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.

The close season transfer dealings began in earnest with Rome-born Di Canio releasing a number of players, not least Titus Bramble and Matt Kilgallon, in an attempt to clear the decks; this was followed by the sale of the outstanding Simon Mignolet to Liverpool and Egyptian international Ahmed Elmohamady to Hull City. In their place, a veritable who’s who of largely unknown players have arrived alongside one or two more familiar faces. Joining former Hull City and current USA international striker Jozy Altidore from AZ Alkmaar and ex-Arsenal keeper Vito Mannone include midfielder Cabral from Basel and French defenders Modibo Diakité from Lazio and Valentin Roberge from Maritimo; whilst youngsters David Moberg Karlsson and El-Hadji Ba bring a fresher approach to what many would agree was an under-achieving squad. This is only going to be further enhanced by the imminent arrival of Italian international Emanuele Giaccherini from Juventus, an excellent signing that will bolster the squad significantly.

All of this would seem to point to a brighter future and a good 2013/14 season, a new dawn under a vibrant, passionate manager overseeing a younger, hungrier and more streamlined squad that is going to have an element of surprise is in stark contrast to what has often looked like a tired, stale and ill-disciplined outfit that looked goal-shy and out of ideas. Players like Adam Johnson and Steven Fletcher have the opportunity of a new lease of life playing under Di Canio and with players like Altidore and Giaccherini, surely things are looking very promising indeed?

However, former chairman and Sunderland legend Niall Quinn recently was quoted as saying,

“It’s going to be tough. He’s got a lot of players with very little experience in the Premier League and I think it might be tough for him.”

There is of course a chance Sunderland could struggle again, players need to gel and other clubs will also have strengthened by the time the season kicks off. With the man in charge however, nobody is in any doubt of what is required, it certainly won’t be dull and there is every chance of Sunderland being dark horses for a shock UEFA Europa League qualification. The jury is out.

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