The Agenda: What next for Sunderland after Paolo Di Canio's sacking?

Questions have to be asked about the Sunderland's structure after the sacking of Paolo Di Canio, and Ellis Short is the man to answer them

Bethany Clarke/Getty Images Chairman of Sunderland AFC, Ellis Short
Chairman of Sunderland AFC, Ellis Short

You have probably never heard of Ryan Sachs.

Sachs is the Boston College graduate right at the heart of Ellis Short’s Sunderland.

A legal whizzkid who played a key role in the club’s 2011 recruitment drive, he is officially listed as the assistant to the Director of Football Roberto De Fanti.

He is also, increasingly, the first port of call for agents looking to put players to the club.

Yet Sunderland supporters still dazed by the pace of Paolo Di Canio’s downfall won’t know too much about one of the most important people at the Stadium of Light – much like they know little about De Fanti, the club’s kingmaker and the architect of their remarkable summer “revolution.”

De Fanti has given one interview, to the official club website.

Among all the usual platitudes about the club being a sleeping giant he delivered the following pearl: “Paolo explains to us how he wants to play and, on the basis of this and the guidelines given, this information is given to the scouts who will travel around the world.”

So if the players have been picked to play a certain way, what happens when Di Canio goes?

Why the silence of so many key man at the club (Valentino Angeloni has also rarely been seen or heard)?

This is the club Short built: the new-look Black Cats which has constructed the cosmopolitan squad currently sitting bottom of the Premier League.

Di Canio and his failed philosophy might have beaten an unlamented retreat but the focus now needs to be trained on the individuals left behind.

Individuals, it should be noted, who have had much more influence than Di Canio – in spite of his attempt to construct a personality cult.

At the start of the season the manager was asked about De Fanti’s role and tellingly failed to address the question before launching into a rant about the way Italian clubs work.

It felt like friction might have been building then.

Di Canio has paid the price but now the gaze must fall on Short’s men – and the owner himself.

Collectively they have taken big decisions over recent months, ruthless calls which have laid waste to the entire scouting department.

This included good men with knowledge of the area and the people involved with the club like Bryan ‘Pop’ Robson.

Another club stalwart, Dr Glen Rae, Sunderland’s head of medicine, left over the summer.

Goodness knows how much longer it would have gone on if Di Canio had stayed.

Apparently he had been unhappy with the way the club’s Academy was playing, raising questions about the excellent work of director Ged McNamee.

Had either he or Kevin Ball, tonight’s caretaker boss, departed it might have raised the alarm bells sooner.

Even with them in charge, Short has questions to answer about the way the club is going. Under Short’s guidance, the club has developed into a world-class venue for summer concerts and developed links in Africa and Asia - but they are bottom of the Premier League, slightly worse off than when he completed his takeover in 2009.

Since then they have finished tenth, 13th, tenth, 13th and 17th. The last two seasons relegation has been on the agenda, as it was during his first.

Four managers have come and gone in four years and this year the net spend – after the sales of their two best players Simon Mignolet and Stephane Sessegnon – has been minimal.

Short has done a lot for Sunderland but he is not beyond question. His decision to pick Di Canio has never been fully explained, nor the justification for bringing in De Fanti.

He is the chairman as well as the owner, so the whole thing stands and falls on his shoulders.

Di Canio leaves behind a mess but for all that his style had turned the dressing room toxic, there are things his successor might be able to learn from his five-month reign.

It is quite right to pin-point the magnificent derby win as the moment he awoke the long-dormant enthusiasm of Sunderland’s suffering supporters but it was not solely the 3-0 defeat of Newcastle which won them around.

Di Canio talked big, he spoke of Sunderland as a club which should dream of real success, not just the relative achievement of simply surviving in the Premier League.

He cajoled, prompted, provoked and polemicised, pushing the Black Cats out of the comfort zone Martin O’Neill had sleep-walked them into.

It was refreshing to hear a Sunderland manager embrace the hopes of his supporters rather than chiding them for phantom unrealistic expectations (Steve Bruce, step forward) or sabotaging players by having the temerity to expect more than negative tactics and a disinterested squad.

He set the tone superbly, only to be let down by a lack of experience of working with Premier League players and his own monstrous ego.

Having grown used to being bigger than Swindon Town, he arrogantly assumed the same at Sunderland.

Short forcibly removed that conceit from him on Sunday lunchtime after his players suffered one public indignity too many.

It was particularly foolish not to pay more attention to cultivating human relationships.

His revolution needed hearts and minds to succeed but his dictatorial style attempted to steamroller his squad (and staff) into submission. For an intelligent man, it was a mind-boggling lack of perception.

His tactics were not half as impressive as he made out either. Shuffling the line-up every week and ostracising players like Cabral and Lee Cattermole left them weaker than they should have been and has contributed to the paltry one-point haul.

However, let us not mock Sunderland supporters for the way they assembled behind Di Canio.

He presented them with a vision and encouraged them to dream. If the next man can get close to that – while avoiding the Italian’s ego-trap – they might get the time to deliver it.


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer