The Agenda: What is Paolo Di Canio thinking at Sunderland?

Aut viam inveniam aut faciam. As a keen student of Roman history, Paolo Di Canio will recognise the sentiment – even if the Latin words don’t immediately register to Sunderland’s workaholic head coach

Sunderland manager Paulo Di Canio
Sunderland manager Paulo Di Canio

Aut viam inveniam aut faciam. As a keen student of Roman history, Paolo Di Canio will recognise the sentiment – even if the Latin words don’t immediately register to Sunderland’s workaholic head coach.

“I shall either find a way,” the words translate as. “Or make one.”

In those first frantic weeks in charge of the Black Cats, Di Canio was finding a way. Compromise was the watch-word as the manager charmed and chivvied his squad in equal measure. Mission accomplished by mid-May, he is now right in the thick of “making a way”. There is a sort of brutal, beautiful logic to the Black Cats overhaul – but there is a high stakes game being played by Sunderland here.

The good news for Sunderland supporters is that while there may appear to be a sort of chaos about the sheer number of enquiries being made by their club, this is months in the making. As far back as the Queens Park Rangers defeat, when Sunderland were at the their lowest ebb, Ellis Short was preparing to radically overhaul the club and even went as far as introducing his latest recruit to Martin O’Neill.

Roberto De Fanti is the son of one of Ellis Short’s closest associates. He is the architect of this Italian revolution and has been advising Short from the start on where to go, assuaging the owner’s anxiety that his club might never be able to scout as ingeniously as others in the Premier League.

Fearing that the domestic market offered little value, Short wanted to go abroad. But he was being told by his existing scouts – along with his reluctant former manager – that to gain traction in many European markets that have traditionally provided Premier League players would require years of patient ground-work and investment. It was time that Short, a voraciously ambitious and successful man who wants things done yesterday, couldn’t afford.

De Fanti’s answer was to look to Italy, a market that has never been properly explored by English clubs. There has been Italian influence in the Premier League, of course, but no club has ever gone deeper than established first-team players. Sunderland, De Fanti believes, could do that – if they employed the right person.

Bringing in Valentino Angeloni was clearly a coup. He is respected in Serie A circles, and the mere mention of his name opens doors. Sunderland have found that their enquiries are taken very seriously in Italy now that he is attached to the club – and it is driving their recruitment policy to places they didn’t expect it to. Promising young Italian players are being offered to them now. CNN’s Italian correspondent Tancredi Palmeri says that in Italy, the perception of Sunderland has altered dramatically in the last few weeks.

Viewed as a curiosity when Di Canio was first handed the job, their activity in the transfer market has added substance to the profile according to the Gazetta dello Sport writer.

“The perception of Sunderland in Italy is not that they are an Italian club. We think more about the ownership than the management but they have been followed with more interest since the end of the season because the bids they have made are pretty specific,” he said.

“They have made contact about Duncan and Ibrahim M’Biaye. They are not the kind of players you would have expected anyone to bid for this summer, never mind an English club. That is not because they are bad players but because very few people in the game would have had the knowledge to bid for these players with the confidence that Sunderland have done.

“Look at Liverpool buying Coutinho. That was a surprise because I did not expect them to sell him but he was a player with the Brazilian international side so the knowledge is there for teams in England. The fact that they have bid for the players they have bid for, that changes everything.

“In England they are unknown but in Italy, we know they could be the next two big things to come out of Inter. That news really changed the idea of Sunderland – they are now seen as a major player in Italy.”

This work is being done with Di Canio’s knowledge, but his concern is how to turn his squad into a fighting force in time for the start of the Premier League season.

Privately, there was doubt about whether he would follow through with the fury of White Hart Lane, but he has backed it up by telling several high-profile players they can leave. He was pragmatic enough to let Simon Mignolet go too, having decided that he wants his Black Cats to exhibit total commitment to the cause next year. That couldn’t be guaranteed by a player anxious to be his country’s number one in time for the World Cup. Stephane Sessegnon’s sorcery did more than anyone to keep Sunderland in the Premier League. But he has also been counseled on the forward’s lack of form in the early weeks of the season, which might explain a willingness to sell at the right price. Lee Cattermole, too, is available.

Here in England, there are sceptical voices. One agent who has worked with Sunderland in the past is uncertain about where it will go – and says that sense of the unknown probably extends to the manager. He feels it might even be a deliberate ploy as Di Canio tries to tackle the complacency that has clouded Sunderland’s progress in the past. He told The Journal : “None of us know what kind of Sunderland will line up next season – not even the manager. That is my honest belief. If he brings in ten and none are English, that’s a big upheaval. How can that possibly work?”

Di Canio would love to hear that. It has been a common complaint among recent Sunderland managers, attracted by the potential of a club that brings in big gates and has spending power, that the job has turned out to be a bigger one than they first assumed. For Di Canio, the size of the challenge is half the fun of it. Whatever happens next year, no one could accuse him of shying away from the obvious changes that needed to be made.


David Whetstone
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