Sunderland’s Di Canio gamble comes to a shabby climax

Paulo Di Canio gestures at the Sunderland fans after the final whistle.
Paulo Di Canio gestures at the Sunderland fans after the final whistle.
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PAOLO Di Canio’s ill-starred reign as Sunderland boss lasted just 175 days – not bad going, considering that spell included a close season!

West Brom at the weekend proved to be his unlucky 13th game in charge and, after an abject start to the season, the controversial Italian was sacked last night.

GRAEME ANDERSON looks back on a brief but unforgettable few months at the Stadium of Light.

ARRIVEDERCI Paolo – it’s been emotional.

Sunderland’s first ever head coach will go into the record books as the shortest-serving permanent boss in the club’s 134-year history.

And yet his astonishing spell in charge will live far more vividly in the memory of Sunderland fans than many longer, more uneventful stewardships.

It may have only been six months, but in terms of stories spawned and headlines screamed it could have been a lifetime.

His appointment was controversial from the start – a firebrand striker known for tempestuous bust-ups as much as fabulous goals, a footballing maverick who played for 10 clubs and rarely seemed to settle anywhere.

His managerial career was no less incendiary: “management by hand grenade” ex-Swindon chief executive Nick Watkins called it in Di Canio’s first job in the hot seat.

But his tenure in charge brought results. He earned the Robins promotion from League Two at the first attempt as well as taking them to the Football League Trophy final the same season.

In the following campaign he had them on course for another promotion before walking out in February of this year, claiming promises had been broken over funding.

Within 10 weeks, he was replacing Martin O’Neill as Sunderland manager.

Owner Ellis Short, in consultation with football agent Roberto De Fanti, a long-standing acquaintance, was reportedly impressed by Di Canio’s driven work ethic, personal high standards and willingness to put in long hours.

He also took into account the simple fact that, of all the prospective candidates to succeed the Northern Irishman, Di Canio had the highest win ratio.

The appointment chimed with the American’s approach to business – hard work, long hours, high standards and the promotion of up-and-coming talent with proven success.

Sunderland would have known Di Canio’s appointment would have raised eyebrows from the start.

But they were utterly taken aback by the media storm which engulfed the club in the days after the announcement was made.

It wasn’t the revisiting of Di Canio’s transgressions as a player which caused the problems, his outspoken comments as a fledgling manager or his inexperience – it was his politics.

Di Canio’s association with Lazio’s far right-wing supporters, the Ultras, plus comments he had made in his younger days saying he was a fascist provoked one of the most divisive debates in the club’s history.

The Durham Miners’ Association removed their banners from the stadium in protest at the appointment of a self-confessed fascist, many supporters said they would never return to the stadium again and the situation wasn’t helped by the club’s ham-fisted handling of the situation.

It was a PR disaster and Di Canio’s first Press conference was pure theatre – descending into chaos and having to be halted as he was repeatedly questioned about his beliefs but refusing to disavow his former politics.

The row over his views rumbled on, but gradually football took over and, after a creditable performance in his opening game in charge – a hard-fought defeat at Chelsea in which the fans chanted his name – the agenda moved on, although this images of him giving salutes to Lazio fans, face contorted, were never too far away from being broken out.

Next, though, came the game that would define him – the 3-0 derby victory over Newcastle United at St James’s Park.

The perfect day.

It is a day Sunderland fans will never forget, having entered it knowing that a defeat there would leave their relegation-threatened club with one foot in the Championship.

Sunderland, though, produced a performance full of character and class

and mauled the Magpies with special goals from Stephane Sessegnon, Adam Johnson and David Vaughan giving the Black Cats their biggest win on Tyneside in more than 30 years, only their second of the 21st Century.

But it was far more than that.

There was the suspended Craig Gardner on YouTube and in the stands with the fans, the emotion-dripping joy that Niall Quinn tried to suppress as he commentated for Sky television. There was a distraught Magpie fan punching a horse.

But above it all there was Di Canio. Dancing a jig of joy with each goal, his face full of unbridled ecstasy and of course the famous plunge down the touchline, sliding in the mud on his knees in the direction of the away fans.

Wearside celebrated for a week and then, when it couldn’t get much better, found themselves victors over bogey team Everton the following week.

Back-to-back wins and it seemed like Di Canio could do no wrong. A new brush was sweeping clean. A radical new direction making the likes of Roy Keane, Steve Bruce and Martin O’Neill look like yesterday’s men.

At the end of that Everton game, it was hard to describe the euphoria and when the new head coach swept out alone towards the centre-circle with classical music swelling and all four corners of the stadium chanting: “Paolo Di Canio! Paolo Di Canio!” it was one of the most emotional things I have witnessed at a ground.

The pendulum had swung his way dramatically and every pronouncement he made struck a chord with fans. But a shocking 6-1 defeat at Villa Park in the next game brought everyone down to earth.

And as Sunderland limped towards the end of the season with indifferent displays against Stoke, Southampton and Spurs, the euphoria dissipated.

There was still the goodwill of that derby victory to ride though and the perception that the vast majority of the problems were the faults of his predecessor rather than his own.

Even so, it was clear that the close-season clear-out he promised would have to take the club forward if he was to convince the doubters who were already feeling that his approach was too extreme, his regime too much about Paolo Di Canio and too incendiary when it came to his squad.

He trod rough-shod over Titus Bramble’s feelings when he highlighted his failings in terms of fitness and physique and the experienced defender was one of the first to complain about Di Canio alienating players.

That was illustrated by his bombing out of Phil Bardsley after a casino incident and his cold-shouldering of skipper Lee Cattermole.

It was made abundantly clear it was his way or the high way, with no middle ground.

The summer brought massive change – 14 players in, 14 players out – and Di Canio and the club hierarchy won plaudits with the swiftness with which they initially acted, although concerns were raised when the revolution seemed to run out of money and steam towards its end.

It was a disappointing end to the window.

The arrivals of Andrea Dossena and Fabio Borini on transfer deadline day were not the signings to get the fans excited, particularly when former favourite Stephane Sessegnon was sold to West Brom the same day.

Sessegnon’s departure was seen as another example of Di Canio’s extreme approach to difficult situations – the striker having been arrested for suspected drink driving days before his sale – with the Italian perceived as having painted himself into a corner with his zero-tolerance approach to disciplinary transgressions.

By then Sunderland were already in deep trouble with an opening day defeat to Fulham, followed by unconvincing displays against Southampton and MK Dons before a crushing defeat to basement club Crystal Palace after which he publicly criticised his players.

Another loss to Arsenal hardly improved optimism as Di Canio continued to shuffle and reshuffle his unimpressive side game after game.

There were no leaders on the pitch, but then the suspicion had long been growing that Paolo Di Canio was the only Alpha male Paolo Di Canio would tolerate at the club.

West Brom, on Saturday, proved to be the final straw with a frankly embarrassing stunt from the head coach of standing in front of distraught Sunderland fans for several minutes, gesturing and posturing.

Yesterday, a training ground bust-up with his senior players, as an inquest was held into a disastrous start to the season, seems to have finally forced Ellis Short to bring his controversial experiment to a premature but undoubtedly well-advised end.

It’s a sad, shabby, undignified conclusion to a tale of misadventure from which few emerge with any credit.

Fans would have loved for the charismatic, crazy Di Canio to be their Messiah.

It wasn’t to be.

But they’ll always have the derby.