Politics of playing: why Paolo Di Canio could save Sunderland

April 2, 2013 in Premier League

It’s something that I never thought I would have to defend, but a person’s right to believe what they want to believe is the principle upon which democracy should be founded. This week, however, the appointment of Paolo Di Canio to Sunderland Football Club has stretched that principle almost to breaking point.

Let us be honest: who thinks the Associated Press has royally cocked this whole thing up?

The hounding of Di Canio, before he had taken a single training session with his players, is over the top, hypocritical nonsense. Di Canio’s views are his own, and whether or not we personally agree with them, it is only fair that we defend his right to hold them. Di Canio has never used his fame to press forward a political agenda, nor has he harmed or even shown favouritism or bias toward anyone - if this continues, then this is not and should not be a political story.

The fact that the media has made it into one is an embarrassment for an organisation that considers freedom of speech so important to their own agendas. That David Miliband’s choice to step down as vice-chairman because of Di Canio’s appointment coincides with him moving to New York, leaving behind his constituency mid-term for a cushy new job, has been largely ignored shows just how prejudiced the press has been. As Di Canio said in his interview, “I’m not in the Houses of Parliament, I’m not a political person, I’m here to talk about football”.

From a purely footballing point of view then, Di Canio’s appointment is an interesting one. Under Martin O’Neill, I firmly believe that Sunderland were going to be relegated. Without question, O’Neill had failed spectacularly since the quarter-final defeat to Everton. Seven wins from 31 games is simply not good enough for a team that spent £30 million in the summer. His idea to play the same counter-attacking football that made Aston Villa so successful failed spectacularly for the simple reason that the team has very little pace. His failure to motivate star men Stephane Sessegnon and Adam Johnson has been shocking. Sunderland have only played well once this season, a win against Manchester City, even in that game the Black Cats had less shots and less possession.

Sacking O’Neill was the only chance Sunderland had of staying up. He had to go and Ellis Short’s swiftness at appointing a new manager has given the Black Cats hope that they will at least have a chance of surviving. There was not much choice in who to appoint but, unlike the dire situation that greeted Wolves last season, Short had already decided on who he had wanted to replace the Northern Irishman.

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Di Canio may not be the man to save them, but he is a more inspiring choice than Mark Hughes, Steve McClaren or Brian McDermott would have been. With only one interview, he has already shown more fire for the challenge ahead than O’Neill had all season. Following the defeat to Manchester United, O’Neill said “right now, it is important for us all to be on the same side and get behind the team… What is it - the half-full or the half-empty glass? I’m even going to the three-quarters full.” The most woeful clutching of straws you could ever hear; United were comfortable and Sunderland never looked like equalizing against the league leaders.

In contrast, Di Canio has come out with some blockbuster quotes: “I would confidently bet everything I have on Sunderland remaining in the top flight. When I got the call, I felt fire in my belly. I would have swam to Sunderland to take the job.” This is much more uplifting stuff than what has been coming from O’Neill in recent weeks. Much like his team, he has been uninterested and bereft of ideas at how to galvanise the team as he did in the early days. Di Canio, on the other hand, seems to be full of them.

The media have made the appointment of Paolo Di Canio into something it isn’t. A decision needed to be made to try and guarantee the safety of Sunderland Football Club in the Premier League. Under Martin O’Neill, this was never going to happen. The decision has only become political because of the way it has been treated in the media. They have in fact brought more attention to his political beliefs than Di Canio has created in all his years of being in the public eye.

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