Sport Soccer

Sunday 18 March 2018

Sunderland wanted Di Canio and Di Canio is what they got

Dion Fanning

Who knows what went on in the minds of those who decided that Paolo Di Canio would be the best man to manage Sunderland?

The mind of Paolo Di Canio hasn't been hidden from us but perhaps one day the autobiography of Margaret Byrne or Ellis Short will contain indices similar to the index in Di Canio's autobiography. Due diligence probably requires more than scanning through the last few pages of a book but if Short had decided to dismiss Di Canio's spell at Swindon as irrelevant and concluded that he couldn't find time to read his autobiography, a glimpse at the index would have given him some idea of the man he was appointing.

It is a wonderful index. Under 'Di Canio, Paolo' there's a series of arresting entries. After 'acting career 26-9' and 'Alcock incident 5, 171, 201-24' there are six entries starting 'argument with'. They include 'argument with Trapattoni 127-30' and 'argument with Ferguson (Ian) 175-6'.

But the arguments do not get to the soul of the index which is indeed the soul of the man. There is the 'gesturing incident 248-51', immediately followed by 'head-shaving incident 126'. There is, of course, the entry which was the seed for many of his problems at Sunderland, 'love of cola drinks, 39-40'.

This childhood devotion – 'Remember how I said I loved cola drinks? Well, that's an understatement. I was obsessed with it, that fizzy sweetness hitting my throat was like a drug' – grew into something damaging, not just for him but eventually for the footballers of Sunderland who found that cola was out and cola and ice – a cause of indigestion – was banned.

Di Canio developed serious liver problems as a child thanks to his cola addiction and perhaps this was the moment when the door opened and let the future in, a future which included his bleak if brief time at Sunderland which didn't begin and end with the banning of cola but also included the banning of many other things too.

Di Canio considered it his pastoral duty to educate his players but he seemed to be adopting Al Capone's philosophy that you get further with a 'kind word and a gun than just a kind word', with Di Canio abandoning the kind word.

This was his philosophy of management and his philosophy of life. It was charted in the index.

There was a 'bike incident 32-7' and, naturally, a 'fish-head incident 158-60'. It also included 'psychological problems 221-4' and 'panic attacks 102-3' which might have suggested that Di Canio knew himself even if Short didn't.

Perhaps Short studied all this and anticipated the problems which led to Di Canio's dismissal, in which case he could be criticised for his impatience. Perhaps Di Canio was worse than Short imagined which means he has a very poor imagination. Perhaps Short longed for some of these values to be imposed on players who had frustrated him. Perhaps he craved strong leadership. Paolo Di Canio was hired to be Paolo Di Canio and he was fired for being Paolo Di Canio. There was too much Paolo Di Canio, especially as Paolo Di Canio referred to himself as Paolo Di Canio when he talked and Paolo Di Canio talked a lot.

Yet Di Canio may be due some sympathy, not for his management, but for being put into a job for which he was temperamentally unsuited.

Among the lurid stories last week, one claimed that whenever he addressed the players collectively he referred to them as "you f**king pricks". There are plenty of people who believe this is an accurate description of Premier League players. There are plenty of managers who would believe it. But the ones who remind the players of it repeatedly don't last long. Di Canio's relentless pursuit of the truth exhausted those around him. In comparison, Roy Keane's time at Sunderland seems like a joyous age of freedom with Keane as a Ron Atkinson-figure, presiding over a carefree club as he quipped good-naturedly about the personal and professional failings of his players in the style of Mr Bojangles himself.

The problem with Keane, they said at Sunderland, was that you never knew which Keane was going to show up. The problem with Di Canio was that you knew exactly which Di Canio would show up. Every day. Every minute. Every hour. "I have been working 24 hours a day," he said last Saturday and the problem was not the exaggeration, but that it was possible to believe him and to be scared by the truth.

Ellis Short and Margaret Byrne let Di Canio's personality loose upon Sunderland. They were unprepared for the storm about his fascist beliefs. Then they were unprepared when it turned out that appointing a man with a tattoo of Mussolini on his back, who would have to clarify the distinction between fascism and racism, would not be their greatest problem.

They wanted Paolo Di Canio without Paolo Di Canio and for that it is hard to blame Paolo Di Canio when it turns out he couldn't remove Paolo Di Canio from his central role in Paolo Di Canio's life.

He was an innocent in many ways: a deranged, egomaniacal obsessive innocent, perhaps, but an innocent nonetheless.

Being a deranged, egomaniacal obsessive often appears to be the first requirement of management. There is a need for madness, or at least an unreasonableness which resembles madness. Through years of resisting the voices on the outside and being unreasonable when unreasonableness is required, a manager may often become paranoid, deluded and stubborn, driven mad by the requirements of the job.

Di Canio appeared to start with a natural advantage. Harry Redknapp defended him on Friday but said that Di Canio would have to change "his philosophy" if he wants to succeed in management. Change will be hard. Paolo Di Canio's philosophy looks a lot like Paolo Di Canio.

Sunday Independent

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