Sunderland AFC: Self-Inflicted Wounds

The Dolphin's Brain By The Dolphin's Brain, 24th Sep 2013 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL
Posted in Wikinut>News>Sport

Sunderland's sacking of Paolo Di Canio was an inevitability at some point this season. His original appointment was a mistake; is his quick-fire departure similarly wrong? How will Sunderland recover? And where will Di Canio end up?

A 'Great' Club?

It may be a cliché, but Sunderland is a ‘proud’ club with a fantastic history and an important place in the culture of Wearside. Although not a founder member of the Football League in 1888, Sunderland AFC was elected to the League shortly after, in 1890, and success followed. In many ways Sunderland’s history is similar to my own team’s – Aston Villa. From 1888 to 1902 Sunderland (4) and Villa (5) won 9 of the 14 League titles between them. They even each had a Scottish striker named John Campbell, both of whom won the accolade of being the league’s top goalscorer.

Though it might be hard to believe in this day and age, soccer (and that’s not really an Americanism, as ‘Association Football’ was shortened to ‘soccer’ here a long time ago) has always been a game for the working man. A glance down the list of founder members of the League will demonstrate football’s connection with England’s industrial, urban heartland (Aston Villa, Preston, Wolves, Bolton, Blackburn, Notts County, Everton, Stoke, Accrington, West Brom, Derby, Burnley). Sunderland was the first ‘new’ club to join this elite group, replacing Stoke. As might be guessed from the Campbell connection mentioned above, Scotland was producing its fair share of players too.

The first team from the south to break in to the top league was (Woolwich) Arsenal in 1904; Chelsea did not make an appearance in the top flight until 1907. The first club south of Birmingham to actually win the first division title was Arsenal in 1931.

It is the combination of these factors that makes the Di Canio saga all the more depressing for any football fan, not just Sunderland supporters. There may well be a reasonable proportion of Geordies who are gloating at the moment, of course, but the majority of fans will empathise with Stadium of Light regulars. I wrote a blog entry in May predicting a sticky end for Di Canio’s relationship with the Black Cats, but even I wasn’t expecting such an early demise.

Courting Controversy

The appointment of Di Canio was controversial from the outset. Some Sunderland fans boycotted the club because of it, David Miliband resigned from his position as vice-chairman and there was plenty of criticism from others in the north east. For many it was his previous self-confessed adherence to fascism that was the principal source of outrage. For a club with a significant ‘working-class’ supporter base in an area devastated by Thatcher’s war on the mining unions and the country’s manufacturing infrastructure, associating itself with Di Canio and his right-wing politics was, at best, incredibly insensitive. It led to a situation where Di Canio was forced to renounce fascism publicly, as this Guardian article explains.

For me, the main issue was his sheer lack of experience as a manager. He had never taken charge of a club in the top flight and had, in effect, only managed Swindon Town for a season and a half, albeit with success. His time there was littered with examples of his management style and his propensity to cause disaffection. It is inconceivable that the Sunderland hierarchy was not aware of what they were getting with Di Canio.

Where It All Went Wrong

It is undoubtedly the case that the Italian is an intelligent man with a passion for football and an understandable desire to have the players in his charge act in a disciplined, professional and modern way for the benefit of the club. There is nothing but nutritional sense in his desire to ban his ‘athletes’ from consuming calorie-laden, unhealthy food such as ketchup and mayonnaise. His attempt to restrict caffeine intake is, again, entirely laudable. Many clubs have instigated closely-monitored dietary and training regimes for their players without the catastrophic consequences at Sunderland.

On the football front, there is no doubt he has a capacity for the coaching aspect of the game and a mind likely to produce innovative thinking and, perhaps, attractive and exciting performances; no one who favours a 4-2-4 formation can be accused of being boring and hidebound! It also may be the case that Di Canio was not responsible for the majority, or any, of the club’s summer signings. To that extent, it might be considered that he was unlucky to be sacked so early in the league season. Certainly, Sam Allardyce has expressed his view that the decision was a 'knee-jerk' one.

However, what is clear, and has been reported on in several of the national online newspapers (the Mirror and the Daily Mail for example), is that his management style created havoc within the dressing room. For all that it might be right that some of these highly-paid players need to be taken down a peg or two, open and public confrontation is unlikely to be the route to success. Ferguson rarely criticised any of his players when invited to do so by the press, but I doubt anyone would argue that he did not throw the odd tea-cup when necessary. Di Canio lacks the man-management skills to pull off the role of being a leader with an iron fist for he is yet to develop its necessary covering of a velvet glove.

The Future

Sunderland’s main problem is to find a manager capable of bringing together a disparate group of players and moulding them into a team capable of surviving in the Premier League with a backroom staff drawn from Italy. Most newly-appointed managers at this level bring a cohort of coaches with them, with a requirement that the existing group of support staff be removed. Sunderland may well not be able to afford such profligacy. Who will want to take on such a challenge?

So where to now for Di Canio? Is it likely that he will ever find a job in the Premier League? Is there a club for him? Yes there is! West Ham’s slow start to the season, if it continues, coupled with the fans’ constant demand for ‘pretty’ football may well lead to an early exit for Allardyce – perhaps by Christmas. In this scenario, who else but Di Canio would those same fans clamour for? You read it here first!

© The Dolphin’s Brain 2013


Allardyce, Arsenal, Aston Villa, Black Cats, Chelsea, Di Canio, Fascism, Geordies, Italian, Man Management, Miliband, Miners, Premier League, Sacking, Stadium Of Light, Sunderland Afc, Swindon, Thatcher, West Ham, Working Class

Meet the author

author avatar The Dolphin's Brain
I am a mixed bag of lawyer, vegan, environmentalist and sports nut and my writing is likely to be passionate, of-the-moment articles on a wide variety of topics. I also write the occasional poem!

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