The best thing about Paolo Di Canio’s sacking was the timing of the announcement. Smack bang in the middle of Downton Abbey. It spared millions of men from having to sit through the nation’s favourite costume drama. Instead we were glued to our smartphones, retweeting Di Canio gags (‘at least he made the training run on time’) and discussing why the fiery Italian had been given the boot.
Admittedly, it doesn’t take Inspector Montalbano, the fictional Italian detective, to figure why his compatriot had been shown the exit door so early in the season. Sunderland were rock bottom of the Premier League and without a win to their name. The final straw was a defeat to West Brom on Saturday, after which Di Canio bizarrely exchanged shrugs and gestures with the Sunderland fans. Although the Italian had kept the Black Cats up last season, the team only chalked up two wins during his tempestuous 175-day tenure.
But results were only part of the problem. A different manager might have been afforded more time to integrate his expensive summer signings. But many on Wearside were already beginning to question Di Canio’s authoritarian management style. Although the term ‘dictatorial’ is frequently used in the media to describe his methods, Di Canio’s fall from grace had nothing to do with his youthful infatuation with Mussolini. The furore which greeted his appointment had long been forgotten. In fact, the Italian had endeared himself to most Sunderland fans with his trouser-ripping touchline celebrations in the 3-0 derby victory over Newcastle - the club’s biggest win at St James’ Park for 30 years. There’s nothing fans love more than a manager cavorting dementedly in the technical area. It says ‘I am a Passionate Man’ more eloquently than words ever could.
The fans also shared Di Canio’s view that their underperforming players needed a kick up their millionaire backsides. The pictures of Phil Bardsley on the floor of a Newcastle casino covered in £50 notes infuriated Di Canio. But supporters were pretty angry, too. Unsurprisingly, many fans backed his disciplinarian methods. The manager controversially banned mobile phones from the training ground. ‘I’ve said that from now if someone comes inside with a mobile phone, even in their bag, I’ll throw it in the North Sea’, he declared. He also prohibited mayonnaise, ketchup and Coca-Cola with ice in an attempt to impose good dietary habits. Singing in the showers was also forbidden. Not good for the players’ concentration, apparently.
In the grand scheme of things such privations are relatively minor. Banning ketchup or mobile phones? It’s hardly Abu Ghraib prison, is it? Di Canio’s boot-camp regime might have been tolerated by the players if he had earned their respect. But here his methods spectacularly backfired. Former Swindon CEO Nick Watkins famously described his style as ‘management by hand grenade’. The temperamental coach fell out with a succession of players at the County Ground. He left a similar trail of devastation at the Stadium of Light. The Italian was sacked after a training ground bust-up which led to a delegation of senior players meeting Margaret Byrne, the club CEO, and threatening to go on strike. The Telegraph described this action as ‘a player rebellion of unprecedented scale in this country’.
Former Sunderland boss Steve Bruce believes that Di Canio’s man-management methods are old-fashioned. ‘You cannot manage in the Premier League these days through a fear factor’, Bruce said. It would appear that what prompted the players’ rebellion was the relentless denigration and abuse to which they were subjected by their coach. ‘The Italian is said to have regularly referred to his players as “f*****g p*****s” in front of them’, wrote Simon Bird in the Mirror. ‘Cowards’ was another favourite insult. This begs the question: are today’s pampered millionaire footballers too soft to take criticism? In 2010, Sir Alex Ferguson admitted that his famous ‘hairdryer treatment’ no longer worked with modern footballers. ‘The world has changed and so have players’ attitudes’, said Fergie. ‘I’m dealing with more fragile human beings than I used to.’
I actually think that Di Canio wasn’t old-fashioned enough in one crucial respect. In berating his players publicly, Di Canio violated the traditional dressing room omerta. What’s said in the dressing room stays in the dressing room. In football, retaining this distinction between private and public is essential to fostering team spirit and trust. Manchester United players bought into Sir Alex Ferguson’s disciplinarian methods because he always defended his players in public. The hairdryer treatment was administered behind closed doors, never in a press conference. Di Canio had no such respect for the sanctity of the dressing room. His very public criticism of his players made it impossible for them to respect him.
Former Sunderland defender Titus Bramble has spoken out about the way Di Canio publicly rebuked teenage striker Connor Wickham, describing him as a ‘Playboy model’ and saying he needed a motivational slap in the face. ‘He’s never said anything like that to his face. He’s 19 and the manager is battering him in the media’, said Bramble. ‘Fine, say that behind closed doors, keep it in house. Managers have a go at players all the time, but in the dressing room or in their office.’
In the end, Di Canio wasn’t ousted because of his fondness for Mussolini. Nor his ban on mobile phones. Nor even his ‘thou shalt not use ketchup’ edict. The problem wasn’t that he cracked the whip. Rather it was his flagrant disregard for football’s traditional code of honour that was his undoing. The surest way to ‘lose’ the dressing room is to violate its sanctity. Di Canio has learned a harsh lesson and one which may do lasting damage to his managerial career.