New SAFC coach Paolo di Canio must win hearts and minds

Stuart Rayner identifies the six key tasks which await new Sunderland head coach Paolo di Canio on Wearside

New Sunderland manager Paolo Di Canio
New Sunderland manager Paolo Di Canio

GET THE PUBLIC ON YOUR SIDE

For an intelligent man, Martin O’Neill’s public utterances were curiously downbeat at a time when Sunderland needed fire breathing in their bellies. His infamous “not enough true quality” press conference just before the Norwich game was an example of how he got it wrong in those latter stages.

We know he can talk, but Paolo Di Canio must strike the right note among the bluff and bluster of this morning’s first press conference in front of neutral questioners.

He must be convincing in his defence of his political beliefs and he must set out his vision with confidence and defiance.

For all his failings, O’Neill never lost the supporters.

By contrast, Di Canio was not a universally popular appointment so he cannot rely on the sort of hero worship he had at Swindon.

More than that, he doesn’t have time for a honeymoon period. Sunderland’s situation is severe: they need results and fast to stave off relegation. He needs to win matches as well as hearts and minds.

MODERNISE SUNDERLAND’S STYLE OF PLAY

IT is the great irony Sunderland, with their multi-million-pound summer gigs and active commercial department, are moving forward off the pitch but backwards on it.

Steve Bruce was criticised for the lack of tactical subtlety in his final year but O’Neill was worse.

Effectively he had success in those early days by encouraging Sunderland to get in the faces of their opposition and by harrying and chasing down every ball. It worked for a while but teams got wise to it. It is an easy tactic to pull apart.

This year the idea seemed to be to release wide men to do damage down the flanks and tee up a razor-sharp front man. Only in a league of mobile midfields and fluent, non-traditional front-men, it looked ancient. A switch to 4-4-2 in February just made things worse.

Ironically, Di Canio’s favoured formation at Swindon was 4-4-2.

His philosophy was underpinned by making his team solid and difficult to break down while he encouraged his forwards to forage on their own and attack the space rather than working in tandem.

Will this work at Sunderland? It might, it might not, but Sunderland need to be more adaptive than they were under O’Neill. If he decides the inconsistent forward is the right type of character for him, Di Canio must find a way to integrate Stéphane Sessègnon more successfully than O’Neill did. He must also come up with a style quicker and more fluent than Sunderland under O’Neill.

CHALLENGE THE RED AND WHITE COMFORT ZONE

SUNDERLAND’S training schedule under O’Neill involved far too many days off.

One training-ground staff member was heard to remark he saw one local press man at the training ground more than he did some of the players, which is surely not conducive with success at Premier League level.

Di Canio will be very different and players will be challenged immediately.

Days off will be a thing of the past and hard work and professionalism will be demanded of every squad member, whether they’ve been effectively written off in the past (like Connor Wickham) or whether they’re an integral part of the future (like Simon Mignolet).

Sunderland have taken strides to try and push themselves forward in the Premier League era but talk of turning them into a global brand and of sparing certain players from the glare of interviews when they are the subject of interest jars.

The Black Cats are a working-class club in a working-class area – they’re not Manchester United and players who have been protected need to be held to account for what has happened this year.

Ellis Short is understood to feel the club – and certain players – are coasting. The appointment of Di Canio is the answer to that.

MEDDLE WITH THE MENTALITY

ROY Keane used to call it a “typical Sunderland” attitude. Kevin Kilbane wrote in a national newspaper on Monday that Wearside was a graveyard of reputations. Good and talented men have seen their credentials prove immaterial at the Stadium of Light.

Why is this? Supporters with decades of backing the club can’t tell you. Even staff who have worked there a lifetime are scratching their heads at why the O’Neill appointment didn’t work.

This is probably Di Canio’s biggest challenge – working out why Sunderland has been such a vacuum of hope and ambition for the last few years. With his unorthodox methods and rigorous beliefs he will come at it from a completely different angle, which is maybe no bad thing.

FIX RECRUITMENT

MARTIN O’Neill paid a big price for his January recruitment drive. The squad needed refreshing but his three frontline signings – which included two forays into foreign markets – have failed to fizz.

Short is known to be irked by the way Swansea, Newcastle and Wigan continually unearth gems at value and The Journal understands major changes are afoot in the way the club operate off the field. A system which apes West Brom has been mentioned in the Stadium of Light boardroom and it says a lot that Di Canio’s position is ‘head coach’ rather than all-powerful manager.

Di Canio doesn’t operate in an orthodox manner, having seen off long-serving Swindon chief scout Ken Ryder at an early point in his Robins revolution. Di Canio’s agent Phil Spencer became head of player recruitment which was an interesting move but surely cannot be repeated on Wearside.

You don’t get to where Swansea or Newcastle get to without detailed and forensic work behind-the-scenes and it feels like this has been neglected under O’Neill and Steve Bruce, who dipped into the South American market with minimal success.

With a two-and-a-half year contract and a remit to purge this squad, Di Canio needs to get a handle on this.

Pull in favours, send scouts to far-flung areas, take a risk on players from the lower leagues – something, anything, to end the procession of players whose better days are behind them.

Short has illustrated he has no interest in wasting more money.

END SUNDERLAND’S DERBY-DAY INFERIORITY COMPLEX

DI Canio’s political leanings are a valid and reasonable area of debate and for some the appointment of a man who has praised Benito Mussolini (while opposing racism or discrimination of any form) will never sit right.

For the vast majority of football fans, their standpoint is much more pragmatic. Get the results and support will swing behind Di Canio, who – with his passionate interest in politics, philosophy and social justice – is a more complex man than most involved in English football and deserves a chance to clarify his position before we rush to judgement.

The biggest result he could get in his first fortnight would be to correct the historical inferiority of Sunderland in derby clashes.

Even allowing for the fact Newcastle have been the more successful side in the Premier League era, the Black Cats have showed themselves up in this fixture too many times.

For three years, Sunderland’s approach has been to go mute in the week leading up to the derby.

Di Canio needs to instil confidence in his players that they can walk into Tyneside’s lion’s den and beat a team which – on paper – look superior. If they win on April 14, momentum is suddenly on the Roman’s side.

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Stuart Rayner
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