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Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Paolo Di Canio Unveiling - Academy of Light

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Ten years on, Paolo di Canio’s appointment remains a high water mark for Sunderland-related insanity

The combustible Italian was hired as Martin O’Neill’s replacement and one knee-sliding celebration and a couple of wins apart, his time on Wearside was a genuine ‘what the hell was that?’ episode

Photo by Owen Humphreys/PA Images via Getty Images

In late 2011, I don’t think you’d have found a Sunderland fan who wasn’t genuinely excited to hear that we’d finally lured Martin O’Neill to Wearside, to pick up the reins at the club he’d supported as a boy.

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Sunderland v Fulham - Stadium of Light Photo by Owen Humphreys/PA Images via Getty Images

Steve Bruce’s generally solid if often frustrating spell had fizzled out in predictable fashion, and the time was finally right for the Ulsterman to take charge and oversee a genuine and sustained upturn in our fortunes, or so we hoped.

However, eighteen months later, I also suspect you’d have found very few fans who would’ve chosen Paolo di Canio as O’Neill’s replacement after our form took an alarming downturn in early 2013, with the ex-Celtic boss seemingly unable to arrest the slide.

So, ten years on from his appointment and comically short spell in the Stadium of Light dugout, how should we analyse his time at the helm?

Even as I write that sentence, I still find myself doing a double take.

Paolo do Canio, Sunderland manager. It sounded crazy back in 2013 and the passage of time has not altered it.

For me, his entire stint in charge represents both the most surreal episode in our recent history, as well as one of the most baffling and illogical decisions made by Ellis Short during his time as owner.

Even if you could look beyond the fascist leanings and the powder keg personality (which many couldn’t, not least the Durham Miners’ Association, who demanded the removal of their banner from the stadium foyer in a very public protest) the former West Ham striker, a mesmeric genius with a football at his feet, didn’t seem to possess a single attribute that made you think, ‘Yes, he’s the right man to replace a respected, experienced and capable man as boss of this club’.

Still, that didn’t deter Short, and when the Italian breezed into the Academy of Light following O’Neill’s departure, the American didn’t hold back as he offered an emphatic seal of approval.

“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.”

At the time, I’d be lying if I said that Di Canio’s appointment wasn’t intriguing.

He certainly didn’t lack bravado and after the peculiarly flat ending to O’Neill’s time in charge, was the Italian the proverbial ‘Roman candle’ who could reignite our season and perhaps the club as a whole?

Suffice it to say, it didn’t quite work out that way.

Yes, there were the wins over Newcastle and Everton (the former defined by his infamous knee sliding celebration and the latter a brilliant example of the ‘new manager bounce’ ) but even during those early weeks, there were warning signs that this was a collaboration built on shaky foundations.

Aston Villa v Sunderland - Premier League Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

A 6-1 hammering at Villa Park, a game during which we lacked shape, discipline and organisation to a startling degree, certainly set the alarm bells ringing and it’s safe to say that we scraped, rather than sprinted, towards Premier League survival.

Still, survive we did, and after a 1-0 final day defeat at Tottenham following some midweek shenanigans involving Phil Bardsley and Matt Kilgallon, Di Canio was adamant that change was imminent and that certain players who’d crossed the line would be shown the door.

“These players will not be here next year - not under me.”

“The owner and I are going to sit at the table and go through but he knows many things.”

It was hardline, crowd pleasing stuff but realistically, how could such a loose cannon espouse the virtues of discipline and self restraint when he himself had seldom behaved in such a way?

The summer of 2013 was one of the craziest we’d ever seen, as Sunderland infamously tried to embrace a European style of operating (the ‘Dortmund model’ on heavy duty steroids, if you will) as a wave of players, many of them completely unknown, arrived on Wearside.

Some of these names are the kind that would pop up in football quizzes for years to come: Valentin Roberge, Emanuele Giaccherini, Cabral, Modibo Diakité, David Moberg Karlsson and countless others.

Indeed, if you wanted ‘scarf pictures’ during this time, you were in luck, as player after player was unveiled in a frenzied blur of transfer activity.

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Sunderland v Fulham - Stadium of Light Photo by Richard Sellers - PA Images via Getty Images

Quite what the logic was behind it, we never quite discovered, but perhaps we equated such a turnover of players with a fresh start and that opting for a continental approach was the change we needed.

Indeed, when Di Canio took the team to the Far East for the immensely prestigious Barclays Asia Trophy and Karlsson made a positive impression as we claimed a victory over Tottenham, hope was raised that we’d actually changed course for the better.

However, like the entirety of his time in charge, it proved to be nothing less than an illusion, and the 2013/2014 season started in wretched fashion, with no wins from our first eight league games and a succession of inept, witless performances.

I remember watching the Crystal Palace away game at the John Duck pub in Durham and being left dumbfounded at how things had unravelled.

John O’Shea’s fantastically stupid red card really did sum up the entire game, and the sight of Di Canio standing utterly helplessly on the touchline as Stuart O’Keeffe curled home a winner was a perfect visual metaphor for the whole sorry saga.

His eventual departure felt as inevitable as an Erling Haaland hat trick, and he was replaced by a man who balanced obvious passion for the game with far greater tactical nous in Gus Poyet.

The former Brighton boss had a positive impact, eventually guiding us to top flight survival and the League Cup final, and somehow getting a tune out of Connor Wickham in the process.

In his wake, however, the Italian firebrand left a ridiculously disjointed squad in poor shape and sitting in a perilous league position, as well as a fanbase left scratching their heads at what had happened.

Crystal Palace v Sunderland - Premier League Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images

There’s a theory that persists to this day which claims that Di Canio ‘got’ the deep seated cultural problems at the club and that his hardline ethos would’ve eventually yielded success.

It’s also argued that his passion, if channelled in the right way, was exactly what we needed from the man calling the shots, but I didn’t believe it then and the passage of time hasn’t done anything to alter that.

He was the wrong man at the wrong club at the wrong time, and I always felt that his appointment represented a turning point for the worse, as the conveyor belt starting moving towards a series of desperation appointments as any sense of stability disappeared and our slow, painful descent began.

The fact that Di Canio has achieved the square root of nothing in management since his spell at Sunderland just about says it all.

Of all the appointments we made between 2007 and 2022, his was perhaps the most ridiculous, and hopefully we never find ourselves entering such unstable territory again.


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