James Lawton: Paolo Di Canio's appointment at Sunderland makes us ask what football clubs really mean to us

Is a club supposed to reflect some of the deepest values of the community?

It is a remarkable, even miraculous seeing of the light and maybe we should put aside the thought that Paolo Di Canio's sudden rejection of fascism is also extremely convenient. For one thing it means that maybe we can all get a little sleep.

Not before, however, allowing that no one can say his employers Sunderland did not give it to us straight.

They made it perfectly clear where we should stand. It was not on either side of some philosophical divide over the rights and wrongs of the appointment of Di Canio. Such niceties, the club press officer suggested quite emphatically, belonged to another more romantic and sentimental age.

Certainly she put it with sweet simplicity while squashing a yes-no question to the new manager about the status of his autocratic leanings before yesterday's smart about-turn, saying, "He's answered it as far as he wishes to and as far as we want to. So let's move on to football."

Let's embrace, she was saying, the only agenda that matters, the one on which Di Canio would seek to preserve Sunderland's place in the Premier League. Yes, we had been here before, more times than we might have cared to consider, but maybe never with the reality being driven home quite so hard and unblushingly.

Football fans can pay their money, chant their chants, even vomit their bile, but heaven forbid that some might hanker, at least just a little, for the time when supporting their club wasn't exclusively about its ability to win more matches than it lost.

Some of the moral questions first raised by Sunderland owner Ellis Short's decision to summon Di Canio were hardly new.

You could take a pin and stick it in one of a hundred examples of the instinct for some kind of advantage over-riding any other consideration. Where did we start and where did we end? However, the Di Canio affair brought with it one certainty. Never before had so many ordinary football fans been invited to consider what it is they wanted from their football club and what it was they have come to expect.

Robbie Savage believed he spoke for the majority of fans this week when he said that any agonising among some Sunderland supporters would last no longer than it took Di Canio to produce some concrete evidence that he could indeed deliver the transformation they craved.

Savage, and so many others, submitted to the view of the tyrannical American gridiron coach Vince Lombardi who declared: "Winning isn't the important thing, it is the only thing." Lombardi had some of Di Canio's competitive passion, and extreme approach, but, for the record, one of his old players was at pains to point out that he had a democratic style, saying, "To be fair, he didn't play favourites. He treated us all like dogs."

Sunderland's veneration of the view that all else paled beside the need to win was implicit in both the controlling performance of the press officer and Short's apparent ignorance of, or maybe indifference to, the uproar he was about to create when he dialled Di Canio's number. On another level, though, it also highlighted the extent of the disconnection between so much of English football and its foreign ownership.

At Blackburn there is the travesty of the Venky's regime, one made all the more taxing by memories of the kind of support once provided by the old steelman and boyhood supporter Sir Jack Walker. At Chelsea, even the serially winning Chelsea, there are the huge fissures so randomly created by Roman Abramovich, and whatever Manchester United achieve these days there is always the smouldering point of resentment provided by the debt-laden operation of their American owners.

Throw in the angst of the Arsenal supporters as they await some kind of weighty move towards resurrection as a major force in English football, and the recent memory of rebelling Liverpool fans, and it is hardly the picture of a united front.

Into such divisions, the Sunderland furore maybe found a unique niche.

It invited the wider question: what is a football club for? Is it supposed to reflect some of the deepest values of the community in which it has always occupied a vital place? Or is it no more than an opportunity for foreign investment and the fashioning of a market in which the possibility of winning is the only guarantee of success?

The Sunderland controversy invited such questions most powerfully because of the nature of the place and the values it has most passionately espoused down the years of war and bombing and industrial conflict. One strongly emerging view was that the resignation of David Miliband as vice-chairman was a swift and accomplished piece of political opportunism, but this didn't entirely square with the solemn and impassioned arguments of the miners who formally requested the return of the old banner which represented so much of the fabric of their lives.

Let's move on to the football, said the press officer, who was maybe forgetting the wisdom of the fine Caribbean writer CLR James, who said of another great game in peril: "What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?" It is ditto, surely, for football.

Suggested Topics
News
Food blogger and Guardian writer Jack Monroe with her young son
people
News
people
Environment
The plant ‘Nepenthes zygon’ was donated to Kew in 2004
environment
Arts and Entertainment
booksPhotographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years - but he says it wasn’t all fun and games...
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
i100
Sport
Aguero - who single-handedly has kept City's Champions League dreams alive - celebrates his dramatic late winner
footballManchester City 3 Bayern Munich 2: Argentine's late hat-rick sees home side snatch vital victory
News
Muhammad Ali pictured in better health in 2006
peopleBut he has enjoyed publicity from his alleged near-death experience
Life and Style
Fraud contributes 11p to a £2.00 box of half a dozen eggs
Arts and Entertainment
Tony breaks into Ian Garrett's yacht and makes a shocking discovery
TVReview: Revelations continue to make this drama a tough watch
News
news
News
peopleSinger tells The Independent what life is like in rehab in an exclusive video interview
News
The assumption that women are not as competent in leadership positions as men are leads to increased stress in the workplace
science... and it's down to gender stereotypes
Arts and Entertainment
Inner sanctum: Tove Jansson and friends in her studio in 1992
booksWhat was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Singer songwriter Bob Dylan performs on stage
films
Caption competition
Caption competition
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

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

24-Hour party person

Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

A taste for rebellion

US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

Colouring books for adults

How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

Call me Ed Mozart

Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
10 best stocking fillers for foodies

Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

'I am a paedophile'

Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

From a lost deposit to victory

Green Party on the march in Bristol
Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

Winter blunderlands

Putting the grot into grotto
'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital