As the furore over Paolo Di Canio's political beliefs comes to merciful end attention will naturally turn to his managerial abilities, and in these coming weeks it is up to the Italian to show he's the right man for the job. His short term goal is simply to keep Sunderland in the Premier League, and he would certainly seem to have some of the attributes required to do that.
While the squad clearly lacks quality, what has perhaps been more worrying in recent weeks is just how little fight they've had. A poor team can make up for some of it's deficiencies by being well-organised, hard-working and spirited. However, under O'Neill, the players have limped to defeat after defeat, never looking motivated, and finding themselves sinking into a relegation battle without making so much as an attempt to stop the rot.
Di Canio brings with him the kind of passion, flare, and downright madness that could re-ignite the players drive and at least stop the downward momentum dragging us into the relegation mire. This was presumably Ellis Short's logic when he brought in the former Swindon boss. However, while these attributes will help him succeed at Sunderland in the short term, they could hinder any long-term ambitions Di Canio has at the club.
The Italian's well documented erratic nature means it's anyone's guess as to how long it will be before he falls out with someone at the club. Of course it would be unfair to call him just a 'fiery nutjob'; after all he brings with him modern training and fitness regimes that the club has sadly lacked in recent years. However it's hard to imagine that, given his character, Di Canio will be at the club for years to come, even if he suceeds in keeping us in the top division. Ex Swindon chief-executive Nick Watkins claimed Di Canio 'managed by hand grenade', and he had many fallings out with both his players and the board.
This was perhaps in Ellis Short's thinking when he gave the Italian the title of 'Head Coach' instead of 'Manager', and why he may bring a Director of Football in this summer, and with it a more continental approach to Sunderland's model.
The Director of Football, or Technical Director, role is one that invokes negative feelings from most British football fans. The failures of Damien Comolli and Dennis Wise are still fresh in supporter's minds, and while the role has been used more often in the lower leagues, it is often to little or no success. The achievements of Sir Alex Ferguson, known for the way he controls almost every part of Manchester United, leaves British fans distrustful of someone coming in above the manager and controlling transfer policy. Many believe that Ferguson's way is the only way to achieve success. For a lot of supporters, the manager controlling everything is sacred.
However Ferguson is a rarity, and most managers, especially in modern football, don't stay at a club long enough to gain the control the Scot has at United. Furthermore recent successes in British football has shown that a more continental approach can work very well. Dan Ashworth's success at West Brom gave the Midlands club a stable position in the Premier League, allowing them to ditch their 'yo-yo club' tag. Reading are another club for whom this system has worked extremely well, and while they've struggled this season and are certain for a quick return to the Championship, they will be in a very good position in terms of coming straight back up.
In appointing a Technical Director to steer the direction the club takes on the pitch, Sunderland would be able to come up with a long-term plan for achieving success. When Di Canio does leave after falling out with his players/falling out with the board/having his team goose-step out of the tunnel to the sounds of Wagner, the impact would be minimal, and we wouldn't have the worry of a new manager coming in with different ideas and wanting different players. We've seen how costly bringing in new managers can be in this regard. Steve Bruce spent a fortune on players, and when he failed, Martin O'Neill had to spend more money to build the squad he wanted, that played the way he wanted. Rather than have the manager dictate the style the team plays, the club would come up with a long-term decision on how to play and appoint coaches that shares these ideals (similar to what we've seen at Swansea).
The system simplifies the role the football managers plays at a club. It allows him to concentrate purely on coaching, without any off-field distractions. Instead he can focus on improving the ability of the players, coming up with tactical plans, and motivating the players to get the right result on the pitch. What better role for Di Canio, allowing him to keep his full attention on coaching, and not get mired in boardroom politics.
Many would argue that we can't expect a Head Coach to work with players that aren't his own. However, this suggests he has no say what-so-ever in transfer policy, when in fact, in the case of West Brom and Reading, as well as many other top clubs in Europe, the manager works closely with the Technical Director and the scouting department in deciding which players would be right for the squad. For example if Paolo Di Canio feels a strong defensive midfielder is needed, he could discuss it with his Technical Director and look at the players available to sign. Transfer policy would not just be the job of one man, but a collective one by many key figures at the club, including the Head Coach.
Furthermore, we've seen that football mangers aren't always that adept at building a squad. Take the example of Steve Bruce, who built three different squads in his two and a half years at Sunderland. Considering the money Di Canio spent on agents fees during his time at Swindon (the Wiltshire club spent just under half a million on agents fees in 2011/12, a quite astronomical amount for a League 2 outfit), it might not be the wisest decision to give the Italian full control over transfer policy.
In appointing a Technical Director to oversee transfer policy, youth development and the scouting network, as well as making sure the club are moving in the right direction, Sunderland can produce the kind of long-term thinking they've often lacked in recent years. With the Academy of Light attaining Category One status in the EPPP, and with the club in a fairly healthy financial position, the infrastructure and the resources are there for the continental system to work, and for Sunderland to finally come up with a plan of how they can achieve success in the long-term.