Let's face it. It was no surprise to see Paolo Di Canio given his marching orders on Sunday. In just six short months, he had managed to upset and alienate everyone at Sunderland from the fans to the board, and probably even the tea lady. Before he had even sat behind the manager's desk, he had incurred the wrath of the media for his supposed political leanings, and never really recovered. As the British football media is prone to doing, they spent the next six months sharpening their knives.
The one highlight of Di Canio's brief but eventful Sunderland reign was the surprise 3-0 win over local rivals Newcastle toward the end of last season which went a long way toward saving the Black Cats from relegation. When he took over the team were staring the Championship in the face, and it was obvious that a complete overhaul was needed. To his credit, Di Canio has achieved that much.
But with an overall record of just two wins from twelve league games, and his club now rooted to the bottom of the Premier League, the end was nigh. In the press the madcap Italian has been roundly labeled a 'dictator,' and rumours abound that, among other things, he had numerous run-ins with members of staff, partially excluding some and eventually forbidding those not coaching the first team to talk to the players. He even banned ketchup from the club canteen. As Di Canio felt the pressure, insiders claim that the atmosphere around the club had become permeated by fear and paranoia as a result of Di Canio's threats and intimidation.
Di Canio certainly 'lost' the dressing room. And was in danger of 'losing' the fans and the board. That's a lot of things to lose. But I can't help feeling a bit sorry for the bloke. It was always going to be a difficult job moulding 14 new players into a formidable team. As the cliché says, it takes time to gel. Especially when most of the players come from different countries, speak different languages, and are being asked to relocate to Sunderland, which is hardly the French Riviera.
So is Di Canio a misunderstood genius or a complete mentalist?
The main problem with Di Canio seems to have been his continued public criticism of his players. But maybe some of it was justified. Phil Bardsley did no one any favours by putting a picture on Twitter of himself lying on the floor of a casino covered in £50. Who does that? It does make you wonder about the mentality of some players, who would do well to remember that they are, first and foremost, athletes and role models. I mean, who are we dealing with here? A bunch of spoiled school kids or a group of highly-paid professionals? The same goes for a number of high-profile players this summer who effectively went on strike in order to try and force transfers. That's just unprofessional. And don't even start me on the ones who routinely throw their toys out of their prams if they are, God forbid, played out of position or something. For the amount of money these guys earn, I would play football anywhere, anytime, in any position. In fact, I'd probably do anything the manager wanted me to do, without question. For a few hundred grand a week, I'd do it fucking well, too!
The Sunderland team had lost four of their last five games, and were quite obviously not playing well. They have to take their share of responsibility for those results. In most other industries, if you don't do your job well you face the consequences, and that often includes taking criticism. It's a tough world. Get used to it, lads. By that token Di Canio was just doing his job, and with such high stakes (Sorry, Phil Bardsley), quite within his rights to reprimand them. At times certain people made comments or observations, often pundits and journalists with contacts still in the game, which made you think there was a lot going on beneath the surface at the Stadium of Light. When a struggling team sells all their best players, its never going to be easy. Star man and Belgian international goalkeeper Simon Mignolet was sold off to Liverpool, but probably an even worse move than that was the sale of Stephane Sessegnon to West Brom.
The final straw for Di Canio came immediately after a 3-0 defeat at West Brom where, as Sod's Law would have it, Sessegnon scored past his old club, hammering another nail into his old manager's coffin in the process. In the aftermath of that loss, Di Canio stood before the travelling supporters, who were already losing patience with him, and made a series of slightly condescending 'chin-up' gestures. Then he went into the changing room and lay the blame for the third goal squarely at the feet of Lee Cattermole, which was a bit harsh as the ex-skipper had only been on the pitch for the final quarter. He also rubbed up Italian international Emanuele Giaccherini the wrong way by subbing him at half time. The former Juventus winger was one of the club's marquee signings of the summer, is potentially one of the best players in the league, and evidently, does not like being subbed. It all led to a revolt, with one (unnamed) senior player allegedly telling Di Canio, "Nobody likes you here. Nobody wants you," before marching off with his mates to plead their case to chief executive Margaret Byrne, who in turn approached Ellis Short.
Some may say Di Canio got what he deserved, paying the ultimate price for his arrogance, naivety, and woeful man management skills. But the dismissal itself only tells half the story. The real issue here is player power. What if this eclectic group of over-paid, under-performing stars decide they don't like their next manager's attitude or training methods, either? Will they all troop en masse to the chief executives office again and demand his removal? It worked once, so why not again?
And what if this petty form of rebellion spreads elsewhere? It's fair to assume that at every club there is a section of disaffected individuals who would relish a change of hierarchy. This could give them the means, opportunity and precedent to force through their aims.
I see trouble ahead, and not only at the Stadium of Light, where any new manager coming in will have to contend with the same problems Di Canio did. There will still be 14 new signings who don't know each other and can barely speak the same language, and they will still be bottom of the league.
My new book From the Ashes - The REAL Story of Cardiff City FC is out now.