Di Canio fires up Sunderland

April 15, 2013

You hardly needed to be a qualified expert in body language to read the signals coming loud and clear from an explosive, emotionally souped-up Paolo Di Canio. A couple of weeks of pressure - much of which he apparently hadn't seen coming - had simmered only to ignite as each of Sunderland’s three expert goals pierced the Newcastle net. He was like human popcorn erupting in the intense heat.

The imagery will live long in the memory for Sunderland. Di Canio celebrated wildly. He po-goed into the air, fists pumping and mouth roaring. He skidded along the turf, smearing the knees of his smartly tailored trousers with mud. He sprinted deliriously to embrace his players. He looked close to tears as he conducted the Sunderland fans in the upper tier as they serenaded him with song. The man is not shy when it comes to emotional outpourings, that’s for sure.

For those associated with the club there was layer upon layer of significance in this result. Primarily, it eases the threat of relegation (the pundits were quick to rule it out after such a sudden upsurge in fortune and performance even though they still need some points to be certain). Secondly, it’s a derby and means the world locally. Thirdly, it represents a transformation in quality for a team that had been stuck in the mud, low on inspiration, and high on concern.

Last but not necessarily least, it led to a noticeable shift in the coverage of Di Canio. The English media had reacted strongly to Sunderland’s decision to replace the previous coach, Martin O’Neill, with a man whose political beliefs caused a wave of outrage. Di Canio’s links with facist ideology had dominated the press and the airwaves from within minutes of his appointment.

Yet, such was the sensation caused by Sunderland’s 3-0 win at the home of their great rivals, Newcastle, there was an apparent softening in the media tone. They felt compelled to cover the football, not the political sub-plot. They were drawn in to the drama of the moment. There was even some benevolence towards Di Canio as he dedicated this win to his mother, around the anniversary of her death. “Before the kick-off I knew we would make a fantastic performance. I saw the face of my mother smiling,” he said. “It was one year to the day yesterday that she passed away. I believe in some sort of energy. It was very emotional.”

It is too early to say whether the unease over Di Canio’s politics is a storm that the club merely needed to ride out, or whether it will remain a choppy issue. But when Sunderland’s hierarchy peruse the newspapers, listen to the radio bulletins, and look at the message boards, they will surely feel encouraged that some kind of normality can return to the club after all the recent turbulence.

And as for Di Canio’s influence as a manager, they could hardly feel more positive after what they witnessed at St James’s Park. The team performance encapsulated what they after when they chose him to shake the team up. Sunderland played with renewed verve and spark and imagination – the kind of qualities Di Canio himself had as a player.

The Italian was not the easiest footballer to look after – who could even imagine how Di Canio the manager would go about controlling Di Canio the player – but his coaches tended to indulge him because he was such an original. “My character made many problems for me in football but without it I wouldn't play at the top level,” he told me once.

I recall being sent down to West Ham's training ground over a decade ago on a mission to try to convince him to grant my newspaper an interview. When he finally emerged, it was obvious the extent to which he stood out from the dressing room crowd. It was not the most pretentious place at the time, and Di Canio sauntered out, into a monsoon, wearing a pair of look-at-me sunglasses with luminous sunshine yellow lenses. I remember thinking, this is a man who clearly cherishes his own colourful view of the world.

He spoke at length, with effervescent passion. His individuality was striking. Even then, long before he had swapped his playing kit and boots for management suit and tie, his chief characteristics presented themselves at full power: charisma, spontaneity, zeal, and complexity. “Some hate me, some love me, some think I'm crazy. Sometimes I'm a very kind boy, sometimes I'm very angry,” he said at the time.

He came across as the kind of man who cannot help but act or speak first, and think later. His temperament made him a luxury item to be handled with care, and left team-mates and managers occasionally tearing their hair out. But at others they would simply marvel at him. There were a lot of contradictions. But one thing was certain: he was impossible to ignore.

At the time, West Ham were in some relegation trouble, and Di Canio’s views resonate today. “Maybe people don't trust me when I say it but I'd prefer to score two own goals and win 3-2 than score four goals and lose 5-4. At the end of the season if we go down, I go down with the squad. That's no glory. I prefer to score 20 own goals in one season and win the cup than score 45 goals and be relegated.”

There were echoes as he enthused about Sunderland’s weekend victory. It felt wonderful, but will only stay that way as long as Sunderland retain Premier League status. “When you arrive at the top and you win one of the hottest derbies in the world… as a single game it is the most important for me,” he said. “But it is nothing if we don't stay up."

For Sunderland, this extraordinary roller-coaster ride continues.