It was a pretty routine training session exercise, the sort that professional footballers up and down the country do every day of the week.
Glenn Roeder was the manager of West Ham at the time and he wanted us to improve our cutting edge from midfield. The idea was that Paolo Di Canio would find the wide man, who would then put the ball into the box for us to attack.
All Paolo had to do was find the wide man but the first time he attempted it, he made a mess of it. ‘Fair enough,’ we thought. ‘Even the best players aren’t perfect.’
Then he did it again. And again. And again and again and again. It dawned on us that he was deliberately missing the wide man. He was messing up training because, essentially, he didn’t want to do that particular exercise. The lads were furious with him and so was Glenn. Paolo ended up walking in early.
It’s just one little anecdote but it springs to mind when you hear Paolo crop up and slag off Sunderland players Phil Bardsley, Lee Cattermole, John O’Shea and Steven Fletcher over the weekend. Players who, let’s remember, have just helped Sunderland get to Wembley in the Capital One Cup.
The timing was very strange and he comes across as really, really bitter about what happened during his time at Sunderland. It doesn’t seem as if he realises why he wasn’t successful there and that means he’s doomed to repeat the same mistakes.
It made me chuckle, actually. Paolo says he’s ready to come back and make a success of being a manager but he will never be a manager in a million years. He can’t handle people and he can’t handle different personalities and in the world of football, you’re doomed if you can’t do that. When people talk about ‘losing the dressing room’ that’s what it means in practice.
He criticises the professionalism of those four Sunderland players but let me tell you, he had a very poor attitude to training at times. We had rules at West Ham where you weren’t allowed to use a mobile phone but there was an occasion where he came into training talking loudly on his phone – loud enough that Glenn could hear him.
The rules also stated no motorbikes for players yet he’d turn up at training on his Vespa. One day he could be no use to anyone, the next he’d be brilliant and generous. You just never knew what you were getting with him. Don’t get me wrong, he would turn it on when he played on a Saturday. He was a good player but to then criticise players for their conduct is amazing. He was never a model pro.
The first thing Gus Poyet did when he took over was put Bardsley back in the team which told you a heck of a lot about how he was going to approach that dressing room.
There’s a simple rule: alienate influential players in a dressing room and you’re inviting problems.
Alienate four of them at once and what do you expect is going to happen? You can’t get rid of them all because you have to find a buyer and you’ve just made them damaged goods by criticising them in public.
I don’t actually have a problem with that public criticism. At one club I was called in by the manager who told me that he was going to tell the press he’d fined me two weeks wages for something I’d done. Privately, he told me there would be no fine but he wanted to send a message.
That sort of thing happens all the time. Managers work with their players and tread a fine line with the dressing room. That casino picture wasn’t too clever and I don’t condone it but Di Canio couldn’t have dealt with it worse.
Gus has the dressing room onside but he’s been clever. Those influential players are on his side but he might, privately, have come to the same conclusions as Paolo – that they aren’t the ones he wants to move forward. They are third from bottom and they’re better than that, so something hasn’t been right.
He needs them right now but there’s no certainties. What happens next is far from clear and they might all go in the summer but Gus has them onside, which is the hallmark of a good manager. They will run through brick walls for Gus but they wouldn’t cross the road for Paolo.