In many ways, Martin O’Neill’s sacking was not a surprise. A win ratio of just 29%, most of them coming in the new manager bounce that ignited the start of O’Neill’s tenure in place of Steve Bruce, was not improved by the £22 million double signing of Adam Johnson and Steven Fletcher in the summer.
Paulo Di Canio is the man tasked with avoiding relegation this season, but Sunderland owner Ellis Short needs to put his hand in his pocket yet again if his club are to move on from mediocrity.
The Black Cats are currently only one point above the relegation places with seven games to go. After their 1-0 loss to Manchester United that preceded O’Neill’s departure, Sunderland are winless in eight games and have lost their top goalscorer, Steven Fletcher, and club captain Lee Cattermole to injury for the rest of the season. David Graham and Connor Wickham have not scored in the Premier League for Sunderland, and a defence that continues to feature Titus Bramble is always susceptible to a calamity.
Di Canio will bring passion back into the side, something that once was O’Neill’s forte, but unlike the Ulsterman the fiery and unpredictable ex-West Ham, Lazio and Italy striker Di Canio is an unknown quantity when it comes to managing in the top division. The remaining seven games, including trips to Champions League chasing Chelsea and Tottenham, and an away derby at Newcastle, could make Di Canio as a manager, but there is little danger in the Italian being sacked should Sunderland slip into the Championship.
Ellis Short, the Sunderland owner and chairman, must back his new manager into next season and he will need to invest yet more money to improve a team that has looked short of Premier League quality at times. Fletcher has proven to be an astute signing but former Manchester City player Johnson has looked a shadow of the player who has played 12 times for England, scoring twice.
In midfield James McClean is suffering from second season syndrome, Seb Larsson looks a set-piece specialist and little else, Alfred N’Diaye looks full of potential but is not yet a player who can lead the midfield, and Craig Gardner and Jack Colback are solid if unspectacular squad members.
Upfront, Stephane Sessegnon has struggled to make the most of his ability, a return of five goals from 31 appearances adding to Sunderland’s woes, while at the back Sunderland actually have the second best defensive record in the bottom half of the table, behind Stoke and level with Southampton.
However, with the exception of the exceptional Simon Mignolet in goal, Sunderland need to improve all areas of the pitch and also need to put an end to the constant revolving door policy at the club. Obviously the latter cannot happen this summer, which is why Short should do all he can to make sure Di Canio has the funds to right the wrongs of his predecessors.
If Sunderland stay up and enjoy the new TV deal that will flood the Premiership with yet more millions, then there is a chance, but as all their rivals will have more money to spend to it is likely Sunderland will simply be laying catch up.
At least Di Canio might prove a more enticing attraction to the North East. O’Neill targeted the British market primarily, with its inflated costs and inferior technical skills, and Di Canio may encourage the club to cast its scouting net a little further in search for a bargain, or target a country rich in talent, much like their North East rivals Newcastle.
Either way, Short has taken a gamble with Di Canio, but if Sunderland are to improve their long term fortunes the owner needs to go all in – provide Di Canio with all the resources he needs to lift Sunderland back to a top half team, edging towards Europe. If not, Short may wonder if he should have stuck instead of twisting.
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