The first casualty of the season is a disappointing, albeit understandable one

Blog by: Ani

Swindon Town v Oxford United - npower League Two

For the second time in six months, there was a dramatic managerial sacking at Sunderland.

On both occasions, club owner Ellis Short got it right. Paolo Di Canio’s short reign as head coach, which was officially confirmed on Sunday night as being over, kept Sunderland in the Premier League at the back end of last season when relegation, under Martin O’Neill, had looked a certainty; it was pretty much on course to take the club back down to the Championship at the end of this one.

However, the club’s changing fortunes have equipped fans well for turbulence at the top.

And just as many quickly came to the conclusion that Short had taken a wise decision in dismissing O’Neill on March 30, most now haven’t the slightest doubt Short had no serious choice but to sack Di Canio. Indeed, he had also been right on similar grounds to show Steve Bruce the door in O’Neill’s favour; there are times when you just know that doing nothing is the worst option.

Di Canio, unfortunately, has shown himself in the short period so far this season to be out of his depth as a Premier League manager. His public utterances on the shortcomings of his players developed from a welcome burst of iron discipline to self-defeating parody. He presided over a bizarre sequence of transfers that brought in a procession of players of mixed but uncertain pedigree or aptitude and then seemed unable to decide what constituted his preferred team, let alone a settled one.

Having made the Cape Verde international Cabral, a man with Champions League experience, sound like his talisman, he proceeded to ignore him altogether until belatedly explaining that he didn’t currently seem right for the cut and thrust of Premier football. He allowed Stephane Sessegnon, a dynamic if infuriating player able to change a game, to go, with the predictable result that he immediately scored against Sunderland for his new club, West Bromwich Albion, on Saturday. Yet he persevered with Ji Dong-Won, who has performed abysmally on each occasion he has started or appeared as a substitute.

The Italian failed for footballing reasons that had nothing to do, in the end, with his questionable and, to be fair, questioned political allegiances.

He had serious bad luck when the fixtures list was compiled, but the awful truth is that the bad run that list produced has barely begun; of the first five games, producing all of one point, only Arsenal could be considered a big club. To lose to Fulham at home and, heavily, to Crystal Palace and West Bromwich Albion away, picking up that solitary point while looking second best at Southampton, is all the more demoralising when it is remembered that the coming home games feature Liverpool, both Manchester United and Manchester City, Newcastle United, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur.

Few Sunderland fans seriously expect many points from that little lot. And since there has so far been no sign of a compensating run of barnstorming displays away from home, the strongest probability as things stand is that Sunderland will this season regain the unwanted record of notching up the fewest points in a Premier season: Sunderland’s woeful 15 in 2006 was beaten by Derby County’s 11 in 2008. The 3-0 reverse at West Brom leaves fans wondering not where the next win or even draw will come from, but when Sunderland might next suffer only a narrow defeat.

If word on the streets has any credibility, the Italian revolution many hoped Di Canio’s appointment might herald may not be over. Is Roberto Di Matteo, a man who won the Champions League as interim manager of Chelsea, really about to be named as manager or head coach?

If he is, then I offer muted applause, excited by the calibre of such a choice but fearful that the start Sunderland have made to the season under Di Canio, combined with the mighty challenge of the forthcoming fixtures, may already have made salvation one heck of a tall order.

There are worse things than a spell in the Championship. Clubs like Sunderland tend to score a few goals, even win a few games, after relegation. Promotion is a target more or less from the start and immediate bouncebacks have been known to happen. Fans could be prepared to forego such pleasures if Di Matteo – or whoever it is that Short has in mind to replace Di Canio – is somehow able to work a miracle, get points where they seem ungettable and make the wretched opening sequence of this season look like no more than a bad, forgotten dream.


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