On Sunday night, it was announced that Paolo Di Canio became the first managerial casualty of the Premier League season, after he was fired by Sunderland after only 5 games this season, and 12 games in total.
On the face of it, the firing seemed harsh. Di Canio was brought in as manager to a Sunderland team that was fighting relegation and was given a brief to keep them in the league, which he succeeded in doing. Over the summer, he was backed by the Sunderland board to make a lot of signings, fourteen in all, but hasn’t been afforded the time for those signings to gel into a coherent team.
However, it has become apparent that, for all of the football intelligence and passion that Di Canio undoubtedly possesses, he is a terrible man-manager, and it was his bad man-management of many of the Sunderland squad that has caused the board to take action.
On Saturday, Sunderland lost 3-0 at West Brom. Following the game, it is believed that Di Canio, stormed into the Sunderland dressing room and started tearing into the team, which had become an all-too common occurrence. Allegedly, Di Canio singled out club captain Lee Cattermole, who had came on as a second-half substitute, for particular criticism. Cattermole asked why he was being singled out and other players backed him up.
It is then believed that several players ended up going nose-to-nose with Di Canio; not just players who Di Canio had inherited and ruffled their feathers, but also Emanuele Giaccherini and Jozy Altidore, Sunderland’s most expensive summer signings.
Di Canio called the squad in for a meeting on Sunday afternoon and told the players if they didn’t like him or his methods, they should tell the club hierarchy. This led to several senior Sunderland players seeking a meeting with chief executive Margaret Byrne and director of football Roberto Di Fanti where some said they were no longer willing to play for Di Canio, and they were assured by the club that Di Canio would not be in charge any longer.
Di Canio was appointed following an eventful couple of seasons managing Swindon Town, where he had some success on the pitch and a lot of problems off it. His arrival at Sunderland was controversial. Di Canio’s political leaning toward fascism was a huge problem for a city with strong historical links to socialism. It also caused the then-Vice-Chairman David Miliband, the former UK Foreign Secretary, to resign from the club, as he didn’t want to be associated with Di Canio’s politics.
While Di Canio’s arrival didn’t really lead to an improvement in results, he did enough to keep Sunderland in the Premier League. But it was becoming increasingly clear that off-field, Sunderland wasn’t a happy squad.
At first, it seemed as though the players just weren’t happy that Di Canio was being tough on them after Martin O’Neill’s more easy-going regime (players not reacting well to a new manager’s training methods after playing for Martin O’Neill is becoming a worrying trend), something which fans welcomed. But it became quickly apparent that there were deeper problems than mollycoddled players not liking having to do some work.
Within weeks of Di Canio’s arrival, there were complaints to the PFA (the players union) about Di Canio’s propensity for fining players for the slightest infraction and for criticising them in public, which caused PFA Chairman Gordon Taylor to state “He cannot be a law unto himself. We're aware of player unrest at some comments made publicly, and other situations. A number of players are involved. We're aware of Paolo Di Canio’s comments - it's something we had to deal with at Swindon (when Di Canio was manager there) as well”
There was some optimism amongst Sunderland players and fans coming into this season. Di Canio’s tough training methods were paying off, with the players being fitter than they were under O’Neill, and the style of football Di Canio was looking to play was more exciting than the insipid way O’Neill had them playing.
However, it didn’t take long for that optimism to vanish. Sunderland got off to a bad start to this season, losing on the opening day at home to Fulham, despite dominating the game. Things got worse on the pitch for Sunderland, and they got worse off the pitch too as Di Canio, who was becoming more and more frustrated with his players’ performances, showed no compunction in criticising them in public.
Stories started to emerge about what life was like under Di Canio. Apparently Di Canio had ordered that club staff members such as cleaners, cooks and stewards were not to make eye contact with the players, lest they distract them from the task at hand. Star striker Steven Fletcher got into trouble after he laughed during a rehab session. People were left walking on egg shells around Di Canio and his lack of inter-personal skills compounded those problems, which meant that the atmosphere around Sunderland was one of paranoia.
Sadly for Di Canio, he doesn’t seem to be an effective communicator. By this I don’t mean his ability to speak English, which is fine, but his ability to convey his ideas to others and his ability to listen to other people’s concerns without going off the deep end. There’s a long list of Sunderland players that Di Canio fell out with for a variety of reasons, including players that he signed this summer.
Having an autocratic style as a manager isn’t always a bad thing, but you need to have some results to back those methods up. Without seeing any reward for their efforts, the players began to wonder why they should take the constant criticism and the seeds to dissent were sown.
Sunderland’s board has to take responsibility for the Di Canio debacle. Di Canio’s management style was described by his former chief executive at Swindon Town as ‘management by hand grenade’, with Di Canio being involved in several public bust-ups with his players. Di Canio was known for being a volatile character, so the Sunderland board shouldn’t have been surprised that he fell out with so many people. Whoever they appoint as manager (at the time of writing former Brighton manager Gustavo Poyet is the favourite), they will take over a demoralised team that are bottom of the league with a nasty run of fixtures to come, with the next three home games being against Liverpool, Man United and Newcastle.
Paolo Di Canio came to Sunderland with big ideas of how to change them for the better. Sunderland have a fiercely loyal fanbase and a great stadium, but have been treading water for a long time. Things needed to change, and Di Canio did change the players training and dietary regimes. He instilled a fierce discipline to a squad that had been coasting along for too long.
Di Canio’s intensity and hunger to succeed can’t be doubted. However, he never managed to find a way to communicate with his players, and because the players could see no tangible reward for all of Di Canio’s tough methods, he ultimately only succeeded in alienating them. What Di Canio needs to learn from this experience is that you can’t be a leader if no one will follow you.