Seven minutes into the League cup tie against MK Dons, Ji Dong-Won misplaced a pass straight to an opponent. Chelsea loanee Patrick Bamford quickly capitalised on this and dispatched the ball past Vito Mannone. Ji's confidence evaporated instantaneously upon realising his mistake had cost the team. He floundered his way through to half time looking like a player bereft of belief. Upon returning to the field for the second half, his confidence was still visibly absent without leave. Ji cut a lonely figure as he was hastily substituted just four minutes after half time, trundling off to a mixture of boos and sarcastic cheers.
Due to a lack of any other options, Ji retained his place in the first eleven for the trip to Crystal Palace. Another poor performance followed, including one incident which particularly irked Di Canio. Ji pulled out of a header for fear of getting injured. "I can’t change the heart of my players" was the managers response. This was a visceral and damning attack on Ji's character. Di Canio's apologists have said of these public attacks on players, that he chose wisely the players he singled out. The MK Dons game showed Ji was not the strong, bullish personality who would be stoked by public denigration. This relationship between the South Korean striker and the departed Italian encapsulates in microcosm Di Canio's poor man management skills. It is baffling that Di Canio would treat so harshly someone who had shown himself to be so mentally fragile.
Added to this was the mystifying handling of Cabral, publicly saying that we would lose games if he played. Adam Johnson said that the public denunciation of the players could kill their confidence, and this in hindsight this seems eerily prescient. Obviously none of us outside can claim to speak authoritatively about what happened following the West Brom game which lead to his Di Canio's sacking. However these few examples which have seeped out of the club seem to be telling in his obstinate and unwavering approach to man management.
Unfortunately, Di Canio is such an effusive and charismatic talker who drew you in and seduced you with his visions of the future of Sunderland AFC. His promises to whip into shape these privileged, but slovenly, overpaid millionaires while playing exciting, attacking football was only going to play well with fans. I think we'd be lying if we said we weren't all seduced by it to some extent. The problem is that this utopian ideal he sold us just does not work in practice, as encapsulate by his handling of Ji Dong-Won.
As much as we'd all like to change this archetype of the pampered millionaire and hope the players could get their heads down and let the criticism bounce off them, they are people first and foremost. People react to criticism in different ways and people perform better depending on how they are managed. Di Canio seemed to be uncompromising in his approach, refusing to ever be the arm round the shoulder type of manager which some personalities need to really thrive. This inability to compromise ultimately alienated his squad and his downfall was entirely of his own making.