It sounds like a story straight from the compendium of tabloid summer-silly-season stories; a former title-winning Internazionale Milano manager pushes for a move to newly flush Premier League Sunderland, only for his agent to pooh-pooh the story, and for the club to instead pay a king’s ransom to secure a solid-yet-unspectacular “safe pair of hands” in their quest to progress to the next level.
It’s also one of those “what might have been” moments in our recent history.
As Mancini prepares his Italian national side for the European Championships, we recall the time when the man who had starred at Italia ‘90, was pivotal to Sampdoria’s solitary scudetto in 1991, and won three consecutive Serie A titles as Inter manager, briefly flirted with a move to Wearside.
He was quoted in the press as being enthusiastic about the opportunity of swapping north west Italy for north east England:
I am honoured to have had an offer from Sunderland Football Club. It is a fantastic opportunity. It will be truly wonderful to lead such a prestigious and historic club in England after a year of sitting on the sidelines. I feel I am ready to start again with immense enthusiasm.
American billionaire Ellis Short had taken complete control of Sunderland AFC only days earlier, and surely this factor had played into Mancini’s enthusiastic response to the Black Cats approach. However, cold water was poured on the whole idea by his agent, Georgio De Giorgis, who denied the approach had even taken place:
We have not received an offer, nor have we been in touch with anyone from Sunderland. There has been interest from English teams, but Sunderland is not one of them.
There was indeed interest in his client from England; Mancini was eventually plucked that summer by Manchester City, whose ownership had passed to the unfathomably wealthy Abu Dhabi royal family, to be the man to take them, eventually, to the Premier League title in 2011.
Regardless of where the truth lay in the conflicting accounts of about Mancini to Sunderland, Short and Chairman Niall Quinn’s attention had already turned to Wigan manager and ex-Manchester United defender Steve Bruce, as their favoured man. Club officials even flew out to Portugal to meet with the author of celebrated crime novels Striker!, Sweeper!, and Defender! in order to secure his services for the season ahead.
Wigan Athletic’s chairman, Dave Wheelen, ever the wily businessman, ensured that he recouped the world-record £3 million release fee that he’d been forced to pay Bruce’s previous employers, Birmingham City, when the Wallsend-native signed on for his second spell at the DW Stadium two years previously.
Bruce was confirmed as Sunderland boss two days later, and went on to lead the club to a respectable 13th play finish in the league in his first campaign in charge. His time on Wearside is hardly remembered as a time of exciting football and glorious victories, but he maintained our Premier League status for two seasons with a pretty much par win percentage of 29 per cent.