by Richard Brook
I am not sure I would get very far if I went in to work one morning and started lamenting the appointment of one of my colleagues, based on their political persuasion, however much I might object to their stand-point. I am absolutely certain that I should not be able to get very far. Politics should be completely separate to the work life of most, with politicians very obvious exceptions. As long as a person can separate his ideals from his work life he is surely entitled to expect others to do the same.
The pantomime of Paolo Di Canio’s appointment as Sunderland manager, has many topics worthy of discussion – not least the decision to dispense with Martin O’Neill’s services after a routine defeat to Manchester United, instead of before the international break that preceded it – yet Di Canio’s fascination with fascism has all too predictably become the focus. The mass media have pointed a unified finger at the departure of, former Foreign Secretary, David Miliband as Sunderland vice-chairman to justify the level of coverage, though this seems disingenuous. Miliband’s resignation, triggered by the appointment, is undoubtedly a useful angle but it does not mask the irrelevance of Di Canio’s politics in relation to his ability to do his job.
I am no expert on fascism. From what I know, or think I know, of the subject I find such beliefs distasteful in the extreme. The last thing I am doing here is writing a defence of fascism. However at odds with one’s own values fascism may be, freedom of political association is a protected right in this country – though it is ironic that a set of values that is so hostile to democracy, is reliant upon democratic rights to find a voice.
Neither Sunderland nor Di Canio have done themselves any favours in their dealings with the media in the wake of the appointment. When Di Canio spoke in defence of his infamous straight-arm salute, while playing for Lazio in 2005 he stated, “I’m a fascist not a racist”. Yet the fiery Italian described the reaction to his appointment as a “ridiculous and pathetic situation that doesn’t represent me” and declined to answer questions on fascism at today’s press conference. If there is an interest in Di Canio’s politics, why not confront it head on, explain why it is a non-issue, and get back to talking about football?
Talking about football is exactly what we would should be doing regarding this appointment, as for me, however much I disagree with Di Canio’s beliefs, there are far more compelling reasons that he should not have been appointed to this position at this time.
Firstly, though Di Canio is a somewhat glamorous name associated with the Premier League as a player his managerial experience is rather more modest. The Italian has only previously managed Swindon Town, in lowest two divisions of the Football League, and for a comparatively short time. Di Canio was appointed at Swindon as recently as May 2011 and resigned on in February 2013 giving him less than two years of lower division experience to bring to the table.
Sunderland find themselves just one point above the Premier League relegation zone, and Wigan immediately below them have a game in hand. Di Canio has, typically bullishly stated that he would put everything he has on Sunderland staying up. One cannot help feeling that it is odd to gamble the club’s top flight status on the success of a rookie manager, who has no managerial experience amongst English Football’s elite, or indeed at the level immediately below it. With seven games to save the season common sense would dictate that should a change of manager be made, the obvious appointment would be an old head, with Premier League experience who has been in, and preferably succeeded in relegation battles before.
The appointment of Di Canio feels desperate. It feels like he is a known name, an up-and-coming young manager known for wearing his heart on his sleeve. It feels like a shrug of the shoulders to a fan-base to be followed, in the worst case scenario, by the words “we tried everything we could”. All this at the expense of a proven Premier League manager, once touted as the obvious successor to the holy grail of English football management, the Manchester United job.
As alluded to above, the timing of O’Neill’s departure was very odd in itself. At the start of every season the vast majority of Premier League clubs can write off fixtures against both Manchester clubs as matches where anything but defeat is a bonus. It is simply inconceivable that a 1-0 defeat to Manchester United was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Was this sacking poorly planned or a completely unplanned knee-jerk reaction? Surely if O’Neill’s job was intended to rest on the Manchester United game the Sunderland board would have done better to get the new man in over the international break to get a feel for the place during the break in fixtures.
Di Canio’s abilities regarding man-management and media relations have big question marks against them. The Italian’s handling of modern players and their fragile ego’s ought to be first class given his own experiences at Sheffield Wednesday. Few old enough to have been following football at the time will forget Di Canio pushing referee Paul Alcock to the ground during a match between Sheffield Wednesday and Arsenal at Hillsborough in 1998. Di Canio was banned for eleven games, and feeling unsupported by the club and manager Danny Wilson – who branded Di Canio and fellow Italian Benito Carbone as “fancy dans” . Di Canio did not return to the South Yorkshire club following his suspension.
It might be expected that the result of this experience would be a good level of insight to players’ needs, yet during his tenure at Swindon Di Canio had two high profile bust-ups with his playing staff. The television cameras caught the first, with striker Leon Clarke who had been with the club just eleven days. Clarke argued with coaching staff has he left the field following a cup defeat, at the hands of Southampton. Di Canio saw an attempt at a comforting arm around the shoulder shrugged off and words were exchanged as the pair headed for the tunnel. The camera’s zoom appeared to capture things becoming considerably more heated inside the tunnel. Di Canio refused to ever play Clarke again.
More recently Di Canio faced criticism for humiliating goalkeeper Wes Foderingham. The 21 year old keeper was substituted just 21 minutes into a match with Preston, in which his error led to the opening goal. This was not the end of the matter however as Di Canio opted not to downplay, the keeper’s reaction – taking his frustrations out on a water bottle – instead branding Foderingham as “the worst professional [he had] ever seen” and stating that the keeper would not play until he apologised.
So with seven games left of the Premier League season Sunderland have sacked an experienced and well regarded Premier League manager for losing to the league leaders. They have replaced him with a young, inexperienced League One manager who lacks particularly in experience of relegation fights. At a time when unity in the club will be crucial they have appointed a manager who in a short career has shown divisive tendencies in terms of his management of players. These are the real stories around Di Canio’s appointment not his private political beliefs however much we might disagree with them.
There is a chance that Sunderland might have pulled off a real coup in appointing Paulo Di Canio, but at this precise moment he represents a massive risk that Sunderland can ill afford. It appears to be a slightly desperate punt that ‘new manager effect’ and the results of others will see them safe.