Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Paulo Di Canio & All That Jazz!

One man was sacked from his job as a Premier League football manager on Saturday night. Within 24 hours another man was appointed as his successor.

It's a story that happens around 10 times a year. Yet rarely has it sparked such a polarisation of opinions and rarely has it opened avenues into other arenas little seen in footballing circles.

Martin O'Neill's sacking came as a surprise. Sunderland's recent run of form has not been brilliant and Saturday's 1-0 defeat at home to Manchester United left the Black Cats just one point above the relegation zone. Yet nobody predicted the Irishman's departure and with just seven games left in the season it seemed a bold and possibly foolhardy decision by chairman Ellis Short.

Everyone did expect a quick appointment though. Steve McLaren was an early front-runner and there was even rumours of David Moyes being linked. However Short decided to go for a man who was currently out of work and available. In stepped Paulo Di Canio.

Di Canio has always cut a somewhat controversial figure and is rarely away from the media spotlight. His playing career was noted as much for an 11 match ban for pushing referee Paul Alcock over as it was for stunning goals. One moment summed up his maverick nature. Playing for West Ham at Goodison Park in 2000 Everton's keeper Paul Gerrard went down injured just outside the penalty box but West Ham carried on playing. The ball was played into the penalty area towards Di Canio and with the net empty a goal was expected. Yet instead of scoring he caught the ball and waved for the physio to come on and treat Gerrard. For that he received the FIFA Fair Play Award.

His first foray into football management could be labelled a success. In just over 18 months he took Swindon Town out of the bottom tier of English football as champions and had them sitting second in League One. But also had it's controversial moments. He left the club after Matt Ritchie was sold without his knowledge or consent and he was involved in more than one public spats with some of his players.

Yet despite all of this previous 'baggage' his installation at Sunderland is looking to be the most controversial moment of his career.

His links to Fascism and the far right have been strong ever since a 'Hitler salute' to Lazio fans in 2004. He has also spoken in his autobiography of his admiration of Benito Mussolini.

These beliefs, or apparent beliefs - they still haven't been truly confirmed - lead to the resignation of David Milliband MP from his role as vice chairman.

The political side to the story has engaged sports journalists who have been asking questions over his fascist leanings. This approach has saw a backlash from certain Sunderland fans who see this as akin to a 'witch-hunt'. Their stance is if the story went unreported during his time at Swindon why is it news now.

It's a question I've asked. Surely it can't be just the fact he is now a premier league manager but the lure of the league to foreign investors and it's worldwide audience does seem to be a factor. However the high profile board resignation has also played its part.

For me Milliband's resignation is a non-starter. I believe his new role in New York following his decision to step down as MP will demand a lot of his time. He had originally said he would stay on at the football club but I do think they would have parted company at some point sooner rather than later. The appointment of Di Canio gave him an earlier than expected escape route.

The fascism issue is a big thing. But for Sunderland fans it is something that has overshadowed the key issues in their eyes. And that is will Di Canio keep them up? And long term is he the right man to take the club forward?

A lot of Sunderland fans don't like his appointment, more because of a footballing viewpoint than a political one. A lot took to Sky Sports over the weekend to announce their uncertainty. However their opinions may have been swayed by a vote of confidence from a former favourite.

Midfielder Tommy Miller played under Di Canio at Swindon and believes he could well be a success. He talks quite enthusiastically about Di Canio's time there and how he believes the Italian has helped prolong his career. Di Canio is a strict disciplinarian who will not bend the rules for anyone. He takes a very active role in training and believes in fitness and a strong defence. Miller does say that once you buy into what he wants it makes for a fun and fulfilling environment to play your football in.

Just how some of Sunderland's players will take to this strict regime remains to be seen and no doubt there will be some that will come out in the press against the new manager. But the new manager does in my eyes have enough about him to pick the players up and get them across the safety line.

His long term future is somewhat undecided. He was clearly building something at Swindon but this is the premier league, a whole different kettle of fish. Managers rarely get time to build and so how Sunderland start next year, assuming they do avoid the drop, will be pivotal.

You have to remember this is only his second managerial job and his first in the spotlight of the Premier League. But as most bosses at this level will tell you it is a results business. Di Canio however has been at this level before and the media spotlight is never far away from him. He could flourish just as likely as he could fail.

But just like the Fascism story it is a guaranteed certainty that we will hear a lot more of Di Canio in the media over the next few years.

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