What now Paolo?
Sunderland's decision to call time on Paolo Di Canio's tenure after just 13 games would seem ridiculously harsh by normal standards, but Philip Cornwall argues it was ultimately nothing less inevitable. Will Di Canio get another crack at the Premier League? Our man isn't so sure...
By Philip Cornwall
Last Updated: 23/09/13 9:33am
Paolo Di Canio, the first Premier League casualty of the season after only five games, probably wasn't overly surprised by Sunderland's decision. When it comes to getting the sack, life for football managers is more than a little different to that of the rest of us. On the one hand, it is more or less certain that they will receive the chairman's call sooner or later; on the other, the fact that it is inevitable means you must be steeled to the possibility.
The blow, when it comes, will still be grievous, whatever the compensation. But it can be a release if you have lived months under pressure, the subject of extended speculation and the star of awkward press conferences. There is often the knowledge that even if the end was immiserating then at some point there was a honeymoon of sorts, some period when the questions were about success rather than failure, some positive headlines to remember. You can even look at what went wrong in the closing months and see what lessons you can learn, too. And you are in a profession in which because the sack is so frequent you will know plenty of peers who have suffered the same fate and wound up back in work in a short space of time.
In many ways, being a football manager is one long job interview: not for the post you have now, but the one you will be trying to land when the current gig ends. What have you done at one club that will impress the chairman of another?
All of this brings us to the question: what if anything has Di Canio done at Sunderland that would encourage someone else to appoint him? And it is hard to conclude that there is anything positive for the Italian to draw from this experience. Thirteen matches is not long enough to judge a manager, really. Sacking someone so soon is more a judgement on the appointment in the first place. Sunderland are admitting they made a mistake; and after what has happened, why would anyone else want to follow in their footsteps?
When Martin O'Neill was sacked in March and the combustible former Swindon manager named his successor, Ellis Short and co no doubt expected a certain level of curiosity about the mercurial individual they had chosen to fight off relegation. His playing career was full of memorable moments; the camera loves him and the sight of his histrionics was bound to draw attention. For a club who struggle to attract attention, here was a manager to put them on the back pages.
What is undeniable is that Sunderland stayed up. It was effectively one match - the 3-0 win at Newcastle - that lifted the Italian's points-per-game record appreciably above that of O'Neill, and the identity of the opposition in that win masked the patchiness of Di Canio's impact. With hindsight the 6-1 thumping by a struggling Aston Villa side was far more representative of the state of the club in his opening couple of months.
Di Canio talked a decent game in the summer, as long as you didn't pay too much attention to what he was saying. "We knew before that we were going to make a revolution," he said as the changes to the squad mounted up. "Obviously, the numbers were as important as the quality." Really?
The sight of Stephane Sessegnon putting West Brom on their way to Saturday's victory epitomised the folly of such an approach. Perhaps some of the signings will come good in the long run and he will argue that five matches of the campaign was too early to reach a final judgment on his strategy. But the scale of the change meant that the newcomers were joining a team that was too unstable, mimicking the personality of its manager.
Aside from the visit of Arsenal these were all games against Sunderland's immediate peers. Crystal Palace are 19th in the table and have picked up points in only one game: against the side beneath them. Fulham complete the relegation zone and of their four points all but one came at the Stadium of Light on the opening day of the season. The Italian certainly shook the club up but the hierarchy seem to have concluded that he merely destabilised them.
So, what chairman, seeing this footballing record, would regard Di Canio as a sensible appointment?
There is, of course, more to prompt disquiet. We can be sure that the questions about his extreme politics that flummoxed the Sunderland board will be raised again should he be linked with another English club. Now there is absolutely no excuse for anyone not to be aware of the Italian's leanings.
Some journalists like any manager who is good copy and Di Canio seduced an element of the media, despite his politics. But Sunderland have decided they are better off without him, it is hard to disagree with them, and it will take an especially thick-skinned chairman to give him another Premier League chance.