Jack: Di Canio's Sunderland treading in murky water

Kristian Jack
9/12/2013 12:33:13 PM
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A hundred years ago, the small north east town of Sunderland was booming.

On the football pitch they were the best team in England, securing the First Division crown for a fifth time in their already illustrious history.

One goal was all that separated them from a unique league and cup double in 1913, as they narrowly lost the FA Cup final to Aston Villa 1-0. It would be the closest they would ever come to such a feat, but for the town of less than 40,000 people there was little time to be upset as they watched their beloved boys lift the league championship the following weekend.

Off the pitch, more than a third of the town's population worked at the local shipyards, owned by local families, which was known at the time as 'the largest shipbuilding town in the world'.

Like any industry, the ship building trade had its ups and downs but thrived in the early 1900s and would go on to produce more than a quarter of the nation's total weight of merchant and naval ships for World War II.

As the country prepared for war for a second time, Sunderland AFC, playing with a black ship on their crest, found their glory days once again in the thirties, winning the First Division for a sixth (and last) time in 1936 and the FA Cup in 1937.

Following the war, the shipyards and the club saw a downturn in fortune and once the 1970s arrived the future of the dockyards, which had significantly raised the town's population and trade in other areas, was in danger. On the field, Sunderland, stuck in the Second Division after being relegated in 1970, gave the locals a release from their worries with an improbable FA Cup in 1973. Forced into replays in rounds 3, 4 and 5, the red and whites defeated Luton Town in the quarter final and the mighty Arsenal in the semi's to reach the even mightier Leeds United at Wembley for the final. With no one giving them a chance, Bob Stokoe's upstarts beat Don Revie's giants by a single goal to nil, shocking the football world.

It remains Sunderland's last major trophy.

Four years on from that historic day at Wembley, Sunderland's dockyards were no longer run by Sunderland people as the industry was nationalized in an attempt to fight off the fierce competition generated by Japan and Korea. By 1988 they had lost the battle and the final shipyards closed for good.

Four years later, as the town was officially granted city status, on the field the club, again back in the second flight, reached Wembley for a date with Liverpool in the FA Cup. They would lose 2-0 but talk to any Sunderland fan who was there that day and they'll tell you just how dominant their team was in the first half. If only John Byrne had taken his volley properly it could have been 1973 all over again.

In 1997, the club ended their 99 year run at the famous Roker Park ground and moved to their current home, the Stadium of Light. A new home meant a new club crest, sadly with a ship no longer on it.

Now a city that's home to over 170,000 people, many who are incredibly passionate about the club, Sunderland were an ideal model to represent the growing brand of the Premier League. However, things didn't go that smoothly in the last 20 years, as Sunderland have been promoted four times to the top flight and relegated on three different occasions. Last May it was so nearly a fourth time but Paolo Di Canio's arrival as manager steered the ship to 8pts in the final seven games to ensure a 17th place finish and survival.

The hiring of the Italian was a brave one by club owner Ellis Short, not only because of Di Canio's lack of experience as a manager, but also because of how late it came in the season. Di Canio's passion and bravado lifted his players to a memorable 3-0 win at hated rivals Newcastle, and as he gathered his players in front of the jubilant away fans that day, it appeared stability had finally been found.

However, in a city of change, we should have known better.

Di Canio, who publicly said he felt Sunderland would have been relegated if he hadn't have taken over from Martin O'Neill, went about making the team his own, bringing in an incredible fourteen new players during the summer transfer window.

The overall re-structuring of the club continued with the hiring of a former agent, Roberto De Fanti, to be the club's first Director of Football and former Inter Milan scout Victor Angeloni becoming their new chief scout.

The overall new direction of the club is bold, but also extremely risky. With so many new players, the team has struggled to gel at the start of the season, with many experiencing English football for the first time. Eighteen players have already played in the three matches so far, which has resulted in just one point, and the controversial Di Canio has publicly already shown signs of lack of patience.

After the loss at home to Fulham he told reporters post match his players need to listen to him more about learning how to defend against set pieces. He echoed these thoughts when they conceded a late equalizer, again from a dead ball situation, at Southampton.

Last time out at Crystal Palace, Di Canio was at it again. "I cannot change the heart of my players," he said. Later he gave us all insight into what was on the minds of players heading into an international break, explaining: "Even today, (players are) talking which flight can I get, when can I come back, and they don't focus attention on the game, which is more important because we have to work hard for the club, for the fans who travel and spend a fortune to follow us."

He is, of course, right. However, such things happen in the game all the time and no successful manager tells the media about it. Publicly stating such matters will win him no friends inside the dressing room. Already during his time at the club he has told reporters that he threatened to cut short the summer break for players who weren't trying hard enough, fined them for not fulfilling contract obligations such as signing shirts, and sold arguably one of their best players, Stephane Sessegnon, after he was arrested and charged for a drink-driving offence.

Worryingly, these are all actions from Di Canio at a happy stage, enjoying a honeymoon period as manager. What will come out of his mouth when he isn't happy?

He talks about loving his time as a Premier League manager but so far his team has shown very little signs that they will once again not be in a relegation fight this season. Ellis Short has not bankrolled these signings and approved a complete change in direction for this ship to see it sunk come May.

And that is what makes the 'all-in' attitude with Di Canio even more of a mystery. He may well turn out to be an excellent manager but publicly calling out your players, and failing to keep such things inside the changing room, usually sends a ship heading towards an iceberg and what becomes of all the new employees then?

Sunderland's next seven home games before Christmas week are against Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United, Newcastle, Manchester City, Chelsea and Tottenham. If Di Canio was frustrated in the opening three weeks of the season, what can we expect him to say about his players after these games?

He has managed less than a dozen Premier League games, yet captain Di Canio has been allowed to pick those who are onboard with him for this journey through to May 11th, the final day of the season. Between now and then it is clear some will be thrown over board by the leader of the ship. What is far from clear is whether Sunderland will be above water come then, and whether or not Di Canio will still be behind the wheel.

The more things change, the more they stay the same in Sunderland.

You can watch Sunderand take on Mesut Ozil and Arsenal this Saturday live on TSN. Join me at 9.50am et as we get you set for the match.

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