Paolo already feeding Wearside passions

Tuesday 16th April 2013 9:04

Paolo Di Canio: Bringing zest and flair

Paolo Di Canio: Bringing zest and flair

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Paolo Di Canio's combination of exuberance and managerial acumen has breathed life into Sunderland, writes Sunderland FanZoner Michael Graham.

I think it would be fair to say that Sunderland is something of a managerial graveyard. In the 20 years since the Premier League was formed, a staggering 14 managers have reigned on Wearside for reasonably prolonged periods.

I once asked one of them what the key was to success in the Sunderland dugout. What really separated those few who enjoyed good tenures from the rest, bearing in mind the pedigree of some of those who flopped?

"That's easy," he told me, "you just have to ignite and then feed the passion that surrounds you."

I am not sure how much truth there is in that assessment, but one thing I can say with absolute certainty is that Martin O'Neill's oppressive football had all but snuffed out any flames of passion around the club.

That surprised me. There are many things that you expect from O'Neill. Direct 'traditional' football and a reliance on the domestic transfer market, to name a couple. A lack of desire on the pitch, though? Very uncharacteristic.

Surprise doesn't change the reality, however, and the reality is that O'Neill left a club utterly engulfed in apathy. By the time we watched our side spend an hour haplessly and abjectly bouncing off 10-man Norwich, we all knew that our Premier League destiny was reliant on the failings of others. We weren't getting ourselves out of trouble. We were sleepwalking towards relegation.

A simple change of manager wasn't going to help, either. It needed something extraordinary to shake the club loose of the lethargy and the fans from our self-pity. It was going to take something different. It was going to require a veritable force of nature.

Enter Paolo Di Canio.

The Italian's appointment prompted a more varied range of reactions amongst the Sunderland support than I can ever remember seeing before. Some were deeply outraged, others genuinely excited, and everyone else somewhere between yet always on one definitive side of the fence.

But that, I have learned, is Di Canio's true appeal. He provokes reactions.

You can guarantee that no one watching his incredibly animated celebrates down the St James' Park touchline on Sunday didn't deem it worthy of comment. Whether you loved it or hated it, you thought something about it.

Personally, I loved it. It made me puff out my chest and feel pride in my club. It encapsulated everything I want associated with football. I felt a connection to it and an empathy with it. I'd be absolutely astonished if any Sunderland fan didn't share it.

In many ways it would be unfair to define Di Canio by his passion, though, despite the flamboyance and panache with which he displays it. Once the emotion of the moment subsides, the stark reality remains that passion alone does not win points, even in the most heated of derbies.

There is, without a shadow of a doubt, a lot more to the former Swindon boss than theatrics. It is undeniable to anyone who has seen the change in performances that he has affected since arriving at the club.

It certainly can't be explained away by the fabled 'new manager bounce'. It's not that easy. An improvement in spirit or motivation can't account for it either, though there has been a big improvement in that department.

Di Canio's team look well drilled without the ball, for a start. The propensity for retreating in defence to hopelessly deep positions that O'Neill failed to eliminate has vanished in an instant, with the shape of the team benefitting as a result.

It has been replaced with a new philosophy of pressing the ball high up the pitch and in coordinated packs. An incredible level of coordination, actually, considering the limited time frame involved.

Whilst in possession, meanwhile, Di Canio has Sunderland suddenly playing with some genuine zest and verve. It isn't pace that he has added to the side, though, it is purpose.

That is perhaps best illustrated by Stephane Sessegnon. The Benin international is a richly talented player, yet a frustrating 'why take two touches when nine will do' kind of footballer.

By contrast, it is striking how much more direct he has become in the two games since Di Canio got his hands on him. No wasted motion, no self-indulgence. He has simply taken the ball to the goal, just like he did to open the scoring in Sunday's derby demolition of Newcastle.

These improvements can't be singularly explained away by personality. They are the result of training ground work, intelligent strategy, and good coaching. There is method behind the madness, precision behind the passion.

I was trying to find the words to sum up the impact Di Canio has made at Sunderland, but I probably couldn't do it any better than Craig Gardner. The midfielder, who was serving his suspension in the away end at St James Park this weekend, said: "He has done a lot of tactical work on the training field. He's become a legend overnight. We have won the derby and the fans love him, the players love him and hopefully we have some good times ahead now."

The story of Paolo Di Canio at Sunderland is only just beginning, but so far he has been word perfect and about as pitch perfect as anyone could have hoped for in two tough fixtures. The very fact that he will make his home debut with a resounding derby win already under his belt is testament to his flair for the dramatic.

It'll probably end in tears at some point. Such is the fate of all impassioned love affairs. In the meantime, though, the club has rarely felt more alive.

By Michael Graham, FanZone's Sunderland blogger. Follow him on Twitter at @capt_fishpaste - and don't forget to follow @FanZone too!

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