It was a managerial style destined to produce as many casualties as the final scene of King Lear. A man going about his business like Denzel Washington in the final hour of Man on Fire with the crazed intent of a teenage psychopath finally getting his hands on Grand Theft Auto at a friend’s house after his own parents dared to say no. And yet the whole farce was as predictable as an Italian political scandal.
Paolo Di Canio’s appointment at the Stadium of Light at the tail-end of last season stands alone at the top of the podium for “Genuinely Horrific Managerial Appointments” in the Premier League’s life-time. Watching the situation in the North-East for the past six months has been like watching You’ve Been Framed for ten years and persisting with it, fully aware that Grandad will fall off his chair and plant his face into the birthday cake. The fact there seems to be a universal approval of Ellis Short’s decision to rid his team of its head-coach after a mere 12 league games highlights just how disastrous the Italian’s reign has been.
Di Canio may have topped his coaching class at home in Italy but whatever skills he might possibly possess in a tactical sense will never transmit to his players as a result of his immature, egotistical personality. The precursors were there; the two large elephants in the room waving and making advances at the Sunderland board prior to their final decision to charge Di Canio with the responsibility of keeping The Mackems’ head above water in a season where half a dozen teams could have staked a claim as worthy relegation-fodder. Not only was the Italian temperamental on the pitch with a chequered past of controversy but also a somewhat successful, yet ultimately tumultuous debut in the dugout in charge of Swindon Town; “management by hand grenade” in the words of chief executive Nick Watkins.
There was the public row with a goalkeeper following a premature substitution after twenty minutes, constant ultimatums towards the board, the youth team coach forced to take time off work due to high stress levels under Di Canio, and any time in between involved falling-out with his new signings whose agent’s fees added up to 46% of League Two’s total figures.
Yet Short expected the egos of Premiership footballers and that of a cocksure ex-pro to gel in matrimony. The writing was on the wall in the first week, the club’s vice-chairman and son of a Jewish immigrant David Miliband resigned from his post as a result of the new man’s political history and possibly due to the Fascist edition of the Bayeux Tapestry tattooed onto the former West Ham striker’s back. Even amidst protests from the Durham Miners’ Association the manager refused to deny or denounce his position at the high-right side of the political compass.
The Sunderland faithful will always have their 3-0 victory over an abysmal Newcastle side in Di Canio’s second game in charge but in truth it merely papered over the cracks. Dismal teams like Aston Villa and West Brom were capable of making Sunderland appear embarrassingly toothless in attack and as helpless as the runt of the pack in defence.
30 million pounds was spent during the summer to bring in a total of 14 new players while other leading figures like Simon Mignolet and Danny Rose were either sold or handed back to their parent club. Di Canio was never expected to mould his new squad together in the first month of the season however his methods never would have. Criticising your own players tends to be a recipe for disaster, there’s a reason Arsene Wenger and Alex Ferguson tend to over-achieve with the squads at their disposal. In order to criticise players even in private you must first earn their respect. Di Canio completely neglected this. Conor Wickham was “the playboy model”, the foreign signings criticised for a lack of English, while he ridiculed the idea that he apologised to John O’Shea after describing the captain’s sending-off in the limp loss to Crystal Palace as "absolutely poor and unacceptable". Di Canio was the self-righteous GAA supporter frowning upon soccer stars due to the money they earn, completely ignorant to the fact that they, as human being can be rubbed the wrong, and indeed the right way.
In his defence he likened his approach to that of Ferguson, pointing to the fourth rule in the Scot’s recent blueprint for successful management, “never, ever cede control”. However point five negated Di Canio’s argument. “No one likes to be criticised. Most respond to encouragement. For any human being there is nothing better than hearing 'Well done'”. Ferguson was the master of motivating his players through a mixture of private criticism and public backing. Andy Cole tells a story of being absolutely berated in the dressing room by his manager only to be on the receiving end of friendly jokes for the rest of the week leading up to the next match. Such warmth gave his players an extra 20% in Cole’s opinion.
Last season Stephane Sessegnon was beginning to show signs of discontent around the squad, a decline running parallel with Sunderland’s slide southwards in the league table. While Martin O’Neill’s tactical approach had gone stale, his vigorous ability to spark motivation into his men still lingered over the squad. After a comforting conversation with his manager the Benin international regained his status as the team’s figurehead and sole creative outlet. This was something Di Canio could never and will never be able to replicate. Once the sacking was announced last night West Brom’s Gareth McAuley and Norwich’s Anthony Pilkington began tweeting of celebrations in the Sunderland squad, clearly aware of the discontent in the dressing room. One young recruit, El Hadji Ba was blunt in his reaction. “LOL”.
Sessegnon was one of the lucky ones who got away from the former Lazio leader’s talons. Fortunately he was shipped off to West Brom where, inspired by having his reputation slurred in the Italian’s press conference, he aptly delivered the last rights to Il Duce’s managerial career. A little motivation can go a long way.