Bruce Halling gives his views on Sunderland’s start to the season and Paolo Di Canio’s future at the club.
When Paolo Di Canio was unveiled as the new Sunderland manager on March 31st of this year, it had all the hallmarks of a gamble of epic proportions. Sunderland had been in a slump under Martin O’Neill and were sliding towards the bottom three and needed something to galvanise them and take them away from the relegation zone and to safety. While Di Canio’s appointment would certainly liven things up at the Stadium of Light, it is difficult to tell whether it had any kind of impact on Sunderland’s fate at the tail end of last season.
On the one hand, you can quite legitimately say that he kept Sunderland up, owing to the fact that they are still in the Premier League, a closer look at the statistics doesn’t paint such a favourable picture on Di Canio’s work in the final stages of last season. Sunderland’s record of 8 points in their last 7 games was inherently similar to many of the teams in the bottom half of the table, with the only teams that fared inherently worse (not including Queens Park Rangers and Reading, who were virtually relegated by this point of the season anyhow) being Fulham – who were 10th when Di Canio took over – and Wigan, who ultimately paid the price for managing just six points in eight games. Of course, Wigan’s poor run-in ultimately has nothing to do with Di Canio, but it does suggest that Sunderland’s survival last season had more to do with the failures of others than of anything that Di Canio particularly did right.
The true test for Di Canio’s ability to do the job at Sunderland would be seen this season, with the Italian given free rein to put his own squad together. After all, he had been afforded the same luxury in his first managerial job at Swindon and would go on to assemble a squad that ended up winning the League Two title in his first season at the club, so perhaps the thinking was that Di Canio would be able to put a successful side together. It hasn’t yet come to pass, however. Despite fourteen signings over the summer, Di Canio’s side sit bottom of the Premier League after four games, with defeats against Fulham and Crystal Palace to show for their work so far. Add in to the mix the incident where he got himself sent off last weekend, and it is already beginning to look a little bit grim for the Black Cats.
Of course, it would be asking a lot of any team to be able to perform instantly after the amount of changes to personnel that have been made over the summer, but history should tell you that radical change isn’t always the best way to go. In fact, what appears to be happening at Sunderland is strangely reminiscent of the events we saw at Queens Park Rangers a season ago. They did remarkably well to avoid relegation from the Premier League under Mark Hughes (although again, there is definitely a case to suggest they were very fortunate that results went their way on the last day of the 2011-2012 season) and Hughes was effectively afforded a blank chequebook to bring in as many players as he wanted to aid the club’s cause last season, and we all saw how that one ended. Many of the same mistakes are appearing to be repeated at the Stadium of Light and it is concerning that the Sunderland hierarchy don’t appear to be seeing it.
Sunderland play West Bromwich Albion on Saturday, and I can’t help but feel that it is a must-win game for the club if they have any ambitions beyond a season-long battle against the drop. Beyond that game, they host Manchester United and Liverpool before travelling to Swansea in three games which you wouldn’t fancy them to get anything from on current form. That could leave the club with one point from eight games heading into a Tyne-Wear derby, which Di Canio would then surely have to win in order to keep his job. Of course, that could provide the type of environment in which Di Canio’s passion and eccentricity could shine, but it could all too easily go the other way and end in disaster. After all, he’s already been sent to the stands once this season and I can’t see him being able to change the way he does things anytime soon.
As far as I’m concerned, Sunderland’s gamble on Di Canio is failing and unless the club can get their first win of the season against West Brom this coming weekend, I think the time may have come for the club to concede this fact, cut their losses as far as Di Canio is concerned and take drastic action in order to save their season.