Jim White

The madness of King Paolo was always the wrong method

Jim White

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Michael Owen was among many when he suggested this week that the departure of Paolo Di Canio from Sunderland signalled the end of the managerial dictator.

The modern dressing room, he said, will no longer tolerate the kind of methodology the Italian employed. These days managers cannot sustain results on a climate of fear. The football bully will be quickly frozen out by the millionaires in his control.

Carlton Palmer, Graham Taylor’s former midfield enforcer, reckons the reason is simple: in League Two, a player fined a couple of weeks' wages for a disciplinary misdemeanour will struggle to meet his mortgage payments, so will – however reluctantly - knuckle down to whatever is required of him.

In the Premier League, if he is fined two weeks wages – the maximum allowed under PFA rules – for not tucking his shirt in or using his mobile phone in the dressing room, a player will still be putting £60,000 into his bank account that month.

The Premier League footballer has what used to be termed in showbusiness circles "f***-off money", so much cash he can walk away from any situation he doesn’t like at any time. It means the manager can never properly control his players through the imposition of rules based on fines. He has to be much more subtle to create team spirit. To put it bluntly, the modern Premier League player will simply laugh at any attempt to govern through fear.

But Di Canio’s issues did not simply come about because he tried to impose in the dressing room the kind of political philosophy he has long embraced. It wasn’t just that he lost the respect of his players by lambasting them in public. It wasn’t merely that he was intolerant, inconsistent, unpredictable and irrational. It was mainly because he was, frankly, a bit bonkers. And being unhinged has never been the best way to run any business. Even, despite the evidence of history, a football club.

Some of the stories emerging about the way Di Canio behaved at Sunderland are almost unbelievable. The endless rules he apparently instituted were not just petty, they were weird. Reportedly, he had a particular fetish about eating. When the first team used the canteen at the training ground, the place had to be cleared. Reserves, juniors, even members of the coaching and administrative staff could not be in there at the same time as the first team.

Players could not speak during lunch, nor were they allowed to communicate with the catering staff (though there was no need to ask for your eggs over easy: fry ups were banned). Anyone breaching the new rules would be fined.

Di Canio might one day be able to put us right on this, but as yet in the history of football there has not been evidence of such a regime producing three points on a Saturday. Rather the reverse.

At Barcelona, for instance, they take pride in the fact the canteen is the place where everyone mixes, where coaches get to chat football with their colleagues, where juniors are inspired by the possibility of lining up in the queue for pasta alongside Xavi, or sitting down at the same table as Lionel Messi. But then what do Barcelona know, they have never won the League Two title.

The maddest thing about Di Canio’s reign on Wearside, however, was not the rules, not the rants, it was the fact he was ever employed there in the first place. Football is small world. Rumours and stories quickly circulate. And everyone in the game was aware of what sort of figure the Italian cut when he was at Swindon.

Yes, he had driven the club – largely by the sheer force of his personality – to the League Two title. But the collateral was enormous. Players, administrative staff, even the local newspaper reporter – who once timed a single answer at one of his weekly press conference rants at 47 minutes – were exhausted by his demands.

Morale was eviscerated. His personality poisoned the place. The budget was over-run with his cavalier expenditure – like flying in a pasta chef from Italy on match days. When he left, it was as if a huge boil had been lanced. Suddenly everyone could breathe once more.

All this was known. And yet Sunderland’s Ellis Short thought he was just the man who might inject a short, sharp shock after Martin O’Neill’s tired regime to keep the club in the monied uplands of the Premier League. Well, he was. The trouble is what came next.

It was pretty obvious that his character was one which, while it might just work in the extremis of a relegation struggle, was not conducive to rebuilding at the top of the modern game. Continuous revolution is no way to get the best out of sportsmen.

Besides no-one runs a team like di Canio tried to. Not trusting them, demeaning them publicly, constantly inferring that no-one cares as much as he did, that no-one works as hard as he did is no way to inspire a group of players. Picking fights is no way of encouraging performance.

Jose Mourinho, Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger: they may be no democrat in the dressing room, but they learned long ago that alienation is no route to team building.

To be fair to Short, once it became clear quite what a catastrophic error he had made in hiring the Mussolini fancier in the first place, he moved quickly to rectify his mistake. Now Sunderland fans will hope that this time he has done a bit more due diligence on Gus Poyet.

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