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Sunderland’s Revolting Players And Di Canio’s Sacking – What’s The Real Picture?

Paolo Di Canio

In the wake of Paolo Di Canio’s departure from Sunderland, it has emerged some of the senior players complained to the Chief Executive about many of his methods. In particular they were unhappy with the way he had talked to them after the defeat to West Brom on 21st of September.

Di Canio had been at Sunderland for barely six months yet had received criticism for increasing workload at training and criticising his players in public. Basically, he tried to cross a line long since rubbed out from modern football. To publicly question a player’s ability will get you, not the player, the sack.

But the Sunderland board has committed the cardinal sin of management. Never undermine the management structure within your organisation. Anyone who has managed in any walk of life should know if you undermine your manager then this sends a message to those you manage that yours is an organisation where management can be criticised and not respected.

Paolo Di Canio is undoubtedly a complex and intense character which doesn’t naturally lend itself to the ‘arm around the shoulder’ style of management which is needed these days where players are king.

As Robbie Savage recently admitted, the modern player has many tricks in which to get his own way or try and force a move away. Seems odd a player of Savage’s limited ability would need to encourage a club to let him go, but his list of tricks was very revealing and so was his belief there wasn’t anything really wrong with it.

The irony is that it looked in the summer as if clubs had learned to not just bow down to contracted players as Wayne Rooney, Luis Suarez and Gareth Bale looked as if they wouldn’t be allowed to make the moves they wanted. In the end, despite their Chairman’s protestations, Bale did actually have a price Spurs were going to accept, but Rooney and Suarez had to stay put. But just when it looked as if clubs were prepared to wrestle back some power, Sunderland has decided they couldn’t possibly upset their precious commodity and their manager could be replaced any day.

So can you manage by fear these days? Alex Ferguson did. There are various stories of his dislike for certain players which resulted in them being shipped out. The phrase ‘the hairdryer treatment’ was coined based on his legendary dressing down of players during team-talks. Bigger clubs manage by fear as the player has a fear of being dropped or not making it at the club. That is unless the player thinks there is demand for him elsewhere. So is that really a deterrent anymore?

Di Canio’s former Chairman at Swindon described his style as ‘management by hand-grenade’, and there seems little doubt the Italian likes to test his players and push them to improve. But did they respond? Did they have to? Players such as Wes Brown and John O’Shea are likely to be attractive to other Premiership clubs should Sunderland face relegation, so why should they care what happens to the club?

When Di Canio was at West Ham his manager, Harry Redknapp, would wax lyrical about how his firebrand striker was always the last to leave the training ground, continually working on his game. He clearly expected the same level of commitment from his players. There is no doubt he had a strong work-ethic but did he find it difficult to deal with players who weren’t as driven as him? As a player he had the ability to switch off during matches and then immediately switch on again to produce moments of magic. Not every player is capable of that. Di Canio seems to thrive on chaos so much that he seems to create most of it, yet others are different. Did he have the capacity to understand that? There’s no doubt he is driven, there’s little doubt he wanted the best for Sunderland as he was desperate to manage in the Premier League, but in the end it seems he’s just too late as his style of management would’ve been more suited to 70’s, 80’s or even 90’s.

There have been many managers down the years who have ruled by fear. Brian Clough is the classic example, and ended up surrounding himself with players who would do anything he asked or told them to. Did they all like him? Doubt it very much. There’s a story of the night before their European Cup Final in 1979 and Clough has them all up drinking the night before. Clough was a big believer in drink settling the nerves. Archie Gemmill wanted to go to bed early and Clough, in front of everyone, embarrassed his star midfielder into staying by insisting they all do things together. One thing Clough was very good at was building a team spirit. Other managers have been able to do that more than anything, and Di Canio’s predecessor Martin O’Neill was certainly one. It has been suggested Di Canio kept putting O’Neill down which lead to some of the players becoming unhappy with his methods. He may have done better to have learned a thing or two from the Irishman.

But that last point is one of several which make me very uncomfortable about this whole business. If the players thought that much of O’Neill and would ‘walk through walls for him’ why didn’t they? It was their performance which got him the sack, had they been prepared to die for the cause then maybe he’d be in employment. You occasionally hear a player admit it is up to them to get results, but nowadays it’s the players who call the tune, along with their agent who has the club by the short and curlies. As far as I can see Di Canio was trying to do two things. Raise the profile of the First Team as something to aspire to and be proud to be in, and secondly push his players to become the best they could possibly be. Yeah sure, he may have different methods to other managers but so has Jose Mourinho, so has Marcelo Bielsa.

Di Canio was so determined to build up the profile of the First Team he decreed no academy player could use the gym if one of the First Team players was in there. If they had to wait till late afternoon, then so be it. He clearly wanted to make the First Team the Holy Grail and something you should sacrifice everything to get into and once there, you’d do anything to stay. But these are laudable aims and maybe his delivery needed some work, yet he wasn’t given that time. Where clubs spend nearly all their turnover on wages and will even pay a player’s agent when all he does is negotiate a contract extension, then you realise they’re pretty indispensable. Brown and O’Shea were considered surplus to requirements at Old Trafford and must’ve experienced to wrath of Alex Ferguson, yet did they go whingeing to the Chairman to demand his removal?

