Suspicious miners prepare to vote over Sunderland's appointment of Paolo Di Canio

The Italian's appointment has proved hugely controversial

It was not quite a Peace in our Time moment, but it was clear in the grand offices of Red Hills yesterday afternoon that the impasse between the Durham Miners’ Association and Sunderland Association Football Club had moved closer towards an amicable resolution.

Following the divine intervention of an open letter to Sunderland’s new head coach by the Dean of Durham, the Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove, and the subsequent claim by Paolo Di Canio that he was “not a racist or a fascist” – perhaps just a very naughty boy, if not a footballing messiah – the club sent a representative to the miners’ association’s historic headquarters in Durham City yesterday to heal the rift caused by the appointment of the Italian with the Mussolini-style tattoo.

As a result, the banner of the Monkwearmouth lodge of the National Union of Mineworkers that hangs on the wall of the main staircase at the Stadium of Light could remain where it is: at the ground that was built on the site of the last of the pits to be closed in the once great Durham coalfield.

“Well, we’re much further forward than we were 24 hours ago,” said Dave Hopper, general secretary of the Durham Miners’ Association. “We’ve spoken to the club representative and expressed our views about how badly the situation has been handled. We went through quite a discussion.

“Our executive committee will meet tomorrow, get a full report on all of the issues that have been discussed, and a vote will be taken on whether, in light of the statement by Paolo Di Canio, the banner will remain in the stadium or whether it will be taken to the Miners’ Welfare. I’m sure it will be a free and fair discussion. I think most people will be looking for some resolution.

“We still have doubts about the sincerity of the statement but we’ve got to give the benefit of the doubt to Mr Di Canio. We don’t know him as a person. We’ve seen a lot of stuff dragged up through various outlets about what his connections have been. I think a lot of it seems to be true. He hasn’t denied quite large areas of it. We’re just hoping that we take the statement in all good faith.”

It was somewhat surreal sitting talking to Hopper in his office yesterday, the walls bedecked with portraits of Peter Lee, Sam Watson and the rest of the historical figures who fought for the rights of miners in the Durham pit villages, the heartland of Sunderland supporters. Last week, while on holiday, I had been sitting in the Phoenix Picturehouse in Oxford watching him star in Ken Loach’s new documentary film The Spirit of 45, lamenting the social devastation caused by the closure of the mines. When the credits rolled, the audience stood and applauded.

Hopper gave an ironic laugh at the image. “That’s a bit different to the reaction I got when I went to Oxford during the Miners’ Strike,” he said.

Hopper spent 27 years working at Monkwearmouth Colliery before its closure in 1994. He has been a Sunderland fan since the days of Len Shackleton, ‘The Clown Prince of Soccer’.

“The club is there to play football but it has built a very, very good name as a community club,” he said. “Its record working with the community and on racism is second to none. But now that good name has been tarnished.

“We’ve got matches coming up shortly [Newcastle and Spurs away] where other teams’ supporters are going to be having a field day over what has happened. It’s been a sad affair and if lessons have not been learned, then God help us.”

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