Sunderland worse off now than when Di Canio took the reins

Paulo Di Canio.
Paulo Di Canio.
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ELLIS SHORT arrived without warning at the Stadium of Light nine days ago.

During an impromptu board meeting prior to the clash against Arsenal, Sunderland’s American owner was given a run-down of the Paolo Di Canio regime.

The seeds of doubt were sown.

By then, the discontent in the Sunderland camp was already reaching boiling point over Di Canio’s methods and particularly the public criticism from the Italian.

When Short pulled the trigger yesterday, it was no surprise. The body language alone of Sunderland’s players at The Hawthorns on Saturday showed that the disconnection between manager and dressing room was irreparable.

But surely the club as a whole has to take a chunk of the blame for the almighty mess Sunderland now find themselves in.

Don’t forget, this was Short’s first appointment of his own choosing since taking the Black Cats reins.

Yes, future director of football Roberto De Fanti put forward Di Canio’s name to Short, but this was not the same as when Niall Quinn was in situ and picked Steve Bruce and then Martin O’Neill to take charge.

It was Short’s decision to take the almighty gamble last March to end the bland reign of O’Neill and replace a proven Premier League manager with a novice. And a colossal maverick of a novice at that.

Di Canio paid dividends on a short-term basis by introducing some organisation to Sunderland’s ranks, but long-term...

The Italian could certainly coach and his intelligence was overshadowed by the pantomime which followed him, but the man-management skills just weren’t there and clearly hadn’t been during his previous incarnation at Swindon.

A modicum of research could have told Sunderland that, but such was Short’s desperation to retain Premier League football, it was almost overlooked, as were the public outbursts and the furore over Di Canio’s political views.

If Short was expecting Di Canio to suddenly become a more measured figure this season, happy to stay out of the limelight, he was kidding himself.

He was always going to be a loose cannon with an expiry date. It’s just been a swifter parting of ways than expected.

And now that Sunderland have taken the step of becoming the first top-flight club of the season to sack their manager for the second time in three years, they will be the recipients of a bombardment of both mockery and criticism.

There is a Blackburn Rovers element to the merry-go-round of managers on Wearside at the moment – appointing an extreme coach, who prompts a succession of uneasy back pages, and then sacking him after just 12 league games in charge.

Again, it is Short’s over-riding need to preserve Sunderland’s top-flight status that has prompted his actions.

Even at this tender stage of the season, that looked to be a tall order.

But Di Canio is not solely responsible for the premature flirtation with relegation.

It was Short’s decision to introduce a Continental management structure with an all-Italian scouting team and director of football.

And while Di Canio identified the characteristics he wanted in his players, it was director of football De Fanti and chief scout Valentino Angeloni who were responsible for selecting and then signing concrete targets.

On the evidence so far this season, the fresh faces have not produced a significant upturn of quality in the squad.

Sunderland still remain without that English, physical, midfield creator that Di Canio wanted all along too.

He longed to sign Tom Huddlestone, but instead he got a loan deal for Ki Sung-Yeung, albeit the South Korean was the Black Cats’ best performer at West Brom in Saturday’s 3-0 defeat.

Prudently, Sunderland’s preoccupation during the close season was to balance the books and although 14 players came in at a total cost of more than £30million, the club still recouped heavily in selling Simon Mignolet, Stephane Sessegnon, James McClean and Ahmed Elmohamady.

Although Di Canio was well aware he would be working under those parameters when he accepted the job, there was clearly still some tension between him and De Fanti that only a portion of his wish-list had been unfilled.

Unlike previous Sunderland managers, Di Canio was having to work with players signed from the Continent’s bargain basement, other than the two big-money arrivals of Emanuele Giaccherini and Jozy Altidore.

However bad his communication with his players may have been though, Di Canio was still able to talk with those players from across Europe.

His successor will need to be able to too.

This is the most multi-national squad in Sunderland’s history, with Koreans, Italians, Africans, French, American and Scandinavian players.

Having a gruff, “old school” English manager is unlikely to correlate with such a broad spectrum.

Sunderland may have to go down the route of appointing a second successive foreign manager/head coach, even if it is a Roberto Di Matteo or Gus Poyet figure who has worked on these shores for more than a decade.

The new incumbent of the dug-out will also have to comply with a director of football system and be comfortable with an arrangement where they will not necessarily be in charge of transfers.

That won’t sit well with all prospective candidates.

But the biggest concern of all is Sunderland’s situation at the foot of the Premier League table and the sub-standard performances they have churned out so far this season.

Perhaps there will inevitably be an upturn in displays following Di Canio’s departure and for some there will be a sense of relief at the Italian’s passing.

A new manager will certainly offer a clean slate for those such as Cabral and perhaps Phil Bardsley, who were ostracised by Di Canio.

But Di Canio’s successor faces a daunting first four games against Liverpool, Manchester United, Swansea and then the Wear-Tyne derby.

By then, any momentum generated by the appointment of a fresh face on the touchline could have been sucked out of an already confidence-drained side.

Whoever the chosen man is, they face a far more daunting situation than either O’Neill or Di Canio tackled when Short pushed the panic button.

Time will be on their side and Sunderland still have 33 games to garner 40-odd points – it’s not an insurmountable task.

But they inherit a completely new-look side with no partnerships, no understandings and precious little harmony.

They will be starting from a scratch with no pre-season and with new signings that they have had no say in acquiring.

Sunderland were fortunate that they escaped relegation when they opted for Di Canio’s quick fix.

Getting out of another fine mess may be even tougher.