The former Black Cat says he did not agree with Martin O'Neill's sacking but feels that the Italian can win critics around by getting a result in the derby at St James' Park
By Russell Stoddart
Former Sunderland winger Kevin Kilbane believes that Paolo Di Canio will silence his critics and become an instant Wearside hero with victory over Newcastle in Sunday's North East derby.
Both clubs are battling to avoid relegation but the Black Cats are deepest in the mire, only their superior goal difference keeping them above 18th-placed Wigan.
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Since joining the Magpies from Toulouse in January, the Frenchman's impact has been nothing short of immense. The 26-year-old's influence on games from the middle of the park alone has won Newcastle vital points, while the box-to-box midfielder is clearly unafraid to venture forward and make a difference in the penalty area. With a raucous home crowd set to act as the 12th man for their side on Sunday, the stage could well be set for Sissoko to produce another match-winning performance - one that could ensure his side's Premier League safety.
Goals have been a huge problem for Sunderland this season with the Black Cats netting just 34 times in 32 games. Eleven of those have come from star striker Steven Fletcher but Paolo Di Canio will have to look elsewhere after the Scotland striker was ruled out for the season with a ligament injury. As such, the emphasis will be on January signing Graham to inflict the necessary damage if the visitors are to come away from St James' Park with goals and - most importantly - three desperately needed points.
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The Republic of Ireland star told Goal.com: "I didn't agree with Martin O'Neill's sacking or the timing of it but all Sunderland fans need to get behind his successor.
"The board decided that Martin had good players but there was a lack of confidence and went for Di Canio because he has the charisma to inject belief and a new approach.
"If you lack confidence, you are fraught with nerves and there is nothing more nerve-wracking than a north-east derby match.
"It doesn't matter if you don't like Di Canio's personality as a player or a manager, it is all about results and he has to be judged on results.
"He deserved to get the job because of what he achieved at Swindon. He might have had a big budget for the lower leagues but I've known managers with big budgets who've not been able to make the most of it."
Kilbane has no doubt that the rewards are there for Di Canio if he can leave St James' Park with three points, adding: "I spent three seasons at Sunderland and, although there were a lot of lows, including relegation, I was involved in the club's last win at Newcastle in 2000-2001 – the highlight of my time at the club.
"We beat them 2-1 with goals from Don Hutchison and Niall Quinn but the game is remembered for Thomas Sorensen's penalty save from Alan Shearer. The players gained hero status after that win and even now the fans still talk about it.
|11/1||Sunderland are 11/1 with Bet365 to beat Newcastle 1-0
The Italian is a divisive character who has already ruffled some feathers by criticising the players' fitness levels but Kilbane suspects that it is a smokescreen.
"I was surprised when Di Canio said that because I don't think fitness is an issue at this stage of the season," he observed. "He is just trying to shake things up a bit and has used it as an excuse to raise the intensity within the squad.
"Modern-day players look after their bodies, so nutrition and fitness are small matters in what decides an outcome of a match. Di Canio must focus on building up confidence and getting his tactics spot-on.
"I'm confident Sunderland can get a least a point and will pick up all three if Newcastle's Europa League game against Benfica tires their legs."