It had already been eight days since Paolo Di Canio was officially appointed as the man to replace Martin O’Neill as Sunderland manager, but with the controversy surrounding Ellis Short’s choice, it felt much longer in the build-up to his first game.
The appointment was announced on the Sunday 31st March, only one day after Martin O’Neill was sacked as manager following a home defeat to Manchester United via a Titus Bramble own goal, with the speed of the appointment suggesting that it was already in the works as Sir Alex Ferguson’s side travelled north.
The end of the O’Neill era felt pretty inevitable at the time, but looking back it was a disastrous sequence of results following the closure of the January transfer window, that incidentally included the capture of Danny Graham from Swansea City for a reported fee of around £5 million.
As January ended we sat 11th in the Barclays Premier League after a goalless draw at Swansea, as Danny Graham made his final appearance from the bench before making the move to Wearside only two days later, but two draws and five defeats in the next seven meant we were in trouble.
Following the defeat to Manchester United we had fallen to be only one place and one point above the drop with seven games remaining. This made Ellis Short nervous, and when the American tycoon became nervous about our Premier League status then head would inevitably roll, and this was no exception.
Martin O’Neill was out and the following day, Paolo Di Canio was unveiled as the man to lead us to survival with a glowing report from the Sunderland owner upon the appointment:
Paolo is hugely enthused by the challenge that lies ahead of him. He is passionate, driven and raring to get started. The sole focus of everyone for the next seven games will be to ensure we gain enough points to maintain our top-flight status. I think that the chances of that are greatly increased with Paolo joining us.
The first casualty of the appointment would be our vice-chairman and non-executive director David Miliband, when the former foreign secretary resigned with a short statement:
In the light of the new manager’s past political statements, I think it right to step down.
The Italian had been linked with taking the managerial post at Reading and West Ham United, but Sunderland had moved quickly in capturing Di Canio and the resignation of David Miliband was only the beginning.
The following day there were calls for the new manager to clarify his position on previous statements of a political nature that were deemed as potentially racist or that Di Canio had fascist sympathies, which Sunderland claimed were insulting to their new manager and the “integrity of the club”, which was confirmed by words from chief executive Margaret Byrne:
It’s been disappointing to read some of the reaction. To accuse him now, as some have done, of being a racist or having fascist sympathies is insulting not only to him but to the integrity of this football club.
Anyone who has met Paolo and spoken with him personally, as we did in depth before making this appointment, will know that he is an honest man, a man of principle and a driven, determined and passionate individual.
It is disappointing that some people are trying to turn the appointment of a head coach into a political circus.
Despite the words from the clubs chief executive, the Durham Miners’ Association were unhappy with the appointment and asked the club to return the Wearmouth Miners’ Banner that was on permanent display in the Stadium of Light.
It was a long week, and we hadn’t even kicked a ball yet, but the following Saturday Di Canio’s first game in charge finally arrived. It was a daunting trip to the capital to face a Chelsea side managed by Rafa Benitez and were sitting 5th in the table, but the opening exchanges provided optimism for those who made the trip to West London.
For all we lacked class and conviction in the final third, the work ethic was there for all to see and the running from the likes of Alfred N’Diaye and Craig Gardner were keeping Eden Hazard and Juan Mata out of the game, with Conor Wickham tireless display up top providing hope we could get a stroke of luck.
And on the stroke of half-time, it actually happened. Sunderland were awarded a corner following a Wickham shot and from the resulting corner, César Azpilicueta managed to slice the ball into his own net to give us the lead and as soon as the game was restarted the referee blew for half-time.
Fernando Torres replaced Demba Ba at the interval and the second half was a completely different prospect for the away side and it only took two minutes for Chelsea to draw level via a Mattthew Kilgallon own goal. Eight minutes later, we were behind. A close range finish by Branislav Ivanovic was the result of constant pressure since the break and there wasn’t much hope of swinging the pendulum of the game in our favour once again.
It finished 2-1 and maybe because the early goal had given us hope of taking something out of the game, it felt worse and we were in big trouble, and seven days later we had a trip to St James’ Park as only six games remained to keep us up and we desperately needed something special.
Sunday 7th April, 2013
Barclays Premier League
Chelsea 2-1 Sunderland
[Kilgallon (OG) 47’, Ivanovic 55’ - Azpilicueta (OG) 45’]
Sunderland: Mignolet, Bardsley, O’Shea, Kilgallon, Rose, Larsson (McClean), Gardner (Colback), N’Diaye, Johnson, Sessegnon, Wickham Substitutes not used: Westwood, Mangane, Laidler, Graham, Mandron
Chelsea: Cech, Azpilicueta, Bertrand, Obi Miklel, Ivanovic, Luiz, Ramires, Oscar, Ba (Torres), Mata (Lampard), Hazard (Benayoun) Substitutes not used: Turnbull, Ferreira, Terry, Marin