Tuesday 12 December 2017

Di Canio's fate sealed by players' strike threat

Italian told 'nobody wants you here' as Hawthorns bust-up proves final straw

Paulo Di Canio gestures to the Sunderland supporters after their defeat at West Brom
Paulo Di Canio gestures to the Sunderland supporters after their defeat at West Brom

Luke Edwards

Paolo Di Canio was sacked as Sunderland manager after a player rebellion of an unprecedented scale, which led to several indicating they would refuse to play for him again which made it impossible for him to remain in charge of the team.

Di Canio had completely lost the support of the first-team squad as they were tired of being constantly criticised by their manager and demeaned by the language he used when speaking to them.

The Italian has allegedly regularly belittled his players, using insulting language while questioning their professionalism and lifestyles.

With morale already low, Di Canio's aggressive and ultra-critical approach spread resentment and animosity through the squad.

The ill-feeling that had gradually built up over several weeks of almost constant criticism and abuse erupted in spectacular fashion during an inquest into the 3-0 defeat at West Bromwich Albion and prompted a delegation of senior players, led by John O'Shea and Wes Brown, to visit chief executive Margaret Byrne and director of football Roberto De Fanti last Sunday.

At a meeting they forcefully relayed their concerns about Di Canio's management style, accused him of behaving like a dictator and revealed he had lost the dressing-room to such an extent that certain individuals were so upset they were going to refuse to play for him again.

Shortly afterwards, Di Canio was sacked by Ellis Short over the telephone – just as the club's American owner, who has lived in London for the past 15 years, had dispatched his predecessor Martin O'Neill.

Short and Byrne have resolved to persist with De Fanti, whose own scouting team under Valentino Angeloni were brought in during the summer at the expense of the long-serving Pop Robson.

The club is run day-to-day by Byrne, at 32 one of the youngest executives in English football. Along with Marina Granovskaia, Roman Abramovich's trusted aide and a Chelsea director, and Karren Brady, West Ham's vice-chairman, she is one of the few women who hold senior positions at Premier League football clubs.

A lawyer from Northern Ireland, Byrne has worked her way up from her first appointment as club secretary in 2007.


Byrne runs the day-to-day operation on behalf of Short and, while he is the owner, there is a belief around the club that she must take some of the responsibility for the Di Canio debacle - not least for her mystifying attempts to reject the overwhelming evidence pointing to the Italian's fascist sympathies when he was appointed.

She attempted to dismiss the outcry around Di Canio's political beliefs as "insulting", in spite of his appointment prompting the resignation from the Sunderland board of former UK foreign secretary David Miliband.

The final incendiary catalyst for Di Canio's sacking came on Saturday night when he was involved in a furious two-hour row with his players in the aftermath of their defeat at the Hawthorns

Having incensed many supporters with his chin-up gesture after the final whistle, Di Canio marched into the away dressing-room and launched into an all-too-regular attack on his players.

The stunned players were greeted to an explosion of rage from Di Canio as he began a verbal assault on former club captain Lee Cattermole, blaming him for West Brom's third goal.

Cattermole, who had come on as a substitute midway through the second half, asked why he was being picked out for blame for the defeat and was quickly backed by team-mates.

What followed has been described by one witness as "all hell breaking loose" as several players went nose to nose with Di Canio and refused to back down when he challenged them.

Significantly, this did not just include players Di Canio had inherited like Cattermole and Carlos Cuellar, but also several he had brought to the club over the summer.

One of the players who felt the most aggrieved about the way he had been treated was Italian international winger Emanuele Giaccherini, who had been hauled off at half-time against West Brom.

The former Juventus star was one of Sunderland's star signings, but felt he had no support or received any sort of encouragement from Di Canio.

The row was brought to a tense conclusion when one player commented: "All you have done since you got here is criticise us and the old manager. The difference is we liked him and would run through walls for him. Nobody likes you here. Nobody wants you here."

As well as alienating his players, Di Canio was also feared by staff members at the training ground after a series of arguments and dressing-downs.

He had recently banned any staff member other than coaches talking to the players and ordered everyone out of the canteen when the first-team squad were in there at meal time.

Sunderland insiders claim the atmosphere at the training ground had been soured by fear and paranoia.

Although most players had tried hard to work under Di Canio's tough disciplinary regime, they were flabbergasted by their manager's lack of empathy during a poor run of results and his terrible man-management skills – traits which ended up costing the former Swindon Town manager his job and with it his previous reputation as one of English football's most exciting young managers.

In the meantime, Sunderland's players must adjust to another new leader for tonight's League Cup tie against League One Peterborough United – development coach Kevin Ball has assumed temporary charge of the club for a second time, having also served as caretaker manager following Mick McCarthy's departure in 2006.

"The immediate priority was just to really meet the players, talk to the players, take them out, have a session with them," he said.

Sunderland board will draw up a shortlist of candidates to try to rescue them from a disastrous start to the season in which they have picked up just one point from their opening five games.

Roberto Di Matteo is the obvious front-runner and it is understood that he already has a relationship with De Fanti, via mutual friends. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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