Paolo Di Canio was not waving during his surreal mime of penitence on a deserted pitch at the Hawthorns on Saturday, following another abject Sunderland defeat. He was drowning.
The minority of travelling fans who resisted the stampede to the car parks seemed embarrassed for him. Some applauded ritually. Others beckoned him, without response. A couple gestured angrily, but most appeared resigned to their fate.
“I cannot be a fake Di Canio,” he protested after the game, the slippage into the third person suggesting otherwise. “If it doesn’t work here, it doesn’t work here.” Objective observers, detached from the Italian’s parallel universe, had already concluded that it could not work. The human experiment at Sunderland appeared to be too impure, too rash and ill-thought through to stand any realistic chance of success.
The 3-0 loss to West Bromwich Albion certainly felt like a tipping point and the Sunderland hierarchy yesterday agreed. A dysfunctional team of strangers played without heart, conviction or plan. They are deservedly bottom of the table.
Di Canio wanted to be left alone until the new year, when he believed it would be fair to make a judgement. But that was always likely to be too late. The four games until the next international break, which begin with tomorrow night’s League Cup tie against Peterborough, had looked likely to have been decisive if he had stayed. Yet, though Sunderland owner Ellis Short is known for loyalty to his managers, the logic of having a new man in charge for the derby with Newcastle on 27 October was compelling. The decision to sack Di Canio last night was relatively simple. Short showed that he had the moral courage and the requisite millions to admit a grievous mistake. Sunderland’s problem now is dealing with the aftermath. There is little apparent quality in the random collection of 14 new recruits.
Emanuele Giaccherini, the Italy international signed on a four-year contract from Juventus, is the closest they have to a marquee player. Yet he was so poor, and so indolent, against West Bromwich that he was taken off at half-time.
His failure to provide support for Jack Colback, a natural holding midfield player operating outside his comfort zone at right-back, ensured Colback was tormented by man-of-the-match Morgan Amalfitano, who set up two goals and scored the third.
Di Canio, whose concern about the shoulder injury suffered by Steven Fletcher hardly suggested confidence in American striker Jozy Altidore, accepted that “if we have a long bad run it will be difficult to gel”.
Since footballers are traditionally suspicious of change, speculation about internal dissent would have been inevitable and understandable had Di Canio stayed, although he had insisted: “I don’t see any malice in the dressing room. This is not a group who want an easy life. They train twice a day. They train properly. They are not indisciplined people. But at the end of the day it is my regime.”
There, in a nutshell, was the issue. Di Canio had made himself the story. It was never going to have a happy ending
Di Canioballs: Highlights of Paolo’s reign
On the Sunderland “revolution” I know other Romans came 2,000 years ago and they were here for 100 years. Maybe after two months it will be “Di Canio, fuck off, bye-bye Paolo”. It can happen, but I’m sure it won’t.
On Phil Bardsley’s indiscretions That is something really wrong. It’s disgusting me even to see the image for the club. It’s not about going out with your friend and getting back at two o’clock or three o’clock, which is late. You can close one eye. But not full of alcohol and walking like this.
On giving Bardsley another chance I will think really carefully. Always I give a second chance to the people. He is not a kid, he has a family at home. I’m not here to be a priest.
After defeat by Crystal Palace We don’t ask the moon. If they play less empty in the brain they can keep the ball more.
On disciplining his players In a week I have given seven players fines. It’s not acceptable. They have to adapt to discipline, to the new regime. Otherwise everybody will have his own way to behave and there will be anarchy.