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Premier League Preview: Paolo Di Canio’s impact at Sunderland

@Mark_Jones86 : Di Canio, a few wins and all will be forgotten

Paolo Di Canio at The Academy of Light training ground

We hadn’t had a good one in a while had we? An English football scandal that we could all obsess over for a few days.

Luis Suarez hasn’t handled a ball against plucky FA Cup minnows in weeks, whilst Eden Hazard has probably been put off kicking cheeky Welsh ball boys for the remainder of his career.

What was the best one we’ve had recently? Callum McManaman’s tackle? Rio Ferdinand pulling out of the England squad? They were hardly scandals to get the pulses racing were they? Enter Paolo Di Canio.

Except Di Canio hasn’t just entered English football at all.

Following a season at Celtic in 1996/97 the Italian spent six years as a player in the Premier League with Sheffield Wednesday, West Ham and Charlton, achieving cult hero status at the Hammers.

Now a manager, for the past two years he’s been stationed down the divisions with Swindon Town, earning them promotion from League Two in 2012 before resigning due to an ownership row this February with the club challenging for elevation to the Championship.

All of which makes the events of the past few days a little odd.

Following Di Canio’s appointment as the new manager of Sunderland on Sunday, talk has been rife of his alleged fascist beliefs and sympathies.

Of course using the word ‘alleged’ is a bit difficult when you see some of the words that have come out of Di Canio’s mouth in the past, but the focus on his words and much-publicised act in 2005 has dominated the unveiling of the Italian, who had a tough enough job keeping Sunderland in the Premier League without all of this.

The answer to the scrutiny can of course be found in Di Canio’s change of destination, because the journey from Swindon to Sunderland didn’t just take him from south west to north east England, but it took him from the Football League to the Premier League as well. Everything looks bigger from up here.

This is in no way an attempt to defend Di Canio’s past comments, but if they didn’t seem such a big problem in Swindon then why should they be now? Of course the Robins didn’t have a figure as well known as the former Shadow Foreign Secretary David Milliband around to register his displeasure, but any opposition to his Swindon appointment received little attention and was soon forgotten once he started winning.

Under the Premier League magnifying glass everything appears bigger and more exposed though, none more so than during the last major scandals in the division which occurred within a week of each other in October 2011.

Just as there will always be those who now prefer to see Suarez and John Terry as card carrying members of the Ku Klux Klan as opposed to individuals who made a snap decision and ultimately a huge mistake – intentionally or otherwise – so now there will be others who instantly judge Di Canio without ever looking deeper into the story.

Supporters of Liverpool and Chelsea’s rivals repeatedly bring up the Suarez and Terry incidents because they like to see their opponents squirm. It is another one of the less tasteful aspects of the whole sorry business, but doesn’t often get mentioned.

The chances are that most of them and you won’t have heard of the Reading player John Mackie, who was banned for three matches for racist abuse in 2003. That occurred in the old Division One though, where headlines weren’t sought and reputations weren’t damaged as rapidly as they are in the Premier League.

Most of that is beside the point though, because Di Canio’s off-field beliefs will soon become yesterday’s story too.

A couple of wins from his early matches in charge – and given that the first two of them are away to Chelsea and then a derby match against Newcastle then he’s not entering quietly – will see the focus mercifully switch to football for Di Canio, just as it ended up doing for him at Swindon.

Even if he fails to keep the Mackems up in these final seven matches of the season then he deserves a tilt at the Championship in 2013/14, and if he achieves promotion there then you can be certain that all of the talk will be of his managerial skills and nothing else.

We’ll have had plenty of new scandals by then anyway.

Di Canio will be old news.

@Mark_Jones86

Sunderland: Consistently inconsistent

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What to make of Sunderland’s season? It depends what mood you and they are in.

There probably isn’t a more suitable nickname in the Premier League than the one adopted by the men from the Stadium of Light. Black cats are either considered lucky or unlucky depending on what culture you adopt, and the Black Cats from the north-east are either good or bad too.

Mackems supporters are likely to opt for the latter description for the majority of their club’s season though, even if Sunderland’s struggles haven’t been easily apparent to the rest of us.

Bar a six-game winless streak which took in all of October and much of November, Sunderland and boss Martin O’Neill have always just done enough to maintain an air of control. Wins like the Boxing Day success over Manchester City – a now customary victory following on from last season’s – gave the impression that everything was serene on the surface, but below deck those black cats’ legs were whirring wildly.

Now, Sunderland sit just five points and three places above the relegation zone. They have lost all three of their games in February and now face what has suddenly become a huge home match against Fulham, another of the division’s great inconsistencies, on Saturday afternoon.

There are clearly talented performers in O’Neill’s team.

Steven Fletcher has proven himself to be a genuine Premier League forward, Stephane Sessegnon is capable of fantastic performances when he’s in the mood, and Simon Mignolet looks to be a goalkeeper who is destined to play for one of the big boys one day.

The individual talents are certainly there for O’Neill, but as can be true with every individual, the team has far too many bad days to compensate for the good.

Only seven of Sunderland’s 27 Premier League games this season have ended in wins, and whilst that is more than the five clubs who currently sit below them it is clearly not enough given the talents they have at their disposal.

Last season, when O’Neill entered the club in December and steered them away from the relegation zone and eventually to within two points of a top half finish, the likes of Sessegnon, Seb Larsson and James McClean all starred.

The arrivals of Adam Johnson and Fletcher saw new, potentially exciting elements added to that trio, and whilst the Scot has been an undoubted success given his 10 goals over the campaign, Johnson’s inconsistencies have mirrored those of his team.

The sometime England winger is capable of some fine performances on his day, but his day doesn’t come around often enough – a fact borne out by his struggles to break into the Manchester City team and his eventual sale by Roberto Mancini.

O’Neill has recently added Danny Graham to the mix, although the forward’s similarity to Fletcher does leave concerns that the pair won’t be able to form a potent partnership. The French midfielder Alfred N’Diaye looks to be an energetic enough arrival, but there remains a belief that Sunderland failed to strengthen in key areas during January. They are still playing midfielders at full-back regularly.

All of that adds to the often makeshift nature of a team and club who look as though they are not sure where to be. They need to be out of relegation trouble obviously, but that isn’t enough for a club of Sunderland’s stature.

Their inconsistent nature simply can’t be allowed to go on, especially if they want to avoid getting sucked in to the battle at the bottom.

Sunderland need to find themselves, and find a few more wins in the process.

@Mark_Jones86

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