Paolo Di Canio has commenced his mission to change perceptions and ambitions at the Stadium of Light. He can see through the veil of underachievement of a team, nay a club. He can see the burden of optimism from fans and wants to turn that burden into something positive, a foundation stone. He wants to change a mind-set of setting up not to fail, to being set up to succeed. After all, there’s not a Sunderland fan in the world who would complain at failure if every player has given their all along the way.
Sunderland fans historically have regularly watched players walk the fine line between mediocrity and committed, and on passion they accepted those players into their hearts. If I was honest I’ve done it myself, but now is the time to say this stops. Paolo wants good quality, exciting, passionate, attacking football and there seems to be no place for passengers who can only hail to "cover every blade of grass" or make "full blooded challenges". The more I consider our affinity with players from yesteryear, and I mean no disrespect to those professionals who delivered 100 %, nor do not I want to defile fans memories but when I look at how fans took to those "cult heroes" and their place in our club’s history, I think it’s what we felt we were worth. Like I say, I wouldn’t change a thing no one can take away lung-busting performances that made you proud to be a Sunderland fan, but equally I think we settled for it, we didn’t aspire for more. In the modern game, I think we’ve gone even further. I think we look at WAGs, Cribs, flash cars and we feel our worth is less, that we couldn’t entice those players to the North East.
This is what I want to challenge, but in the right way.
We’ve got a man tirelessly working towards the biggest overhaul of our club that I’ve ever seen. We’ve had changes in management and personnel before, we’ve raised our game (a little) for transfer targets, but let’s not understate it – this is an overhaul, a revolution as Paolo calls it. He wants mentality changed, he wants every player to be (as a minimum) fully prepared physically and tactically for every game. He wants to stop talk of other clubs helping us out, to fine players for disrespecting the club, the fans, the hard earned cash that we work so hard for that we put into the club, whether directly in tickets and merchandise or indirectly to the fans who travel away at great expense to support the team. He wants players to know that just the same as the working man, attending is not a choice for the footballer it’s an obligation to his employer.
The club’s recent appointments in terms of experienced Italian backroom staff, highlights that in the modern game one man cannot deliver the aspirations of a City single-handedly. At the end of the day, even if Paolo et al are able to deliver 100% on their ambitions for the club, we still have a massive challenge ahead, which is everyone’s responsibility, not least Sunderland Council. This is not about knocking the council, but it’s about reinforcing to them that the bar has been raised for all. If we want to overhaul the football club, what benefit is there if we don’t build on this as a City. If we want to attract top players, to play at the highest level, then we need a city that reflects this.
There’s been a lot of talk about Italy since Paolo’s appointment so let’s look at Naples, for instance, a club which has qualified for the Champions League, in a city with a reputation for being a filthy, crime ridden city with problems of poverty and history of organised crime. How long before Napoli disappears back to its more consistent level of being a top-flight team than a CL regular? It depends upon how long the club can sustain achievement and fulfil ambitions of all involved. Napoli has been fortunate to have been in this position before, having arguably the best player of our generation plying his trade in Naples. What of Napoli between say 1991-2010, a decline wouldn’t understate their fortunes.
In order to attract top players, unfortunately there’s more to it than the courting club, its facilities and its wage structure. Sunderland City has a bigger challenge than the club, but the rewards are proportionately bigger.
If you look historically at European Capital of Culture (nominees and successful cities) there are many that share our economic problems, but again it’s down to being individually and collectively fully committed to improve.
At the end of last season (when I wrote this) I read a flippant comment in the Guardian, which sums up the scale of our challenge.
"The Saint Etienne midfielder Joshua Guilavogui has been hearing voices: "The English and German championships talk to me and make me dream," says the 22-year-old, who may wish he'd gone easy on the cheese when he wakes up in Sunderland."
Would the same have been said of Naples?
Whether Paolo can look at all these challenges and push that proverbial elephant up the stairs remains to be seen, but one thing is clear now. As a club we will never succeed if we don’t give it our best shot. As a City we will never succeed if we don’t give it our best shot.
Roy Keane’s mantra of "fail to prepare, prepare to fail" seems like a sound-bite in comparison to the fervour Paolo has brought to Wearside. We all need to sit up, pay attention and play our parts.