When Martin O’Neill was appointed Sunderland manager, I thought he was going to have an impact as significant as the one made by Bill Shankly at Liverpool in 1959. He did not last one full season. In the current term it was hard to spot any difference with the previous regime under Steve Bruce. His enthusiasm and man management skills looked a distant memory in a side who have managed just 33 goals in 31 league games. His signings have not been exceptional and rumours about his supposed arrogance did not endear the Northern Irishman to the American owners. Still, as it was mad for Reading to sack McDermott with eight games to go, it’s even more baffling to see Sunderland getting rid of MON with just seven games left and after a predictable home defeat against the champions to be Man Utd. When the news broke a few journalists said that the board at the SoL have acted quickly because they already had their answer to the crisis. Of all names who could have been linked to the job, the one that never crossed my mind was Paolo di Canio.
Let’s be honest, I’m biased but this is a personal blog and not the BBC website. And no, not for his political beliefs, I could not care less and all this questioning if he is fascist, racist or about his tattoos dedicated to Mussolini is missing the point even if Sunderland denial seems comic, just ask him to have a press conference bare chest or ask what the letters DUX on his arm mean. Fascism can be a big thing here, and rightly so, but in Italy, the country where Fascism was born, there are many people who think Mussolini’s only mistake in history was going to war alongside Germany. Also, victimizing him for what he said in the past or for his roman salute, would miss the point. Sunderland is a massive club. The fact they decided, on the eve of the new, lucrative mega TV rights contract, to rely on someone with 1.5 year Football League experience to stay up is astonishing, brave bordering on insanity. The season before getting relegated in League Two, Swindon Town had lost the League One play off final at Wembley to Millwall. What happened next is not known but the truth is the Robins were a good enough side to go straight back up. The fact they did so under the Italian manager was not really a surprise. Hardly an impressive CV the one Sunderland had to read when the decision of parting company with O’Neill was made. So why PdC? The ex Swindon chairman defined him “box office” a kind of circus attraction who will perform on the touchlines rather than under a big tent. The ex West Ham idol will gamble on his famous team talks, on his Al Pacino kind of speeches in Any Given Sunday, maybe will use something scientific like taking the whole squad to watch Braveheart or Gladiator on the eve of a big game. He is a motivator, a kind of poor man’s Kevin Keegan but, unlike the ex England manager he is not the kind of person who will say he is not up to the job, he would rather beat up all his players if needed rather than blaming himself for anything.
PdC will embody all the stereotypes reserved to the Italians in UK. His “fiery” temperament, his calling to fans to get behind his lads, his touchline outbursts, his honest interviews, his hands and body language will be on show every weekend because he knows that is what people expect. He is an actor, he has always been. This is my biggest criticism. The image he has been so able to export, the one of a spontaneous, honest guy who wears his heart on his sleeve is pure fiction. Everywhere he has been he has been quick to buy in everything in order to please the fans before packing the bags to fulfill his real ambitions. What’s wrong with that? Not much but don’t pretend you are a man of principles or values, a word so dear to him.
He left Lazio, his boyhood club, the one he said to love with all his heart and where he wanted to spend all his career, to go to Juventus when he was 22. The Old Lady was in one of those rare spells where it did not win much. Ask any Juve fan about Gigi Maifredi and they can tell you that was the darkest spell in their history before getting relegated in 2006. When Maifredi was sacked Giovanni Trapattoni returned but it was clear the two did not like each other. PdC then spent one year on loan at Napoli (long gone the years of Maradona) before being part of the Berlusconi revolution at AC Milan. Not really a regular with the Rossoneri he left because he did not see eye to eye with Fabio Capello. Definitely a good player but he often used his temperament as an excuse for not making it in big clubs. Then he wanted a break from Italy. He accepted the move to Scotland, with Celtic. He had a good season so much that he won the player of the year award which he went to collect wearing a kilt. Despite his “scottishness” though, and an existing contract, he used the sacking of manager Tommy Burns to justify his desire to leave. He did not like how the club treated him. The truth he thought he was too good to play north of Hadrian’s Wall. He accepted the first offer coming from south of the border, Sheffield Wednesday came knocking and he was on his way to the Steel City. Hardly Liverpool, Arsenal or Man Utd but he wanted to leave and any destination was good enough. Again, after a little longer than a season he accused the club of not having defended him properly in the aftermath of “Alcock-gate”, when he had pushed the ref Paul Alcock to the ground. But it’s not a secret Sheffield was not big enough for him, the distance showed by the club in those circumstances again a cover up for his desire to move on. Even at West ham, probably his most successful experience in UK, he went very close to back stabbing the Upton Park faithful with a move to Stamford Bridge which never materialized because Gianluca Vialli, at the time in charge of the blues, was sacked.
He could have gone back to the club he loved, the one in Italy, but he decided to stick around, Charlton this time, showing young players how well he looked after himself, on and off the pitch. It was more and more common seeing him on Italian TV telling journalists how it was more fun playing in England and on English TV describing how he missed the professionalism of Serie A. Even his handling of the ball while in scoring opportunity position has to be questioned if genuine or not. First of all it was not a tap in in front of an open goal, second it was not a decisive game. He needed it, he needed to even out the Alcock accident.
On the way back to Italy he knew his career was close to the end. This is when he gambled everything on his political beliefs, to win over the hard core of Lazio fans, and his hatred for AS Roma and Francesco Totti, guilty of having spent his whole career with his boyhood team, something he wanted to do but never had the courage/opportunity to do it. When Lazio chairman Claudio Lotito understood he did not sign just a good player at the end of his career but someone who wanted to be a leader on the terraces and in the club, decided to part company with him, eventually starting a feud which is still carrying on. Since then PdC has never been shy in criticizing his former club despite the more than decent results reached on the pitch on a tight budget. Even his ex ultras have started to question his real love for the “biancazzurri”. Recently when asked which club he would rather manage one day Lazio or West Ham, he chose the London club without any hesitation. He called Swindon’s FA Cup win against Wigan reserves the best day of his life, forgetting the times he used the same sentence at each club he performed at. In two weeks time, in the North-East derby at St James’, he will have the perfect opportunity to impress his new fans knowing too well the hatred of your local rivals is a badge of honour.
Sunderland have gambled: I don’t think they will stay up. PdC used to be a very good player. He’s still got everything to prove as manager, he might turn out to be good, I doubt it but I haven’t got a crystal ball. But let’s not buy the image of the person of values he loves so much to sell. He is clever, ambitious, a great actor, a performer in front of the camera and does not give a toss about fans of any club he has been too. Again, what’s wrong with that? Maybe nothing, but please let’s stop pretending.