It’s not really a great surprise that O’Neill’s been sacked. Sunderland carve out opportunities with all the regularity of a North Korean anti-government march. Were it not for Stephen Fletcher’s opportunism they would have scored fewer goals than Jan Vertonghen. This is a desperately poor team and even O’Neill’s habitual spring lamb bounce has disappeared. In recent weeks he’s been about as thrilling a watch as a Bank Of England statement from Mervin King.
So, yes, O’Neill had to go – but now? As with Adkins at Reading, the new man’s going to be lumbered with the same set of thinly-talented players. Adam Johnson is thin and talented, actually, but so work-shy that I’m surprised that the Government aren’t seeking him out for fiscal punishment.
Anyway it turns out that, unlike Blackburn or Wolves, that Sunderland did have a replacement in mind. The papers started by touting Steve McClaren, or Mark Hughes, on the basis that Mark Hughes is always available when someone’s given the boot. It’s a reflex speculation these days, like assuming Suarez has dived or Messi has scored.But no, Sunderland have turned to international football’s answer to Benito Mussolini, Paolo di Canio.
That’s right. Something radical needed to be done at the Stadium of Light and so Sunderland chose someone with very views that are about as radical as it’s possible to get.
Di Canio has described himself as a ‘fascist, but not a racist’ which, when you look at the twentieth century history of fascism, makes him the single exception to the rule. Some might argue, as Tony Thompson in the Bell argued last night, that ‘Hitler was a fascist and you can’t say his team did badly in Europe.’
David Miliband has resigned his position at the club – a knee-jerk reaction according to the Swindon Town chairman Jeremy Wray. That’s right, Mr Wray, those Jews get a bit oversensitive when it comes to fascists. Dunno why, eh?However the fact is that many of us remember Di Canio with a mixture of trepidation and delight. From Paul Durkin’s laughable tumble after being gently shoved by the Italian, to the sublime volley against Wimbledon, Di Canio never failed to entertain. There is a level of worship at West Ham that borders on the homoerotic. They like Tevez too, but not in that way.
Di Canio’s time at Swindon was successful but punctuated by moments of mild insanity. The replacement of his goalie after 20 minutes was the best. Crikey if England managers did that after the keeper’s made one mistake there’s be a whole bench full of men in green jerseys on the bench.
In an interview with the BBC he described himself as having an ego as big as an elephant. He also sits there gesturing like a cartoon Italian, the sort that Paul Whitehouse might lob off in an Aviva commercial.All in all, it’s a potty appointment. Foolhardy in the extreme. But eminently more exciting thatn Reading’s decision to appoint good ol’ Nige Adkins. Presumably Sunderland didn’t want a safe pair of hands.
He wanted someone who’s going to go in there and say to Simon Mignolet:“You gotta quarter-of-an-hour to make-a me like-a you or I’m a-gonna-senda-you to a-de place where the sun don’ta shine.”
“Mais, non, Gaffer, anywhere but Middlesbrough” he will no doubt reply.Sunderland want a man who’s going to run on the pitch at the half-time whistle and have a stand-up row with Danny Graham for proving to be every bit as limited as seasoned Swansea watchers thought he was.
What’s for certain is he won’t go in there and be conciliatory or kind. Dare I say it, his management style might be a tad fascistic.Now I don’t condone his politics in any sense. I think it’s wrong and bad and there’s way too much of it going on in Eastern Europe and of course in Italy. There's plenty here too and they don't need a figurehead to rally around. The idea that Di Canio can uncouple his fascism from racism is laughable. Not one of the stone-skulled numpties on the terraces at Lazio does that because for them they are pretty much one and the same.
Nevertheless it doesn't make Di Canio a bad footballer, anymore than the fact that Ian Dury wasn't very nice to people makes 'Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick' a bad song. It certainly doesn't make him a bad manager. The successful ones are pretty much all dictators.
So I reckon the Sunderland fans have got it right. Keep your opinions to yourself, Paolo. Keep that arm straight and true and pointing to the ground. Try to get the best out of a team of woefully underconfident footballers. And good luck to you when you come to the Riverside for the Tees-Wear derby next season.
And if it doesn't work out, there's always Mark Hughes.