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Sunderland failed to live up to Di Canio's overblown billing
PAOLO Di Canio showed during Steve Harper’s recent testimonial match at St James’ Park that he was adept at playing the pantomime villain but on Saturday he veered dangerously close to becoming the Premier League’s resident clown.
As Sunderland’s players walked toward the dressing room after a humbling 3-0 defeat at West Bromwich Albion the sharp-suited Italian strode purposefully towards the away supporters. Standing on the pitch he implored them in theatrical style to keep their chins up and to vent their anger upon him rather than his underperforming players.
Some of the red and white faithful took the opportunity to do just that by responding with two fingered gestures and exhortations for him to leave, which suggested that Di Canio's stock was plummeting fast on Wearside.
Last night it hit rock bottom with club chairman Ellis Short, who sacked his head coach after only 13 games in charge.
Di Canio possessed undoubted personal charm and unshakeable self belief. His post match display of defiance showed that he could be brazen, bonkers and great box office all at the same time. But without the results to back up wild claims, such as his insistence after Saturday's defeat that “I am a top manager” his words increasingly had a hollow ring.
He was sufficiently savvy to realise that his time was running out and there were signs that he was looking towards his next challenge.
“If we keep losing, lose, lose, lose, what is the result? I think they will want a change,” he admitted. “It may be two days, a week, a month, two months. I don’t know how long. It is difficult to ask me," he said.
"Of course, I believe I will be a success, every manager does that. You have to ask the chairman, Ellis Short, the board. I think it is normal they think about what is going on.
“I will turn Sunderland around because I am a top manager. A top manager. If I go to another place to do another job I will do the best I can in respect for the people who give me the chance."
After a comfortable victory Baggies boss Steve Clarke's gave a post match press conference which lasted just three minutes 21 seconds.
Di Canio's might have gone on until Sunday morning had Sunderland's press officer not physically dragged the Italian out of the room as he launched into yet another meandering answer. Rather than being a review of a football match this was turning into the Di Canio show.
No one could accuse the 45-year-old of a failure to front up, either to the media or to supporters, after another dismal result that left the Black Cats three points from safety at the foot of the Premier League. But his antics on the pitch and in the press room were undermining the club’s credibility.
A maverick who gets results is one thing but Di Canio – and by association Sunderland – were at risk of becoming a bit of a joke.
Ultimately it was their perilous League position that made his position untenable, but Di Canio’s appointment was also a public relations disaster for Sunderland. Experienced heads such as Tony Pulis, Roberto Di Matteo and Gus Poyet are front runners to succeed the verbose Italian.
West Brom boss Clarke on the other hand is a taciturn character at the best of times. Saturday could hardly have gone better for the West Midlands outfit who, according to the morning's league table, were the second worst in the division.
They didn't look like strugglers as a debut goal from Stephane Sessegnon, two weeks after his sale was sanctioned by Short, and smart strikes by Liam Ridgewell and the excellent Morgan Amalfitano, albeit the latter two scored when Sunderland were down to 10 men, were fitting reward for a performance that was as measured and unfussy as Clarke's way with words.
Sessegnon's goal celebration was muted out of respect for his former employers. Di Canio tempted fate before the game by dismissing the possibility that the Benin international would score, so he was visibly furious when his defence failed to pick up the diminutive forward.
He bristled when asked about it later. "So a West Brom footballer scored,” said Di Canio. “What is the problem? It could be another but it was him, so?
“Paolo Di Canio and the club decided to sell him for a good figure. We brought players in. Every week are we going to check on players we sold?"
The Baggies fans taunted him with a chorus of: “Thank you Di Canio” for selling Sessegnon who left as part of Sunderland’s radical summer plan to offload some high earning players and source bargains from Europe.
Clarke was delighted with debutant Sessegnon. “He did what we brought him here to do,” said the West Brom manager. “He is clever on the ball, bright, an entertainer and he's got some goals in him as well.”
On Sessegnon not celebrating his goal, Clarke added: “He doesn't smile much anyway. He smiles less than me. I think he showed good respect to the Sunderland fans. They loved him as a player and he chose not to celebrate.”
Sunderland's failure to respond after Sessegnon's opener worried Di Canio who admitted his side lacked fight.
His successor will inherit a team low on confidence and robbed of key striker Steven Fletcher whose goals have so often dug the Black Cats out of a hole.
The Scotland international continued his nasty habit of picking up injuries from innocuous-looking situations when he fell awkwardly after firing over Boaz Myhill's bar and dislocated his right shoulder. He was sent to hospital for treatment and is expected to be sidelined for at least a month.
Di Canio said: “It is very bad at the moment, everything is negative. He is the main man. You can see even though he missed the goal he is a predator in the box. We do not have enough players like this. We have good strikers but not with his quality.”
Fletcher's withdrawal came after Lee Cattermole, making his first appearance since February, entered the fray as Sunderland's third substitute. Playing for the last 15 minutes with 10 men exposed Sunderland to West Brom's incisive passing and in the final stages the away side's efforts were more focused on damage limitation than in mounting a fightback.
Ill fortune has plagued Sunderland in recent weeks; from injuries to disallowed goals. Di Canio’s pride ensured that right to the end he didn’t seek pity. “We have very good footballers,” he said. “But it is new for them and we have to help them and give them belief. I believe they have faith in me and follow me. The only way we will sort things out is to stick together.
"At the top or at the bottom, there is only one way, which is work and work and work. One win will help.”
Tomorrow’s visit of Peterborough United in the Capital One Cup would have offered him an early chance to rebuild confidence. But Short decided not to give him any more time.
Before the game the Italian had demanded his players displayed more “heart” and “desire.” These were fine sentiments but talk is cheap. In the end Sunderland failed to live up to the manager's overblown billing.
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