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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future