Comment: It was not just Paolo Di Canio – the whole Sunderland shake-up looks risky

Appointing a manager who had to deny he was a fascist was remarkable

So farewell, then, Paolo Di Canio, who leaves us with one final memory from six often preposterous months at Sunderland. That even with his club bottom of the league on Saturday with one point from five games and his dismissal imminent, he still saw fit to stare down his own travelling support and talk about himself in the third person.

“Even on this day, Di Canio wants to see the faces of the fans,” said Di Canio after Saturday’s defeat to West Bromwich Albion, his last in charge. “They are very angry and if I was in their position I would be furious.”

One of the most wrong-headed appointments in Premier League history was drawn to merciful close last night with Di Canio’s sacking. The best thing you can say about Sunderland’s results this season is that they have at least drawn attention away from Di Canio’s dubious political allegiances. By Saturday night, about as many people in English football believed he was the right man for the club as agreed with his views on Mussolini.

Those aspects of his personality that were formerly considered the hallmark of a “character”: the emotional reaction to his players, the furious monologues directed at his own staff on the bench behind him. They all got very tiresome very quickly. Sunderland, it is understood, had their doubts about Di Canio in the summer, fatally persisted and now find themselves prime candidates for relegation. The question is: what now?  Relegation would ask all kinds of questions about the club’s future. Their wage bill of £64m, pre-summer transfer window, was regarded then as the eighth highest in the Premier League. Their debt is around £84m. Ellis Short, the club’s owner, has loaned around £40m of his own money. He jettisoned Martin O’Neill at the end of March as part of a plan to survive. That gamble paid off in May – just – but not a lot else since.

Appointing a manager obliged to deny he was a fascist was pretty remarkable. But it obscured the haste with which Short and Sunderland have been prepared to change the structure of the club so radically. First, a maverick manager who should never have been more than a short-term fix. Then, an Italian director of football, Roberto de Fanti, himself a former agent, and an Italian chief scout, Valentino Angeloni.

The club were at pains to point out that neither of the two were Di Canio allies, which at least is borne out by their readiness to dismiss him. Neither is there any suggestion that being Italian makes them any less capable of doing a good job. Sunderland have hardly been cutting a swathe through English football in the last six years. But for a club that has never before had a non-British or Irish manager it was a significant culture shock. They have a lot to lose.

Everyone knows, thanks to the Greg Dyke speech, that Sunderland signed 14 players in the summer of which only one was English. They had previously signed 24 Englishmen in six years and, yes, many of them turned out to be mediocre. But this summer was an enormous shift in emphasis and it really has not worked.

De Fanti said that he signed Adilson Cabral, a free agent previously at Basel, “at 2am in a restaurant” to head off offers from rival clubs. Cabral has not played a minute in the league since the first game of the season against Fulham, and was not even on the bench on Saturday. It might be wiser if, in the future, the only thing De Fanti signs in restaurants at 2am is the bill.

The goalkeeper Vito Mannone was signed for £2m from Arsenal. He has not played other than in the Capital One Cup. Instead Kieren Westwood has been preferred. These are early days for the likes of Emanuele Giaccherini, the £8.6m signing from Juventus, who is evidently a talent, but already the rest of the field is slipping away from Sunderland.

There are different ways to cope in the Premier League for those clubs who are ambitious for more than just survival. One approach is the one honed by Swansea City and West Bromwich Albion which is to recruit imaginatively all over Europe, and in the latter’s case especially, go for impact loan signings and free transfers.

Then there is the brave route that Aston Villa took last season of simply giving their academy kids a chance which combined, in the main, with the inspired signing of Christian Benteke, was enough to see them safe. Although even Villa seem to have pulled back from that in part this season, opting to bulk up their squad with foreign signings.

And then there is the worst option of the lot: relegation with a lot of signings who fail catastrophically, as exemplified by Queen’s Park Rangers last season. That is the possibility that Sunderland are now contemplating and it is the most unedifying of all.

Many of the 14 players whom Sunderland signed were for the Under-21s development squad, which suggests further change at a club that has ever before tried to recruit foreign teenagers to an academy that, admittedly, has hardly been prolific in producing players.

No club should be afraid of change and no club should feel it has to settle for the kind of monochrome existence that has largely been the preserve of Sunderland in the Premier League era, promoted four times and relegated three with those two seventh-place finishes under Peter Reid in 2000 and 2001 the high-water mark.

But football clubs are delicate constructs. Shake them up the wrong way and it is remarkable how quickly you can fall in such a short space of time. If appointing Di Canio was a risk, then Sunderland hardly hedged their bets with De Fanti. The latter revealed in an interview with the club’s website over the summer, that his new structure was so all-encompassing that he and Angeloni had already held their first “planning meeting” for the 2014-2015 season.

He did not specify for which division he was planning for.

Stonewall laces plan runs into a brick wall

The anti-homophobia campaign the Football Association tried to launch in 2010 could not persuade any high-profile players to speak on its behalf. Attempting something similar this year, they had the same problems, having to fall back on Brendon Batson and John Scales. Amal Fashanu’s excellent documentary about her late uncle Justin contacted many top-flight clubs to talk to players about homophobia and only Joey Barton was prepared to speak. The Stonewall laces campaign was flawed. But you would be foolish to deny that English football has a problem with this.

Gordon Brown’s late night deal for Raith

Among the many secrets of government that former Downing Street spin doctor Damian McBride has disclosed was the revelation that Gordon Brown had negotiated a deal to bring Marvin Andrews back to Raith Rovers in 2006 after midnight in a pub car park in Kirkcaldy. He was Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time. That is the strange thing about football. Even those who are accustomed to process and protocol start behaving like it’s all one big episode of The Wire.

Suggested Topics
News
Ben Little, right, is a Labour supporter while Jonathan Rogers supports the Green Party
general election 2015
News
The 91st Hakone Ekiden Qualifier at Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, 2014
news
Life and Style
Former helicopter pilot Major Tim Peake will become the first UK astronaut in space for over 20 years
food + drinkNothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
Life and Style
Buyers of secondhand cars are searching out shades last seen in cop show ‘The Sweeney’
motoringFlares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own