Premier League: Bank on Di Canio to come up trumps at Sunderland

Is Paolo Di Canio a better coach than many give him credit for?

Jonathan Wilson paints a grim picture in relation to Sunderland's current finances and daunting start to the Premier League season, but in Paolo Di Canio there's definitely some light at the end of the tunnel...

"Even in the few weeks Di Canio was at Sunderland last season, people at the club were struck by the hours he worked, by the relentless drive for improvement."

If we can't be successful, I said after Roy Keane's appointment at Sunderland in 2006, at least this makes sure we won't be dull; Paolo Di Canio's reign, you suspect, can be approached in the same light, which is perhaps why, for all the changes in personnel, I approach a new season with an unusual sense of optimism.

The club's handling of the storm that surrounded his appointment was abysmal. I confess that as a fan I feel deeply uneasy about his political beliefs (whatever they may be, which remains unclear to me), and I confess that as a journalist I feel uneasy about the desperate grabbing after the low-hanging fruit of that story, the quickness to judge and the refusal to acknowledge that some terms may have different meanings in different contexts.

But perhaps the most baffling aspect of the whole affair is the apparently widespread belief that, leaving all else aside, Di Canio is somehow a bad coach.

He qualified top of his year at Coverciano. There may still be a Luddite distrust of coaching qualifications in England but, even so, that is a notable achievement, bespeaking commitment, energy and intelligence.

Those who know Di Canio speak of a voracious auto-didact, somebody determined to know more about everything. He soaks up information and, on the evidence of his time at Swindon, processes it effectively: he took them to promotion and they were second in League One when he resigned. Sunderland at the start of next season will be ferociously fit and will have a clear game plan.

Even in the few weeks Di Canio was at Sunderland last season, people at the club were struck by the hours he worked, by the relentless drive for improvement. He demands that from his players as well, and that, perhaps, has come as a shock to some.

Shirkers will not be tolerated: there must be 100% commitment from all. That, perhaps, explains the announcement this week that Stephane Sessegnon is up for sale. He was Sunderland's best attacking player in 2011-12 and showed flashes of that ability towards the end of last season but had problems settling his family and hankers after a move back to France; other managers might have tried to persuade him to stay, but Di Canio's attitude seems to be that it's better to let him go, take the money and reinvest it.

Assuming that is Di Canio's decision. Figures for 2011-12 - the most recent available - showed Sunderland made an operating loss of £27million leading to a debt of £84million with wages at 82% of turnover. That is unsustainable and, while the new television rights deal will help, it's also clear that savings have to be made.

As well as selling Simon Mignolet - a big loss given how often the goalkeeper saved them last season - and releasing Titus Bramble and Matt Kilgallon, Sunderland have signed six players already this summer with an average age off 22.7. There is a clear shift to youth, to players Di Canio can mould.

After the final game of last season, Di Canio spoke for 25 minutes about discipline at the club. Many described it as "a rant", but it wasn't: it was a rational statement of what he expects from players. The timing was perfect: survival had been assured, the message could sink in over the close season and players could return with a clean slate for pre-season. Moreover, just staying up - although that was Di Canio's only goal when he arrived - wasn't allowed to be seen as an achievement.

Sunderland are 6.25/1 to be relegated - a little under half the price they were at this point last year. Only the three promoted teams, plus Stoke and Norwich are seen as more likely to go down.

The fixture list is troubling: after playing Fulham on the opening day, Sunderland face the likely top six and Newcastle in their next seven home games: after that first match it'll be a long time before any points are available that may be considered anything approaching easy. It's a huge risk to expect Keiren Westwood to replace Mignolet and, if Sessegnon goes, there is desperate need for creativity and goals from deep.

So it could go horribly wrong, but Di Canio is a far better coach than he's been given credit for and at least, after the sense of gloomy drift that has characterised most of the recent past, this season begins with a feeling of excitement.

Recommended Bet

Sunderland to finish in the top 10 @ 4.1



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You've heard from one side of the north-east in the Premier League - now what about the other? Newcastle United blogger Kevin Doocey puts his neck on the line and suggests the appointment of Joe Kinnear might not be so bad after all...

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