Restrained Sunderland manager Paolo Di Canio on best behaviour for big stage debut at Chelsea

Fans might have been surprised so much Latin emotion was kept in check
  • @stevetongue

Demonstrative he may normally be – histrionic even – but Paolo Di Canio can still manage to treat the twin imposters just the same.

He greeted each of the strange crop of goals on either side of half-time here in identical fashion – with the same jutting of the jaw and a quick word with his assistant Fabrizio Piccareta, one of the four Italians who have followed him from Swindon after a couple of months of unemployment.

It was a first match for them together since 9 February (a 1-1 draw with Hartlepool) but now Di Canio was on the big stage, which, as he had reminded the world on leaving Wiltshire, is where he belongs: “I believe I am at a stage now where I am a Premier League or Championship manager.” And he did not mean the computer game.

Any manager, then, would have been excited on the day and Sunderland followers used to the touchline antics of Martin O’Neill and Steve Bruce might even have been  surprised that so much Latin emotion was kept in check. Even amid a frustrating 2-1 defeat there were only a couple of gestures aimed at the referee Neil Swarbrick and barely one warning, instantly acknowledged, for trespassing beyond the limits of the technical area that he prowled incessantly for 89 of the 90 minutes.

He had emerged from the tunnel to a hug from John Terry and then John Fearn, a Chelsea physiotherapist, before acknowledging the initially muted chanting of his name – it scans nicely with “La Donna e Mobile” – from those visiting fans able to afford Chelsea’s ticket prices. By the half-time whistle the chants were louder in appreciation of the goal that Cesar Azpilicueta had just deflected in. Di Canio unexpectedly stood absolutely still before attempting in vain to catch the attention of Danny Rose, the only player left in Sunderland’s half; Piccareta was summoned to do so with a piercing whistle.

Once the game started, he had joined Rafa Benitez in that managerial pantomime that may or may not have any effect on the players, always assuming they can interpret the hand signals or hear a word being shouted at them. Those who get the worst of it of course are the players nearest the touchline, who sometimes need to cock a deaf ’un. Sunderland’s men appeared to have decided that it was a good day to be paying attention and Connor Wickham, the young England Under-21 international, did so as he was frequently summoned during a halt in play for a word or three.

For Phil Bardsley, the right-back, there was an early slap on the face – of encouragement not rebuke – but the player causing the new manager most distress with his losses of concentration was the midfielder Alfred N’Diaye, who still survived longer than Seb Larsson and Craig Gardner when it was time for second-half substitutions.

At the start of that half he had actually remained seated for all of 30 seconds before leaping to his feet as Sunderland won an early corner; he was therefore standing as Chelsea swept to the other end and Matt Kilgallon unwittingly applied the second own goal of the afternoon. Again no reaction; nor was there when Branislav Ivanovic nudged in what proved to be the winner, except for a fiddle with the tie of Mackem red under the rather gaudy pullover and another word with Piccareta. Then a clapping of hands and waving at his players to take up positions again as heads began to drop.

At the end there were handshakes all round, waving the players towards the visiting supporters and a thumbs-up for them himself. They will no doubt reciprocate one way or another, Nero-like, after this week’s Tyne-Wear derby. But it is fair to say Sunderland will be up for that, players and new staff alike. The manager, meanwhile, just needs to work on his whistling.