Though no club figures have gone on the record to denounce Di Canio yet, the press appear to have been heavily briefed by those behind the scenes, cataloging all Di Canio’s shortcomings in his brief reign at the Stadium of Light.
The details that have been disclosed paint a far from flattering portrait of a man who was entrusted with a Premier League job despite minimal experience as a manager - his spell at Swindon lasting less than two seasons and also being scarred by huge disputes with his players.
It will take a long time - and a serious PR effort - for Di Canio to shake off the stigma of this disastrous spell, and in particular how he lost the dressing room so spectacularly. Indeed, it may well be that he will never again be trusted with a job in management after his efforts a a human wrecking ball at Sunderland.
So what exactly did he do that was so wrong? Here we examine the reasons why Di Canio lost control after only 13 games in charge.
The "systematic destruction of the players' self-esteem and self-worth"
Tuesday’s Independent gives a stark analysis of the Di Canio regime: “Di Canio’s relationship with the first-team players at Sunderland had deteriorated to such an extent that a source inside the club said: ‘It got to a point where they could not take any more. It became untenable. He was irrational at the end in his personal attacks on the players. There is relief more than anything that he has gone.’” Star summer signing Emmanuele Giaccherini and former captain Lee Cattermole are both reported to clashed with Di Canio in recent weeks.
Subjecting his players to heavy criticism, both privately and publicly
According to the Mirror, “The Italian is said to have regularly referred to his players as ‘f******g p****s’ in front of them. ‘Cowards’, was another favourite insult. One senior club source said if you thought the criticism he dished out in public was tough, it was nothing on the blistering verbal assaults on his players behind closed doors.”
Di Canio was certainly not shy in front of the cameras. After a 3-1 loss to Crystal Palace – a performance he described as “pathetic” – he said his players were “snobby” and “lazy” and that senior player John O’Shea had committed “rubbish” mistakes. Ji Dong-won pulled out of a header in that game and Di Canio told the world the striker was “without fire, without desire.”
Having exiled right-back Phil Bardsley in May after he was pictured in a Newcastle casino covered in £50 notes - “I thought at Swindon in League Two, arrogant, ignorant footballers in some way don’t know (the score) exactly because they’ve not had many chances at the top level. I have to tell you I have found a worse environment in terms of discipline at this club” - Di Canio was unable to shift the Scotland international, or former skipper Cattermole. The latter, it is said, led the players’ revolt against Di Canio last week.
Warnings from the PFA
Bardsley’s was the most high-profile incident but Di Canio fined a number of players within weeks of taking the Sunderland job and the squad took their grievances to the Professional Footballers’ Association. PFA chief executive Gordon Taylor said: "He cannot be a law unto himself. We're aware of player unrest at some comments made publicly, and other situations. A number of players are involved. We're aware of Paolo Di Canio's comments - it's something we had to deal with [when the Italian was manager] at Swindon as well. Our rules for discipline are agreed with the Premier League and Football Association."
The players’ revolt against ‘dictator’ Di Canio
Things finally came to a head last week after what the Telegraph describe as “a player rebellion of unprecedented scale in this country.” According to the paper, numerous players indicated to the club they would refuse to play for Di Canio again in protest at the way he treated them. With morale through the floor, it is reported that his reaction to a 3-0 loss to West Brom at the weekend – a furious one, which involved heated confrontations with a number of stars - convinced a group of senior players to approach chief executive Margaret Byrne and director of football Roberto De Fanti on Sunday, where they alleged Di Canio was “behaving like a dictator”. According to the Telegraph, one player told the Italian: “All you have done since you got here is criticise us and the old manager [Martin O’Neill]. The difference is we liked him and would run through walls for him. Nobody likes you here. Nobody wants you here.”
Di Canio’s arrival in the Premier League was always going to provoke renewed analysis of his contentious political views, which include the infamous declaration that “I am a fascist, not a racist” after he performed a straight-arm salute to Lazio supporters in 2005. David Miliband stepped down from Sunderland’s board in protest at his appointment yet, incredibly, the club tried to claim media scrutiny of Di Canio’s political allegiance was “insulting not only to him but to the integrity of this football club.” As people dredged up his admiration for Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, and his behaviour at Lazio, Di Canio released a statement to underline that "I am not a racist. I do not support the ideology of fascism." Still, early damage had been inflicted on this most controversial of figures.
Alienating members of staff
In the Telegraph’s excellent expose on Tuesday, the paper reveals how Di Canio “was also feared by staff members at the training ground after a series of arguments and dressing-downs.” It is alleged he banned anyone other than coaches from talking to first-team players and said the canteen should be vacated when players came to eat. The Telegraph adds: “Sunderland insiders claim the atmosphere at the training ground had been soured by fear and paranoia.”
Fostering a tense atmosphere at the training ground
Back to the Independent, who report that Di Canio had another way of keeping the first team separate from Sunderland’s other employees. The paper explains: “One (rule) in particular was that academy players at the training ground could not use the large gym if there was even a single first-team player using the equipment. Although it was comfortably big enough to accommodate many players at the same time, those outside the first-team squad would have to wait until the last of their senior colleagues had gone … it was one of many that came across as impractical and served only to increase the tension around the club.”
More strict rules
In August, Di Canio revealed the depth of his attention to detail in his attempts to control Sunderland’s players. Explaining what he described as “a complete revolution”, the Italian banned ketchup, coffee, mayonnaise, ice in drinks and even singing before games. As for communicating via text or phone call: “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. They’re banned.”
A section of supporters initially voiced their protest at Di Canio’s appointment given his previously expressed political leanings and as a result the Sunderland fan base never took to the new man – a derby win over Newcastle aside, of course. After the West Brom defeat at the weekend, Di Canio walked over to the Black Cats fans - who had made their feelings all too clear - and gave a ‘chin-up’ gesture, which only angered some of them ever more. "I knew that they were furious,” he said. “I went to them [at the end of the game] because I wanted to see their faces. It's easy to go over when they're clapping or singing your name. I'm responsible but my head is up. I won't give up."