“Why have Sunderland hired a Nazi manager?!” a non-football following friend asked me on Facebook on Sunday evening.
I, as much as anybody, was surprised by the timing of the dismissal of Martin O’Neill. To say it was a ‘shock,’ however, would be going a bit too far. Performances have been inadequate this season. The team has been terminally devoid of any spark. Most significantly, O’Neill had lost the magic with which his management style had always been associated. His first three months on Wearside were incredible, but the team soon settled down into mediocrity (and that is being generous).
I think most Sunderland fans had probably come to a realisation in recent weeks: this would be O’Neill’s last (only, I suppose would be most accurate) season with the club. Still, few would have expected the axe to fall at this time. Perhaps more significantly, even fewer were actually baying for his head. O’Neill still commands a great deal of respect and admiration amongst the Sunderland supporters. His time at the club, for one reason or another, just didn’t work out.
Whatever people’s views on Ellis Short’s decision to sack O’Neill, and the thought processes that went into making the decision at that time, soon pales into irrelevance. The fact of the matter was that on Saturday night O’Neill was no longer the manager of Sunderland AFC, and the process of finding a new manager was underway.
While the sacking was not a ‘shock,’ I think the appointment of Paolo Di Canio was. The move was either bold or risky, two words which have essentially the same meaning but each with a different emphasis. His only previous job came at Swindon Town (where he achieved significant success in both League One and Two), and he has never managed in the top flight.
He was a controversial figure at Swindon, but every voice I’ve heard come out of that club has said positive things. His management style is unique, but clearly effective. It would be unfair to judge him on the next seven games, when truly anything could happen and he has little scope for change. But Di Canio has promise as a manager. What is for certain is that he will introduce some excitement and entertainment into a club which has become stale and stagnant.
The discussion about his management style, his passion on the sidelines and his relations with players are all important ones. Yet they have been largely (completely?) overlooked.
The problem started with David Miliband’s resignation. On Monday night, John Motson on Radio 5 Live questioned how Miliband would have been able to continue as club vice-president anyway, considering his lucrative and high-profile new charity job in New York, which forced his resignation as MP for South Shields last week.
I am a Labour supporter, and had been an admirer of Miliband. But he seems to have quickly jumped to a conclusion on Di Canio’s political beliefs using only a miniscule and selective cross-section of the available materials. He did so surely only to protect his own back, like a true politician. If anything, this reveals Miliband still has ambitions to return to front-line politics in the UK.
But Miliband has turned out to be the snowdrop which set off the avalanche. Season ticket holders and supporters groups have come out to voice their displeasure. It has been headline news, back-page and front, inspiring radio phone-ins and expert discussions. We have Miliband to thank for setting it all off.
The club’s response on Monday did little to help matters. Yet the club did not really allay the fears of many fans. I get the impression that Sunderland try to do everything by the book, but sometimes that can leave a lot to be desired.
Di Canio is no fool; put him in front of an assembled press and I’m sure he could answer their questions, perhaps in his own unique manner, and dispel any lingering doubts about his fitness to manage Sunderland. The statement which was released by the club, on the other hand, was too rigid and inconclusive.
Nonetheless, Di Canio’s quotes on the matter were admirable; he expressed disappointment that certain things he had said in the past had been taken out of context. During his time at Sunderland he intends to keep politics out of football. It is probably significant that, since the Roman salute incident when playing for Lazio in 2005, Di Canio has not made any statements of politics.
Di Canio’s Roman salute was ill-judged. Nobody is trying to justify it. But when you actually read enough of what Di Canio has said in the past, it soon transpires that many of his views are not fascist at all. Excerpts from interviews and biographies have revealed Di Canio to hold views on race, multi-culturalism and class-conflict which in fact are the antithesis of right-wing belief. He has expressed a ‘fasicnation’ with (note, not support of) Mussolini, but also criticised his ‘vile’ actions and how he compromised his principles.
That is not to say that Di Canio is not a fascist. He has self-identified as a fascist in the past, but significantly not recently. He is certainly far from the ‘Nazi’ which my friend narrow-mindedly called him. When introduced on Monday he expressed his dismay at the media storm-in-a-teacup over his politics. At no point in this process has Di Canio brought up the issue of his beliefs himself; instead he has asserted his wish to concentrate on the football.
Whatever his private political beliefs, he has a right to hold them. He has made some rash choices in the past, which he may or may not regret, but management often makes a man mature. Roy Keane, anybody? Have no doubt, if he cracks out the Roman salute in the technical area he will be sacked instantly, and his chances of another managerial job (in England at least) would be reduced to zero.
And what has been forgotten in the maelstrom is what he has said about affairs on the pitch. He already looks set to shake things up. He is clearly going to inject some passion into the club. And boy is it desperately needed.