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Aidan O’Hara: Di Canio 'demands' only benefit players

ARRIGO SACCHI tells a story about a day when a forthcoming opponent for an important European Cup match sent a spy to the AC Milan training ground in order to gain an insight into why they were so successful and help forge a game plan for how they could be defeated.

When he arrived, the spy found everything he expected of a great manager at work. Sacchi was moving players around the pitch with the precision of a chess grandmaster, demanding that they follow instructions and authoritatively scolding those who weren't doing things the way he wanted.

The spy could see Sacchi, he could see some of the world's greatest players hanging on every word of their coach. What confused him, though, was that he couldn't see a football anywhere.

Sacchi's relentless devotion to shadow play -- a training technique where no ball is used but players react and move according to the manager's hypothetical situations -- built a foundation for one of the greatest club sides of all time. The most important factor, however, was that the players bought into his methods.

Had Sacchi been in today's Premier League and imparted a method so seemingly outlandish, he would have been passed off as another crazy Italian unable to deliver the art of "man-management". Martin O'Neill was supposed to be a master of this particular art, who could take players like Adam Johnson out of the hands of dastardly Italians like Roberto Mancini and show Manchester City fans what they had been missing.

Mancini's great demand of Johnson, and indeed all of his players, is a relentless drive of professionalism that seeks players to be on the top of their game every single week.

When Samir Nasri played well against Newcastle last weekend, Mancini said he wanted to punch him because he hadn't reached anywhere near that standard for the rest of the season -- it's harshly expressed but hardly unfair. Having reached the top of the mountain last season, Nasri and several others have relaxed and, as they slid downwards, Manchester United have passed them by.

Where Mancini believes that players should be self-motivated and as fit and professional as they can be, many of the players seem to feel that it is the manager's responsibility -- rather than their own -- to get them in that position.

In Italy, it's highly unlikely that a player of Johnson's ability could sign from Italy's equivalent of Middlesbrough as a 22-year-old on a contract which paid him £80,000-a-week, the figure he was on at Manchester City.

Giovanni Trapattoni has managed to fall out with even the most mild-mannered players in the Ireland squad -- none of whom could be accused of lacking motivation -- while Fabio Capello's time in charge of England was beset by players moaning at the iron hand with which he ruled.

BOREDOM

Before the 2010 World Cup, the England squad were based in Rustenburg in South Africa and stories were leaked of the boredom they were forced to endure.

Wayne Rooney spoke of the "breakfast, training, lunch, bed, dinner, bed" regime which would nearly have brought a tear to the eye of a Guantanamo inmate -- although only once they'd forgotten that England's main purpose was supposed to be to win the World Cup.

Last week, amid the avalanche of stories around his political views, Paolo Di Canio's methods at Swindon were being highlighted as a reason for Sunderland players to be fearful.

David James wrote yesterday about the "harsh and intense training methods" which Di Canio is said to have employed at Swindon, with tales of them being brought in at dawn on the morning after a poor performance.

"I can't imagine Paolo giving the Sunderland players much time off between now and the end of the season," added James, although any time off they have received this season clearly hasn't done them much good.

Yet most of the allegedly shocking stories about Di Canio's methods revolve around his training sessions and the demands that they eat the right food and hydrate properly when they are not training. Football is a rare professional sport in which this could have him portrayed as a monster rather than simply wanting his players to be at their best.

Yesterday's defeat against Chelsea leaves Sunderland outside the relegation zone on goal difference alone and, if they want, the players have excuses laid out for them if things don't work out -- Di Canio's political views were a distraction, his regime was dictatorial and his training was too hard. Again, it won't be because of the players.

Yet, since England won the World Cup in 1966, Italy have won two World Cups and one European Championships and lost in three more finals so they must be doing something right.

Like Johnson, English football might one day learn sometimes that it's not always somebody else's fault.

Online Editors