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?

James Lawton
Thursday 04 April 2013 12:06 BST
Paolo Di Canio gestures towards fans during his time at Lazio
Paolo Di Canio gestures towards fans during his time at Lazio (Getty Images)

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.

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