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Sunderland Marks A Great Opportunity For Gus Poyet, But Also A Great Risk For The Club

It is that picture of that tatoo that summed up best the volatility of football in the wake of Paolo Di Canio’s sacking by Sunderland. Celebrating the belief and optimism that swept through Wearside after local rivals Newcastle were dispatched 0-3 in a match that will be remembered by the Italian manager’s exuberant knee-slide, the image drawn onto the back of the Sunderland fan will become the everlasting memory of blind-faith.

Just five months after the 14th of April Di Canio has gone, fired ruthlessly after five games of the new season in which his hotheaded sprawl into discipline quickly severed the faith of both the players and chairman Ellis Short. On a Sunday morning meeting between Sunderland’s players and their Italian coach, hours after a crushing defeat away at West Bromwich Albion, a breakdown in relationship between Di Canio and his charges became too apparent for Short to ignore and he sent Di Canio packing, beginning a search for a sixth manager since 2008.

The quick favourite to end that search is Gus Poyet, perhaps surprisingly given the chaotic nature of his departure from Brighton and Hove Albion as a result of a bitter dispute with the board that still rumbles on. The tumultuous conclusion to Poyet’s four years on the south coast has somewhat overshadowed a successful spell at the club in which he rescued Brighton from League One relegation candidates to the Championship play-offs, gaining a reputation for adventurous, innovative football along the way.

Poyet may bear similarities to Di Canio in terms of his confrontational nature but there is a lot of substance behind his claim to succeed the Italian given the way he oversaw Brighton’s revival during a period of transition in which they attracted major investment from new chairman Tony Bloom and moved into a new stadium. Under the former Uruguayan international, the Seagulls climbed from 21st place in League One to 4th place in the Championship, missing out on automatic promotion to the Premier League by four points.

It was a team drilled in a fluid 4-3-3, a system based around the technical qualities of Liam Bridcutt and Dean Hammond in midfield, as well as the movement and intelligence of Will Buckley, Jose Ulloa and Will Hoskins in attack, it is a far more structured approach than the reckless abandon Di Canio was preaching in his top-heavy 4-2-4. Perhaps the overriding choice of the aesthetes’, Poyet also displayed at Brighton the pull of his name, having persuaded Spanish winger Vicente to swap La Liga for the Championship.

Sunderland should represent a prime opportunity for Poyet to get back into management. It is a Premier League club headed by a chairman willing to back his manager given the total spend of £163 million since the summer of 2008, plus the chance, on an individual level, to prove Brighton’s board were wrong to dispense with him in the manner he took exception to. However, the shambles left behind by Di Canio, and indeed contributed to by Short, means Poyet will possibly be deterred by the sheer size of the job that awaits him in the north east should he assume the reigns.

His main task will be to re-motivate a squad that sits bottom of the league with just one point from five games, and will have to manage without its main goal-scorer Steven Fletcher until December at the earliest. Also, he will have to be afforded a lot of patience as he attempts to devise a cohesive system from a squad that was patched together over the summer by Di Canio and Roberto Di Fanti, the director of football, and chief scout Valentino Angeloni. Sunderland’s playing options are now an amalgam of nationalities, most of whom have no previous experience of Premier League football and are in desperate need of time to adapt. Poyet will have to arrest the transition caused by a crazy summer in which Di Canio’s erratic overhaul saw a turnover of 32 players; 16 in and 16 out, including 3 of last year’s top performers, Simon Mignolet, Danny Rose and Stephane Sessegnon.

The latter of that trio, described as “not capable any-more of giving his best” by Di Canio, hammered one of the final nails into the manager’s coffin on Saturday as he scored the opener for his new club West Brom and is the epitome of the hotheaded approach to overhauling the squad that ultimately proved Di Canio’s downfall. The Italian was hired on the back of his strict regimen that he displayed to relative success in the Football League with Swindon and Short’s quest to clean-up the gross indiscipline that was undermining the club’s fortunes under Martin O’Neil. Phil Bardsley, pictured on the floor of a casino covered in bank-notes, was yearned to be removed by Di Canio as was perennial bad-boy Lee Cattermole who was stripped of the captaincy, though he failed to jettison both, sewing the seeds for the resentment that bubbled under the surface of the squad that intensified with every public criticism and every alienating policy, such as the banning of tomato ketchup, that was tantamount to an autocracy.

It was insightful to read Steve Bruce’s verdict on Di Canio’s sacking, calling his methods “outdated” and offering the opinion that it is now virtually impossible, in the modern world of pampered players on swelled rates of pay, to run a Premier League squad on a “fear-factor”. Man-management, he said, was the most important feature of top-tier coaching and with declining form and poor results, a direct product of Di Canio’s self-imposed transition, amplified by his dictatorial approach, it was no surprise to see a player revolt occur so quickly.

Poyet, born in Uruguay and having played in Spain and England, will be in a good position, as a multi-lingual, to interact with his multi-cultural squad and his quick impact on Brighton’s fortunes suggest he can find a winning solution quick enough to minimise the damage that awaited had they stuck with Di Canio. The momentum and energy he forged into his Brighton side despite the setbacks of losing Elliot Bennett and top-scorer Glenn Murray during his stint in charge bode well for a job that will require a personal, motivational touch. Short will also be aware that, like Di Canio, Poyet has never previously managed at the top level and also has an acerbic relationship with his previous employers blackening his C.V.

Perhaps the most startling aspect of Sunday evening’s sacking was the early acceptance of the flaws in Di Canio’s methods and caustic behaviour, the same traits that Short would surely have been aware of when he decided the Italian was the right man to succeed O’Neil. He willingly backed his man to the tune of £23 million in the summer only to abandon the plan five games in as he realised “Project Di Canio” was never going to work, mainly because it was Di Canio in charge.

The chairman may have acted quickly enough to save a potential relegation and in Poyet he may find someone to help them do that, but it is paramount that Short does not get this coming appointment as comprehensively wrong as his last one. He has found, just like the man with the tatoo, how quickly things can go badly wrong and how devastating it can be when they do.