SUNDERLAND will play Premier League football next season but manager Paolo Di Canio has cast doubt on whether Connor Wickham will still be with them.
FA Cup holders Wigan Athletic’s defeat at Arsenal last night means the Black Cats are already safe from the threat of relegation – irrespective of Sunday’s result at Tottenham.
In the short-term at least, it is vindication of Ellis Short’s controversial decision to sack Martin O’Neill and replace him with Di Canio.
The Italian has taken eight points from his six games in charge, only one less than O’Neill managed in his final ten.
Di Canio’s furious reaction when he caught members of the club’s support staff rejoicing in Wigan’s 3-2 defeat at home to Swansea City seven days earlier will not have stopped the celebrations on Wearside last night.
Because, while Di Canio would prefer his team to stay up on its own merits, they simply could not afford to go down this season.
A new television deal kicks in next term which means even the team which finishes bottom of the Premier League in 2013-14 will earn more in broadcast revenue than Manchester City did for finishing top last May.
Even with a massive parachute payment giving them an apparently unfair advantage over their Championship rivals, the recent record of teams returning to the top-flight at the first attempt is very poor.
West Ham United – who were play-off winners in 2011 – are the only team to manage that since
Newcastle United and West Bromwich Albion both did three years ago.
Although the winners of this year’s Championship play-offs have yet to be decided, they will not buck the trend.
Wolverhampton Wanderers did manage to get out of the Championship at the first attempt – they were relegated again, to League One.
Escaping relegation will not stop wholesale changes at the Stadium of Light, as Di Canio looks to weed out the poor mentality he has discovered there.
Wickham is celebrating a call-up to England’s squad for the European Under-21 Championships, but Di Canio has warned he must show a more professional attitude to survive his cull.
He said: “Maybe, with this guy, I have to slap his face a little bit.
“I’m talking about motivating him in a genuine way because he has so much potential, but sometimes he comes in (to training and he seems to be looking around saying, ‘Where am I?’
“I want to say, ‘you are on the football pitch with the grass’.
“He is an intelligent guy, but once he seemed to be complaining because it was wet. I told him that is typical for this area.”
Di Canio demands total commitment from his players inside and outside of work and is unhappy Wickham has not always looked after himself.
He added: “Maybe if he doesn’t go out in a small T-shirt when it is wet and cold, he won’t be complaining. I have told him, ‘No small T-shirts.’
“I don’t want him to miss a couple of games because he is a Playboy model. We are footballers, that is our job.”
Wickham’s form at under-21 level is in stark contrast to that he has shown for Sunderland since becoming their most expensive teenager two years ago.
The 20-year-old has scored four in eight appearances for Stuart Pearce’s side this season, but with the Black Cats his record is two in 32 since his £8.1m move from Ipswich Town.
Wickham was joined in England’s squad by Danny Rose, who has perhaps made his final appearance for the Black Cats.
On loan from Tottenham, Rose is ineligible to face them on the last weekend of the season.
The left-back has been Sunderland’s best outfield player this term, which means Di Canio is keen to make the move permanent – however, Spurs may not be.