Sam Wallace of The Independent claimed

“He (Di Canio) tried to build the kind of austere, highly regimented football set-up that would be familiar to Italian players of his generation and is completely alien to the modern Premier League footballer”.

But most of these Sunderland players are foreign anyway, as only about 6 of the squad of 25 are English. The behaviour of the board is something which must be open to scrutiny. Half of the squad were part of the team dangerously close to relegation last season that it was considered necessary to get rid of Martin O’Neill. Di Canio was selected by the board as the man who could save them, and save them he did. So sure of his ability was the board that they sanctioned the employment of 14 new players for this season. 5 games in the players have complained and the board have caved in. So what message does that send to Di Canio’s successor?

The message is, don’t upset the players as it’ll cost you your job. Don’t push them too hard or tell them they’re not playing well otherwise you’ll be picking up your P45.

But even great managers don’t get on with everybody. Trevor Francis never gave the impression of really liking Brian Clough and Teddy Sheringham certainly didn’t understand him. Not every player Bill Shankly managed thought he was the business and even mild-mannered Bob Paisley was at odds with some players. Listen to David Fairclough, and although he doesn’t mention Paisley by name, he says he felt ‘the club’ never gave him a fair crack. The key is the board backing their man to deliver.

In any other industry in the UK employment law has moved to defend the employee and ensure no one receives the sack when they weren’t expecting it. You should never be surprised you got the push, as you should only receive a sacking on the spot for breach of contract or company rules. A difference of opinion or breakdown in trust or respect is then managed over a period of time and a review is set to look at the situation again giving it time to be corrected. If this was the last straw for Paolo it seems odd that the previous straw came much into the season, which then puts into question why the board would sanction the new arrivals if their manager was under review.

What you would expect to have happened when the players went crying to the Chairman was for them to be told to get back on with their job. Focus should’ve switched to their own performances as to whether they believed they were giving their best for the club. Then the manager should be summoned for a meeting where the Chairman explains what’s just happened and discusses how Di Canio will put things right. He should be left in no uncertain terms that this should not happen again, but under no circumstances should the players ever believe they can switch things around just cos they fancy it.

Unless the management structure is maintained and intact then the club will find it very difficult to come down on the players at a later date. If the next manager comes in and the players don’t like him then unless the board backs the players, they are likely to find they’re unable to motivate them either. Whoever the new man is he will have to manage a squad of players he didn’t choose and have no money and no transfer window to be able to change anything.

Now you could argue Blackburn should’ve done something about Steve Kean long before he walked but they waited till the club was relegated and even then it was he who jumped ship. Sunderland’s Chairman talked of a need to ‘act fast otherwise they could be cast adrift at the bottom of the table’. What, after 5 matches?

Interestingly, many Sunderland supporters have declared their surprise at the sacking as the manager still had some kudos from masterminding a win over Newcastle. One hopes the board truly understands what this means to a Mackam.

Di Canio is alleged to have told the players if they want to complain to the board then he would lose his job, although it seems more likely he was illustrating this as an option open to a player who doesn’t really want to improve and he could get Di Canio sacked but then the player would still be a player who isn’t playing very well, and so what had they really achieved? Di Canio could well have been under some sort of review, but that is not the story being put out by the board.

But as I said, the days of players respecting their position seems to have changed. It is likely that players such as Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher are the last of the generations who would talk about the pride they had in cleaning the boots of First Team players and how they were in awe of them. It seems managers have to manage players much like modern parents feel they have to bring up their children, by a process of negotiation. But as with children, how can you negotiate with someone who doesn’t understand reason or the big picture?

How can you negotiate with someone who is constantly told how good they are, beyond any semblance of reality to the point they will not accept anything other than a First Team place? Di Canio may end up as one of a long line of great players who never made it in management. It is ironic that the only member of England’s 1966 World Cup winning side who ever gained any success in management, was the least talented player – Jack Charlton.

One last point I’d like to make is about the press coverage of the Di Canio incident. There are two aspects, which I believe to be completely irrelevant to the whole argument, which creep into many correspondents’ views. Firstly, that Di Canio has fascist views and the other is the Chief Executive of Sunderland is a woman. If you read back many articles you eventually see one or both of these aspects highlighted as if it justifies the actions taken, or maybe fuels the authors own prejudice. It’s a subject for another article but you can also level that criticism at the coverage of the Blackburn owners as a female is involved in those decisions too.

One thing is certain, though, Paolo Di Canio will always make headlines and polar opinion. Time will tell whether this has been the best outcome for the club, but the players should be under severe scrutiny as supporters will have every right to expect a vast improvement in their performance if it really was the Italian who was holding them back.

Published in permission with Frankly Mr Spencer