Welcome to Di Canio’s crazy world
Italian has a gift for attracting controversy
It has not exactly been a quiet start for Paolo Di Canio. Within 24 hours of taking over as Sunderland manager the Italian has been forced to defend himself against allegations of racism and fascism on the back of David Miliband, the former foreign secretary, resigning from his position on the club’s board because of “past political statements”.
By replacing Martin O’Neill, a man who was a master in the art of saying a lot without revealing anything, with Di Canio, whose press conferences have the potential to provide regular material for the front as well as the back pages, Sunderland have walked into a storm completely of their own making.
Di Canio has long had a magnetic attraction to controversy and he did nothing to alter that reputation during his time as Swindon manager. “Often I refer to it as management by hand grenade,” Nick Watkins, the former Swindon Town chief executive, said after Di Canio quit the club as manager in February. “Paolo would chuck a hand grenade and I would do the repair work at the end, like the Red Cross.”
At Swindon Di Canio was treated like an A-list celebrity. One of his post-match rituals involved going on to the pitch at the final whistle, saluting the supporters while holding a scarf above his head and lapping up the acclaim. “It was like he was a rock star,” said one of the staff who worked alongside the Italian at the County Ground. “It was as if he thought he was Robbie Williams playing in front of 100,000 people at Knebworth.”
In reality the crowds rarely reach five figures in the lower leagues of English football, never mind six. A big fish in a small pond, Di Canio revelled in all the attention, sometimes leaving a trail of destruction behind him. On more than one occasion Swindon were contacted by police to tell them that the way Di Canio goaded opposition fans at the end of games was unacceptable.
Presumably someone at Sunderland will have a quiet word in his ear before the potentially explosive Tyne-Wear derby at St James’ Park on Sunday week. By that point there may be signs as to whether Di Canio’s approach has changed at all from the roller-coaster 21 months he spent with Swindon, where the admirable success the Italian achieved on the pitch – promotion from League Two as champions in his first season and a League One play-off position when he resigned – contrasted sharply with the problems that piled up off the field.
Di Canio, to put it simply, was high maintenance at Swindon. According to Andrew Black, their former owner, he was “uncompromising” and would “be on your case the whole time”. Come the end, the board respected the team’s results but were left to regret their failure to do more to control the maverick who would openly refer to himself within the club at times as “God”, said one source.
If Swindon could turn back the clock, a code of conduct would have been laid down from day one. Instead Di Canio called all the shots, including everything from bringing in his agent, Phil Spencer, to work on player recruitment, and insisting on overnight stops for short trips against local rivals such as Bristol Rovers and Oxford United, which is normally unheard of at League Two level.
Questioning his decision-making never went down well. “There was no room for negotiation and no room for debate. Paolo had a view and it was ‘This is my way’,” the Swindon source said. There were several clashes with players.
In August 2011 Di Canio was involved in a physical confrontation with Leon Clarke, a Swindon striker, in the tunnel at the County Ground. He alsofell out with Paul Caddis, the former captain, in the summer and earlier this season called Wes Foderingham “the worst professional I’ve ever seen”.
The dynamics, though, are much different in a Premier League dressingroom, where the power lies with the players sitting on multi-million pound contracts rather than the manager who scored with a spectacular scissor kick for West Ham against Wimbledon 13 years ago.
If Di Canio brings the methods he used at Swindon with him, the Sunderland players are in for a shock. The Italian ruled with an iron fist at the County Ground and was particularly tough on discipline. He introduced double sessions, monitored the players’ diets closely and imposed a strict fitness regime.
In his first seven weeks at the club the players had one day off, which proved to be a sign of things to come. There was little in the way of family time while keen golfers were told to forget about improving handicaps. Di Canio’s motto is eat football, drink football, sleep football. Everything else can wait.