It was one of the most inevitable sackings in recent football history, but the dismissal of Paolo di Canio at Sunderland is nevertheless still a pretty significant event in the football world. The marching orders dished out to the Italian were probably deserved: after all, this is the man who has only garnered one point for the club in the five Premier League games so far and the man who only won three of his 13 games in charge of the Wearside outfit.
So why is this event noteworthy? Manager does badly, gets sacked; it’s hardly a revolutionary idea is it? However, it is the manner of the sacking that has so captivated the footballing world. The Italian legend was sacked following a deluge of complaints from the players regarding his management style, and the chief executive Margaret Byrne eventually made the decision to dismiss di Canio after deciding that his position had become untenable in the face of his players’ attitude towards him.
Di Canio has always been fiery; after all this was the man who was once fined and banned following an pushing incident with referee Paul Alcock during his playing days. This fieriness seems to have continued into his management career, and even last season, many of the players were openly critical about his management methods.
The issues between di Canio and his players appear to have been exacerbated this season, and following a team meeting on Sunday where di Canio entered into “brutal and vitriolic” criticism of his players, several Sunderland approached Byrne to complain about the way they had been treated by di Canio. Byrne clearly felt that she was left with no option, and out di Canio went.
However unpleasant or difficult the Italian was to work with, his dismissal poses some interesting questions for the footballing world. Who is in charge at a club these days? The manager or the players? Is it the player who needs to toe the manager’s line, or the manager who needs to toe the players’ line? Di Canio’s dismissal strikes a blow in favour of player power, and begs the question: how can a manager ever successfully manage a group of players if ultimately they have the power to rid him of his job?
In the old days, a group of players might be told to ‘like it or lump it’ and whilst I am in no way suggesting that Paolo di Canio deserved to keep his job, it would have nonetheless been interesting to see what would have happened had this been the approach of the Sunderland board of directors.
In light of all this, the difficulty now will be getting someone in to replace di Canio. Whilst perhaps a bit of a hothead, di Canio has in the past been fairly well respected in managerial circles – his work with Swindon Town earning him the meteoric rise that saw him clinch a Premier League managerial role only 5 years after retiring from the game. The managerial fraternity will not like the idea that it was a group of players who had a hand in the Italian’s sacking, and this may be one of the biggest obstacles for Sunderland in their pursuit of a new manager.
Roberto di Matteo has been mooted as the favourite to take over, but will di Matteo really want this job? No one really knows what has gone on behind the scenes at Sunderland: and although everyone is blaming di Canio, who’s to say that the players are not just very difficult to work with? From an outsider’s perspective, it all looked like di Canio’s fault, but without actually working with the players, prospective managers won’t know whether that assessment is fair or not. Consequently, the manager who takes over will be one who is willing to risk his reputation. The manager’s job in Wearside is becoming something of a poisoned chalice, and the Sunderland board would do well to consider their next appointment very, very carefully, as another ‘di Canio’ would be a disaster for all involved.