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Sunderland's bizarre gamble

Dan Holland assesses Sunderland's shock decision to replace manager Martin O'Neill with Paolo Di Canio

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Image: Ben Sutherland via flickr Creative Commons.
Image: Ben Sutherland via flickr Creative Commons.

As far as managerial gambles go, Sunderland have surely taken one of the biggest in recent memory by replacing the experienced and steady hand of Martin O'Neill with that of new head coach Paolo Di Canio.

It's a decision that has prompted shock and outrage among most, but understanding and excitement among a few others.

The arguments for keeping hold of O'Neill were obvious. Why sack a proven manager with such a distinguished career behind him? Why with only seven games left to go, at a time when the Black Cats' squad is already suffering from the instability caused by a series of injuries to top players? And why after a somewhat respectable defeat to the champions-elect that provided positives to take forward?

But there is also a pretty solid case for handing him the sack. Less than a third of their games won in his time as manager, and a dismal recent set of results and performances.

Both points of view have merit, and judgement on whether sacking the Northern Irishman was the right decision should be reserved until the end of the season.

The fact of the matter is that Sunderland Chairman Ellis Short has taken an incredible gamble. His unhappiness with the on-pitch performances has been known for some time, but there has been little hint of any sacking. In stark contrast to Steve Bruce's departure in late 2011, O'Neill had largely enjoyed the backing of the club's fans, and indeed the players.

After Bruce's sacking, O'Neill was the obvious choice as manager; he was duly appointed and led Sunderland away from relegation danger in a spell that saw some sensational football from a galvanised side and a sense of buoyant optimism that is unusual among Sunderland fans.

Image: dalli58 via flickr Creative Commons.
Image: dalli58 via flickr Creative Commons.

Di Canio, though, is a peculiar choice as his replacement. A man who has managed no higher than League One and whose managerial style is about as far from O'Neill's calm and dignified demeanour as possible.

Sunderland need someone to come in and have the same effect as O'Neill did - and in terms of creating an immediate response from players and fans, Di Canio might be a good fit.

But in so many other ways this is a move that makes little sense. The issue that will no doubt grab the headlines this week will be David Miliband's resignation from the Sunderland board in a quite understandable protest against Di Canio's past political statements.

What we are seeing at the Stadium of Light is the ultimate hit of the panic button - sacrificing so much of what the club had wanted to build in a desperate attempt to inject some energy and avoid the drop into the Championship, laying the groundwork for a drastic restructuring of their coaching and recruitment policies in the process.

The Chairman's decision will no doubt have been impacted hugely by the thought of missing out on the new TV deal that is set to boost the coffers of the Premier League's sides next season. The Black Cats are already heavily reliant on Short's generosity and relegation is a severely worrying thought from a financial standpoint.

Even still, Short's reputation as a sensible, intelligent, and patient owner now lies in tatters after this bizarre roll of the dice.

But if it pays off, then no one on Wearside will be complaining. And any Sunderland fan in search of a reason to be optimistic should think back to the day when rookie Chairman Niall Quinn made the ludicrous decision to make Roy Keane manager in 2006. That move made similarly little sense to most people, but it proved to be a stroke of genius. Di Canio's appointment seems even more crazy, but perhaps crazy is what Sunderland need right now.

And those fans unsure about how they feel about their club being managed by a man with fascist views will surely feel a lot better if he starts winning games. Results are what matter in this game and if the Italian can deliver them he will be adored by the majority on Wearside.

Di Canio's appointment has the potential to be disastrous, and equally to be magical. We have seven games to find out which it is.

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6 Comment

Stephane Sessegnon Posted on Thursday 22 Oct 2020

A superb, well informed and well written read. Excellent stuff.


John Hudson Posted on Thursday 22 Oct 2020

I'm afraid you conpletely underplay the political dimension here: there are Sunderland supporters (including myself) who will be complaining whatever the footballing outcome and will not be going back while a fascist sympathiser is manager. You are so wrong to say football is about nothing more than results: if that was the case why would anyone support a team like Sunderland who haven't won the league since 1936 and a trophy of any kind for 40 years? For most supporters it's because the club provides a link to their community, their home town, their family, their history. The stench of fascism will now taint the club's history forever: I for one am am ashamed by this appointment and know at least 10 season ticket holders who will not be going while Di Canio is in charge.


Dan Howdon Posted on Thursday 22 Oct 2020

It's an utterly despicable, heartbreaking appointment. Completely agree with John in the last comment - I've been a season ticket holder for 10 years, I've made round trips from York to every home game for the last three and a half years. I've cut up my season ticket tonight, and I won't be back while he's in charge. On every level, it's a moronic, awful appointment. O'Neill wasn't pulling up any trees, but he's worked to a plan, he's got a good track record, and above all he's a decent man. We've gone from that to a fascist lunatic who once got promoted from the fourth tier of English football.

Sunderland is a proud city, mostly full of decent, warm-hearted people. Fascists have tried to get elected in Sunderland over and over again and every time they've been laughed out of town. There's a monument in Mowbray Park to those from the city who died fighting fascism. Ellis Short has brought shame on the club and, to cap it all off, it's given Iraq War-toting David chuffing Miliband an excuse to have a bit of political grandstanding. I don't know what I feel most: sadness or anger.

Try reading this without getting something in your eye:


Ed Posted on Thursday 22 Oct 2020

Miliband's resignation "in protest" is totally disingenuous. He was surely looking for any excuse to cut ties with the area after already quitting as MP for a job in the US.
He's got himself a bit of undeserved positive attention, and whipped up a frenzy surrounding Di Canio's private political views which most people won't understand and which have no bearing on his ability to do the job he is paid for. No-one cared when he was playing or managing Swindon, and most level-headed people won't care now.


Geoff Posted on Thursday 22 Oct 2020

shame on miliband...whipping up fervour on a non political issue.ES is the owner and will run the club as a viable`nt hear any negative comments about sky payments which is causing a lot of jitters with chairmen


Rade Prica Posted on Thursday 22 Oct 2020

this is a really good piece, Dan.


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