In defence of Sunderland's Di Canio appointment

The Black Cats were derided for sacking their manager just five games into the new season but, in truth, they never expected the volatile Italian to be a long-term appointment
By Wayne Veysey | Chief Correspondent

Sunderland have been widely derided for giving Paolo Di Canio the platform for one of the most volatile managerial reigns in Premier League history.

There has been no shortage of critics to question the club’s logic in appointing a combustible Italian with a mediocre coaching CV, an ego that exceeds his considerable playing talent and whose man-management skills seem restricted to scaring the living daylights out of his players and staff.

Yet Sunderland sources have said that there was never any great expectation among club chiefs that Di Canio’s reign would be a lengthy and trouble-free one.

“He did the job we wanted him to do last season,” one insider told Goal. “He kept us up. We knew it could all unravel at some point but the most important thing was maintaining our Premier League status.”


The gratitude extended to Di Canio was widespread on Wearside last season, even if it should be noted that Sunderland were 16th when he arrived and 17th when the campaign ended.

Yet he briefly energised the players, steered the team to a pivotal 3-0 victory over rivals Newcastle United when the club’s top-tier position was in the balance and gave those in the media business some of the most captivating copy any could remember. He pulled off the impressive feat of making Joe Kinnear look colourless and uninteresting by comparison.

For Sunderland, Di Canio was only ever a short-term fix. He provided a sticking plaster for a weeping wound and, once it had healed, he lacked the bedside manner and all-round skills to soothe the other cuts and bruises.

The board, led by American owner Ellis Short and youthful chief executive Margaret Byrne, have been criticised for ignoring Di Canio’s fascist sympathies at a club with deep roots in a working-class community, and for failing to properly research the Italian’s character and coaching style.  

There is much justification for the former. Sunderland were naïve, at best, in overlooking Di Canio’s political beliefs.

However, sources say club chiefs knew they were taking a gamble in appointing Di Canio, whose only previous experience came in the lower leagues with Swindon Town. They did not anticipate he would alienate the playing staff quite so quickly but nor was there the expectation that he would be blowing out 10 candles on his Sunderland anniversary cake in 2023.

Short, who made his millionaire fortune in hedge funds, would also have calculated that the package pay-off for Di Canio, who only signed a two-and-a-half-year contract when he was appointed, is minimal compared to the windfall from being a Premier League club in the first season of the mammoth new broadcasting deal, when the bottom-placed team are guaranteed £20million more than last season.

Sunderland believe that, by dismissing Di Canio with 33 league matches remaining, the club have minimised the damage to their campaign and allowed the new man, expected to be Gus Poyet, plenty of time to address the team's failings.

Di Canio's successor will have to gel the 14 new signings from the summer into the team but the players were signed by Roberto Di Fanti, the director of football, not the former manager.

Di Canio was merely responsible for identifying the squad position he wanted to improve and the type of player for the role, but it was his countryman, a former agent, who selected the individual players.

As with most clubs who utilise this continental-style model, the responsibility of the head coach, a title that Di Canio was happy with, is to get the best possible results from the talent pool at his disposal.

Sunderland deemed Di Canio to have ultimately failed in that respect and, following a dressing room rebellion at his methods, made a quick kill to limit the long-term damage.