Paolo Di Canio’s appointment as Sunderland’s new manager last month divided the club’s supporters and neutrals alike. There can be no doubt however, that the presence of the rabid Italian will add yet more drama and value to the eternally intriguing Premier League soap opera.
There is an almighty squabble unfolding towards the bottom end of the division, among a host of sides striving to avoid what increasingly looks to be one remaining relegation spot. For those without a direct interest in the eventual outcome, the preference for which team sits below the dotted line when time is called on this term on May 19th is subject to the whims of the day.
Many observers, who had previously been enthusiastically disposed to the idea of Sunderland taking the drop, could just have had their thoughts altered by the events over 90 minutes of a compelling weekend North-East derby.
Di Canio’s enchanting touchline nature and fevered celebrations immediately capture the imagination. That ‘passion’ which so many football watchers seem to crave among the game’s combatants is quickly seized upon as a joy to behold when players or management allow their emotions to flow with abandon.
This relatively newly desired phenomenon soon loses its lustre in the face of adversity. Sunderland’s followers will be less taken with their boss’ furious gesticulating and exhorting of his troops if such tactics are being employed to halt a losing streak. Furthermore, the casual onlooker will soon tire of the same behaviour if they detect any element of hubris in its exhibition.
It is to what happened on the pitch at St James’ Park then, that attention should turn for proof that Di Canio can only be a force for good in English football. Two weeks ago a Sunderland team, which contained nine of the 11 players who started Sunday’s momentous win, provided a flat and guileless performance to be swatted contemptuously aside by a barely troubled Manchester United.
Given that period of time to work with his new charges, Di Canio has produced a hungry and committed unit. More importantly, there was a control to the Black Cats’ derby display not readily associated with either the Italian himself or a frenetic local tussle.
Sunderland’s back-four suddenly looks impeccably drilled. Sebastian Larsson was a man re-born, full of running and vitality. Crucially, the team’s creative talent, Adam Johnson, Stephane Sessegnon, and James McLean finally live up to its collective billing.
If Di Canio is capable of effecting such a transformation given a fortnight, he stands to offer much more than merely his perceived mad-cap antics to the top-flight. The man who once dazzled this country’s game with his own playing genius, will be fulfilling a wider service to the league of which he speaks so fondly;
‘The Premier League is the top league. I love the people, the league, the atmosphere, and the fans’.
If the verve and enterprise which this Sunderland team proved itself capable of producing on the turf of their fiercest rivals is routinely replicated in front of over 40,000 of its own raucous fans, English football’s top division will have another enchanting string to its bow.
As the ramifications of the Wearside rejuvenation were being digested, Stoke City kicked-off their home encounter with Manchester United. What followed was an eerie echo of Martin O’Neill’s valedictory match in charge at the Stadium of Light – that insipid pre-Di Canio showing against Sir Alex Ferguson’s men.
Character is the word most readily attached to the Potters’ four years before this one – a period they spent battling manfully with the elite under Tony Pulis. That intangible attribute was distinct for its absence against United, as Stoke played like an outfit resigned to their fate on the day.
In common with O’Neill in his latter Sunderland days, Pulis, a typically fiery and ebullient figure, is cutting a remarkably downcast figure. Stoke City may currently sit on equal points to their Sunderland counterparts, but there will not be much money staked on that situation prevailing.
Momentum is a compelling force in football. Sunderland’s is now of the upwards variety. At the Britannia Stadium, the opposite is true. Pulis’ side, which has won one of its past 14 league matches and picked up only 6 points during that hapless run, is in serious trouble.
The manager responded to the latest reverse by calling on his men to summon up their prized missing trait.
‘It is a dogfight with eight or nine teams down there battling.
‘But this is when you need characters and you need people to step up to the mark. We need to roll our sleeves up’.
O’Neill voiced similar thoughts in the aftermath of his own loss to the impending champions, speaking of ‘determination to get the points on the board’, and being ‘up for the challenge’.