From The Durham Times: Short's Huge Gamble Cannot Afford To Fail

Ian MacNicol

Every week we pen a column for The Durham Times. Read it in the paper every Friday and it should be a little better than the reproduction you see here. Go buy it today!

In truth, it is difficult to know where to begin. A week ago, Sunderland were meandering their way to a wretched end to the season, an upcoming tussle with the champions-elect offering little in the way of hope.

Martin O'Neill's once bright light seemed dimmed, but the consensus among most on Wearside remained one of cautious optimism. O'Neill's magic touch would come eventually; get to the end of this season and then Sunderland can push on from there.

Now, the landscape could not be more different.

O'Neill, still much adored on Wearside, has departed. So have his backroom staff. Ellis Short moved swiftly to replace him, bringing in Paolo Di Canio - a man who has overseen just 95 games in his managerial career, none in a league higher than England's third tier.

It is, in a word, astonishing. O'Neill was enduring a torrid time, granted, but replacing him with such an untried manager is an enormous risk. That is before we even mention the baggage that has already weighed down the Italian since the moment he picked up the phone to first speak to his new employer.

Without getting mired in definitions of political ideologies and what Di Canio's past actions may or may not have meant, it is fair to say that this is an appointment which has left plenty with a poor taste in their mouths. This feeling was, of course, exacerbated by David Miliband. Miliband barely allowed Di Canio a foot in the Stadium of Light door before he himself was passing the opposite way.

Some will blame Miliband for the ensuing media circus that followed Di Canio's arrival, but it was always likely to happen: the brother of the current Labour Party leader will make a return to politics soon enough; this departure was simple expediency on his behalf.

As stated, discussions of fascism and Di Canio's political beliefs will be left aside here - they've seen plenty of coverage (some good, some bad) already. But I still cannot help but feel this has been a major misstep by Sunderland AFC.

For whatever reason, on Saturday evening it was made clear that Short had lost all faith in his former manager. It seems difficult to believe that a 0-1 loss to Manchester United would confirm Short's worries, even if that performance was worryingly flat, but instead it appears that the Black Cats chairman instead decided he must act before it was too late.

In a way, the arrival of Di Canio makes sense. He is, undoubtedly, a passionate character, one with a driven intensity and almost relentless thirst for victory. At Swindon Town he made plenty of enemies, but also got his side promoted at the first time of acting.

In addition, the availability of not just the Italian but also his entire backroom staff ensured that a fresh start could be made immediately. By Monday morning, not even two days since the United game, Sunderland's squad were under the stead of an entirely new band of men.

The problem is that Short has risked everything on this gamble. Some will say Sunderland were careering toward relegation anyway - it's not a view I share, I believe they'd have stayed up by the skin of their teeth - but, even so, if Di Canio does not manage to survive demotion, the long-term implications are surely far greater.

Sunderland's reputation has been damaged badly this week. Some will say they don't care, embracing an "us versus them" mentality with relish. But what if this side goes down? What if Di Canio remains in charge and soon starts upsetting people, scaring off players and disillusioning fans? A bit of chaos is all well and good when things on the pitch are going well - it is disastrous when they aren't.

Furthermore, the club has embarrassed itself from a PR standpoint. They have not been helped by certain sections of a blood-hungry media, with some journalists seeming in favour of a witch-hunt as opposed to meticulous reporting, but Sunderland's own conduct has had myself and plenty more cringing. Di Canio's statement on Wednesday afternoon, where he outlined that he was not, in fact, a fascist, was a good move - but it was three days too late. The stable door was finally closed, but the horse had long since bolted.

That is not to say that Di Canio is not deserving of full backing, however. Those that feel they can no longer support the club under his premiership are entitled to do so, but those that remain will now throw their full weight behind the Italian.

The new man needs a reaction and he needs it quick. Chelsea await this Sunday, before the terrifying prospect of the Tyne-Wear derby a week later. If Di Canio can pick something, anything, up from these two games, he will go some way to justifying his appointment. If he can't he must keep spirits high and look to capitalise on a crucial three game spell against Aston Villa, Stoke City and Southampton.

Ellis Short has gone all in. It's do or die time on Wearside.

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