coming on as a substitute.

In his other five matches, di Canio has a record of L D L L L. A run of matches that has seen them wind up at the bottom of the league. After his team’s loss to West Brom, di Canio launched a bizarre touchline tirade against the fans, wildly gesticulating at them.

One image from that scene stands out sharply: that of one fan mouthing “you’ll be out by next morning”. It seems we have a soothsayer here. But di Canio leaves just as he came in, with screaming and shouting around him, with him, in the eye of the tornado.


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