From The Durham Times: Key Players Must React Approvingly To Di Canio Methods

Michael Regan

Every week we put out some thoughts to top local newspaper The Durham Times. Please, buy a copy upon it's release next Friday for just 50p, and have all your local sporting needs served! Until then, here's some waffle you could have read yesterday.

Paolo Di Canio's jaw-dropping sermon on the professionalism - or lack thereof - of his current Sunderland squad, dispensed after a late defeat to Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday evening, had plenty of red and white fans nodding in agreement.

After a season that has shocked and appalled plenty in the Stadium of Light stands, long-time Black Cats couldn't help but find comfort in the words of their new manager. Here, Di Canio was offering clear reasoning for the disaster that has been the 2012/13 season on Wearside: low standards coursing throughout the club like a poison.

Di Canio must be careful. His squad is bare as it is. Advocating the departures of a number of senior pros who, frankly, have proven themselves time and again unable to achieve the level of consistency required in England's top league, may well be agreeable. But, pragmatically, it would pitch Sunderland into murky waters.

Last season's long, drawn-out pursuit of Steven Fletcher offers an obvious insight into the difficulties of signing players - but especially the difficulties of recruiting players that your side desperately needs. Wolves knew full well of Martin O'Neill's need for a striker; unsurprisingly, a three month long tug of war ensued.

Should Di Canio opt for a full-scale removal of Sunderland's maladies, he will throw himself into a similar battle on a far larger scale. The Italian had just ten senior outfield players available for selection (not counting the self-destructive enigmas that are Phil Bardsley and Matt Kilgallon) on Sunday. Suspensions and injuries have played their part in that, but it remains that Sunderland already need a number of new signings this coming summer - before they even ship anyone out in the opposite direction.

Some, like Bardsley and Kilgallon, are undoubtedly on their way. Titus Bramble falls unmistakeably into that category also. What Di Canio must ensure is that his hardline disciplinary stance is nuanced in such a way as to accommodate the brighter sparks in an entirely dull playing squad.

Adam Johnson's utterances this week - that he is more than willing to work hard if more pleasing results are subsequently produced - is a good start. Johnson has flattered to deceive for much of the season, to plenty of people's chagrin, but he remains one of Sunderland's most naturally talented players. Di Canio's initial arrival saw the former Manchester City winger improve, as he was asked to play higher up the field, and his declaration of support for the manager was much needed.

Hard work should, of course, be the least expected of those in a profession so coveted as that of a Premier League footballer. Di Canio will hope that his outburst - which, make no mistake, was far more measured than it may have initially appeared - separates the proverbial wheat from the chaff.

In running to the PFA to bemoan his treatment over the past week, Phil Bardsley has placed himself firmly in the latter grouping. To Sunderland fans, it will be no shame, the right full-back is hardly a great loss, though it would currently leave the squad without a recognised wide defender on its books.

A bigger problem will come if those more pivotal to the red and white cause join in the backlash. John O'Shea is rumoured to be strongly in favour of a more hardened regime, while Jack Colback's recent performances have shown his desire to play to a higher standard than was previously expected of Sunderland players. Alfred N'Diaye, too, seems a safe bet.

Perhaps the most critical issue will be how Stephane Sessegnon reacts to the latest goings on. Sessegnon, upon Di Canio's arrival, immediately sprang into life - but will he be happy to induct himself into this new world?

Danny Graham and Connor Wickham are worries. Wickham has already been admonished by the new supremo - a move clearly intended to gee up the man once tipped as England's next big thing. Graham, meanwhile, has still yet to score and flits between gritty and galling performances with worrying frequency. With so few strikers currently signed to the club, they cannot afford to alienate the ones that are.

Whether enough of the current squad are willing to step into this brave new world of Paolo Di Canio, only time will tell. It is refreshing to see high standards demanded at a club that for so long has languished in mediocrity.

The most pressing question now is: are Sunderland, perennially mired in disappointment, simply too far gone?

CHRIS WEATHERSPOON

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