Can Paolo Di Canio Make Sunderland Dark Horses for Europa League Qualification?

There is little doubt that since Paolo Di Canio took over the helm at Sunderland in March, an optimistic wind has blown in over the Wearside club; and not the usual cautious optimism so often used to describe most managerial changes either. The fiery and charismatic Italian seems to have affected a shift in the attitude and outlook of everybody associated with the club, not least with the fans and certainly with the media – who have fervently pursued any anecdote, controversy or scrap of news about The Black Cats and their boss with the same zeal usually reserved for their neighbors down the road, fierce rivals Newcastle United.

The already well-documented unpredictability of his playing career seems to have transferred into his relatively short managerial life already and could be just what Sunderland require to continue a kick-start away from a long period of stagnation. A hugely impressive tenure at Swindon Town in League 2, where he cut his teeth, led them to promotion in his first season, followed by a competitive first half of the campaign in League 1. However, this success was not without its clashes and quarrels; high-profile spats with striker Leon Clarke and keeper Wes Foderingham were the first warnings that Di Canio was not a man to be crossed, even in the infancy of his time as a boss. This culminated in a run-in with his board at the County Ground though when he took exception to them making no transfer funds available (despite an offer by him to personally pay for loan signings) and selling winger Matt Ritchie to Bournemouth. Di Canio ultimately resigned shortly after in January, cementing his reputation as a firebrand, not willing to accept anything less than absolute support from everybody associated with him.

This was not to go unnoticed. When owner and chairman Ellis Short brokered a deal to bring Di Canio to the Stadium of Light, Sunderland were perilously close to the drop and firmly entrenched in a relegation dog-fight. He had inherited an unfit and demoralized squad that looked to be heading to the Championship under previous incumbent Martin O’Neill. Immediately, reports surfaced of double training sessions and a more hard-line approach; whilst stricter disciplinary procedures toward members of the squad, notably Phil Bardsley, caught in a casino late at night and public criticism of the likes of Connor Wickham became early trademarks as Di Canio attempted to arrest the slide through the trapdoor. It worked. Sunderland preserved their Premier League status, via an historic 3-0 Tyne Wear away derby win over Newcastle at St James’ Park and set about an overhaul of their playing staff.

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