The eccentric chronicles of Paolo Di Canio may have enhanced the Premier League greatly during his playing career; with his referee push, scissor kick wonder goal and display of great sportsmanship at Goodison Park among his finest moments. However, his success as a top flight manager whilst maintaining his entertaining nature may be more difficult.
After Sunderland’s 1-0 home defeat to Manchester United left them only a point clear of safety, the board acted quickly and disposed of Martin O’Neill immediately. The appointed his successor, Paulo Di Canio, just as quickly, with an announcement made just this morning.
O’Neill’s departure seemed rather unexpected, the next logical step from a home defeat to the runaway champions isn’t usually relegation. However, the alarming lack of form and loss of star man Steven Fletcher seem to have contributed to a chairman hitting the panic button and deciding O’Neill’s time was up even before the United result.
Although Sunderland restricted United to one fortuitous goal and were a dominant force in the second half, their recent performances have been poor to say the least. With only two wins in 13 games, the Black Cats are in relegation form. It can’t have helped O’Neill’s cause that his recent signings have generally disappointed, with Adam Johnson, Danny Graham and Alfred N’Diaye representing £20million worth of poor performers. Is it embarrassing that they’ve managed to do the double over us this season?
Unlike many Premier League sackings, there seemed to be little media pressure preceding this dismissal. It wasn’t so long ago O’Neill was sighted as an ideal candidate for the England job, whilst he was regularly linked with top jobs during his fruitful four year stay with Aston Villa, which saw them regularly compete for the top six spots. O’Neill was a long term target of Sunderland’s and it seems a surprise that they felt the need to sack him at this stage of the season.
His successor was equally as unexpected, many anticipated the appointment of an experienced manager who is familiar with relegation scraps, such as the rumoured Steve McClaren and Mark Hughes. To appoint a fairly inexperienced manager whose only previous relegation battle was an unsuccessful one as a player at West Ham in 2003 seems fairly unorthodox and not what most would expect.
Paolo Di Canio will no doubt light up the Premier League with his character. I’ve always considered him to be football’s version of Del Boy, his heart was always in the right place, but things didn’t always go to plan, despite how lovable he was. Di Canio’s controversial character can never be disputed, during his time as Swindon boss, he substituted his keeper in the first half; had an on pitch row with his centre forward and even resigned in acrimonious circumstances. Although his Swindon stint was quite successful, with a promotion from League Two and another promotion push in League One achieved, Paolo has never experienced the pressure of a relegation battle, or indeed the whole new environment of the Premier League.
Renowned for being a totalitarian type manager, his brash and ecogentric style of management may not be received gratefully by arrogant Premier League players. Jose Mourinho succeeded with such a mindset at Chelsea because he was ‘the Special One’ who had won the Champions League; although he was dealing with bigger players than Di Canio. If the Sunderland players regard Paolo as ‘some idiot from Swindon’, Di Canio may struggle to implement his tough structure on to his new squad.
The timing of the change in manager is also an alarming one. History suggests that changing a manager at this late stage is generally a bad idea. A perfect example occurred last season when Wolves sacked Mick McCarthy in February, by May they were comfortably relegated and only managed another point under successor Tony Connor.
Similarly in 2010, Hull City sacked Phil Brown on 15th March and from then on it was destination relegation, although that could also be down to the fact they replaced him with the hapless Iain Dowie. Indeed, Charlton’s regular chopping and changing of manager contributed to their relegation in 2007. When Ian Pardew took the reigns he was the fourth manager of their season, again Iain Dowie being one of those four can’t have helped matters.
For a change in manager to lead to a great escape, the appointment generally has to be made with a chunk of the season left, and ideally the January transfer window too. The most successful great escapes of the Premier League era involving a change in manager were all done under these circumstances. Look at Portsmouth in 2006, Harry took over a team of no hopers in December, brought in the likes of Andres D’Allessandro and got twenty points from ten games towards the end of the season to keep them up. During the previous season, arguably the greatest escape ever was achieved by West Brom after replacing Gary Megson with Brian Robson in November.
Roy Hodgson’s miraculous achievement at Fulham in 2008 occurred after he was appointed in late December. In the same month, Steve Bruce’s appointment at the JJB allowed him to make some astute signings and correct the errors of Chris Hutchings’ short reign to reach 40 points by May. Ironically, Sunderland’s timing of Martin O’Neill’s appointment last season proved to be a masterstroke as he guided them to an impressive run of form to comfortably beat the drop.
As Sunderland have hardly been out of the bottom eight all season, it’s a surprise the board didn’t decide to change their man sooner. They maybe took a gamble on O’Neill again leading Sunderland to form in the new year to take them away from danger, but it simply hasn’t happened. To take such a huge gamble now will have major implications on their season, for better or for worse. Maybe the board decided to take a radically different approach to previously because the appointment of experienced managers such as Steve Bruce and Martin O’Neill haven’t led to great success.
From our point of view, this is quite good news. Although I am a fan of Di Canio, I wouldn’t have chosen him to take over from Martinez had he just left Wigan for whatever reason. In Sunderland’s situation, they need experience to get the best out of a squad which has some talented yet demoralised players. On paper, that team shouldn’t end up in the bottom three, but with a lack of confidence and naive management, they may find themselves there in May.