Paolo Di Canio’s successor may require broad shoulders
Problems exacerbated by failure to remove two major dissenters
Paolo Di Canio has been sacked as Sunderland manager after only winning two of his 12 matches since being appointed manager in March.
Managerial tracksuits have rarely looked more toxic than the one Sunderland will soon be preparing for Paolo Di Canio’s successor. The sense that he may require broad shoulders is reinforced by a brief résumé of the challenges to be immediately confronted.
Blending 13 new players recently imported from abroad – only five with previous Premier League experience – into a cohesive unit; coaching several first teamers with little or no English; coping without the team’s injured star striker for several weeks; disguising the reality that last season’s best three individuals have all departed.
Man-managing a couple of old school British players feeling newly empowered after seeing the last manager unseated; overcoming a handicap of one point from five Premier League games while starting from the table’s bottom rung; planning for successive impending home games against Liverpool, Manchester United, Newcastle United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur.
The man who accepts this potentially poisoned chalice will clearly need to be an excellent coach as, until January at least, the option of wheeling and dealing his way out of trouble does not exist.
With the team’s bold, often attractive but ultimately self destructive 4-2-4 formation faltering, a system designed to tighten things up while somehow accruing vital wins must be devised. It does not help that it may be December before Steven Fletcher, Sunderland’s sole reliable goalscorer, returns to the attack.
The new manager must also establish a strong rapport with Roberto De Fanti, Sunderland’s director of football, and Valentino Angeloni, the chief scout. Phil Spencer, Di Canio’s agent and an influential figure at Swindon Town, his client’s previous posting, was permitted no part in transfer activities. Instead De Fanti, himself a former agent, and Angeloni, until the summer Internazionale’s head of scouting and before that a key figure at Udinese, enjoyed autonomy in recruitment.
Di Canio specified the qualities he required in players and the positions he wanted strengthening and De Fanti – the son of a friend of the Sunderland owner Ellis Short – and Angeloni identified and hired suitable targets. Areas of dissent emerged where they failed to buy the handful of British players Di Canio craved, with Tom Huddlestone, the manager’s top target, ending up at Hull.
Di Canio’s problems, many of his own making, were exacerbated by the failure of a dressing room clear-out to remove two major dissenters: Phil Bardsley, the right-back, and Lee Cattermole, the former captain. While a broken foot grounded Bardsley, losing out on Huddlestone left the midfield weak, dictating that Di Canio had little choice but to reach a tentative rapprochement with Cattermole. This rare compromise rebounded on him during Sunday’s mutinous team meeting when Cattermole was one of the players who turned on the manager, denouncing his modus operandi, before leading a delegation to an audience with De Fanti and Margaret Byrne, the chief executive, to demand the Italian’s head.
It proved the final straw and severed Short’s already dimming faith in O’Neill’s successor, but it means Sunderland’s next manager will be parachuted into a dressingroom in which player power appears to have scored a major victory. Does the new man restore Cattermole, for all his well documented faults a good, galvanising player and a natural, popular leader, to the captaincy? If so, where does that leave his replacement, John O’Shea, who did a good job in difficult circumstances?
Astute man management is clearly vital as players who claim to have felt bullied by Di Canio appear devoid of confidence. They could do with an infusion of tough love and inspiration, but they remain relative strangers facing a formidable forthcoming fixture list while still gelling as a team. Short must pray his next training ground general is of the lucky variety.