Paulo di Canio will be celebrating a step forward in his managerial career - but does he have what it takes to save Sunderland? (Image | Getty)

Paulo di Canio will be celebrating a step forward in his managerial career – but does he have what it takes to save Sunderland? (Image | Getty)

Sunderland made a bold decision yesterday in hiring highly flammable but little-tested Italian Paulo Di Canio as their new manager in the midst of a relegation battle. The first question that came to my mind, however, was: is Di Canio really the ideal candidate for a team fighting to stave off relegation?

There’s no denying that the controversial Di Canio is a talented manager; his Swindon charges certainly seemed inspired to greater things by him based on the club’s dip in form following his departure. But the Sunderland post presents new challenges to Di Canio.

This is only di Canio’s second managerial appointment, and in vastly different circumstances from the first. At Swindon, Di Canio was managing a team with money to spend and with few expectations. This should in no way diminish his achievements in bringing home the League 2 title and then setting the club on course for back-to-back promotions until his departure in February, but the stakes are rather higher at Sunderland, where avoiding relegation is an absolute necessity and the Italian will have no opportunity to bring in his own players to do so.

There are other pressures, too. Di Canio is not exactly famous for being easy to work with. He has fallen out with numerous Swindon players in the past two years, including particularly famous fallings-out with Leon Clarke (below) and goalkeeper Wes Foderingham, and is no stranger to criticising his charges in media statements. That is the last thing needed by a collection of surely rather down-hearted Sunderland players, who will have received a very different approach from the  softly-spoken Martin O’Neill.

If on-field matters weren’t enough to put Di Canio’s suitability in question, there’s the difficult issue of his political persuasions to look at too. I call this a difficult issue for two reasons: as a man who terms himself “a fascist, but not a racist”, Di Canio’s political leaning will surely bring some difficult questions down on him in a league which attracts global attention and global participation; on the other hand as an open and inclusive country, should we really be questioning the personal ideology of anyone involved with the Premier League?

Di Canio's history may be about to catch up with him - this particular moment of madness is already causing controversy (Image | AP)

Di Canio’s history may be about to catch up with him – this particular moment of madness is already causing controversy (Image | AP)

The league itself certainly doesn’t seem to think so, given the dubious provenances of some of those who have passed its ‘fit and proper persons test’ for club ownership. Thaksin Shinawatra was being tried for various crimes in Thailand when he bought Manchester City, while there have been various others (not least Roman Abramovich) whose histories have been called into question. David Miliband clearly took issue with Di Canio’s stance, though; the former Labour politician resigned as a non-executive director when he was informed of Di Canio’s arrival.

That fascist salute in 2005 is not the only moment of madness in the career of an eccentric genius. He caused frequent problems at Sheffield Wednesday in not appearing for games and that infamous push on referee Paul Alcock; the Owls could hardly complain, though, as they had purchased the maverick then-30-year-old that summer from Celtic after he refused to attend a Dutch training club with the Scottish club. All this history made it somewhat surprising that Di Canio was later awarded the Premier League’s Fair Play award for an outstanding act of sportsmanship while playing for West Ham against Everton in 2000.

Regardless of his past, however, it’s clear that the former forward, now 44, represents the change in attitude that Sunderland clearly needed. For whatever reasons, O’Neill has never been able to get the same out of this talented group of players this season as he did last, and while a devastating rash of injuries since Christmas has exacerbated their problems it cannot be held solely responsible.

Sunderland’s challenge is a tall order for Di Canio. The new TV contracts coming into play next year mean there is even more, financially, to be lost from being relegated in 2013 than in any other year, and slipping back to the Championship after six years of top-flight football could lead to a loss of several key players. It’s hard to see the likes of Stephen Fletcher, Stephane Sessegnon, Adam Johnson or recent arrival Danny Graham fancying a promotion campaign when all four are at the peak of their powers.

Roberto Di Matteo, Brian MacDermott and Alex McLeish were all available alternatives with recent experience of relegation fights, and Sunderland would not have been blamed for appointing any of them. Instead, Niall Quinn and the Black Cats are staking Premier League participation and possibly financial survival on a man who is managing two divisions above his previous zenith. Is Di Canio up to the challenge?

One crucial factor in Di Canio’s favour is that there are teams around his new club in rather worse positions. Wigan still have to face Tottenham, Chelsea and Man City before the end of the season; Aston Villa have games against Man Utd and Chelsea and the greater problem of a dreadful lack of form and depth to their squad; Reading are in turmoil following the sacking of MacDermott and also face a harder run-in than Sunderland; and bottom-placed QPR have an easier run of games between now and May but have more ground to make up.

Based on his achievements with Swindon – pushing players to greater heights than they had achieved before, creating a strong (if volatile) atmosphere within the squad, and always exuding an inimitable will to win – my money is on Di Canio and Sunderland beating the drop this season. What happens after that, however, is anyone’s guess.

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