Knowing a man’s political beliefs should be enough to tell you his morality. That is certainly something that applies to Paolo di Canio. His politics have been a source of debate through his management career (the GMB trade union broke their links with Swindon Town when di Canio was appointed, and David Miliband resigned from Sunderland’s board when di Canio took over) but his support for Benito Mussolini is helpful in understanding the Italian’s management style.
In di Canio’s words, he’s “fascinated by Mussolini”.
Understanding di Canio’s mind is made more difficult by the fact he doesn’t seem to subscribe to any textbook form of political ideology, but rather an interpretation of Mussolini’s fascism which appears to be distorted by propaganda (including the lie that he made the trains run on time) and childhood memories of the community spirit he felt around fascist marches.
Many observers have referred to di Canio as a bully, but I’m not sure that’s the case. Stories suggest that he paid for fitness coaches on his days off at Celtic, such was his commitment to becoming the best player he could be. Although he often refused his Swindon players a day off, he spent the same amount of days on the training field – I’d argue that it wasn’t a case of wanting to make himself feel big by making others small, but a belief in the value of hard work. Extremely hard work.
At both Swindon and Sunderland it seems that the players went through double sessions of training most days, and di Canio has claimed that his Swindon players only had 1 day off in their first 49 under him. That’s fine if the players buy into the manager’s demands, and think he’s justified in pushing them so hard. But there will be times when they don’t. The talented Leon Clarke was frozen out at Swindon after not submitting to di Canio’s will, too close to the transfer window closing to find a replacement. Goalkeeper Wes Foderingham was humiliated by being substituted after twenty minutes of a match, then forced to apologise to his manager. If it wasn’t for the immediate success the side had, he may have found dissent in the ranks at Swindon.
Assembling a talented squad and then working them hard makes sense, and it’s easy to see how this fits in with di Canio’s understanding of fascism. But he seems to have overstepped the mark a few times – this week there’s been a bizarre story going round that he’d banned players from having ice cubes in their drinks, and from singing at the training ground. Banning mobile phones from the training ground makes sense, and is fairly common – after all, it may prevent players from interacting with each other, and building up a team-spirit. But I can’t understand the logic behind banning players from singing. And ice cubes surely can’t have that big a negative health impact?
Many of di Canio’s critics, who saw him as a brainless hot-head, will see his sacking as proof that he’s not cut out for management. I’m not quite sure myself – being demanding can be a strength, as long as the manager is aware that a number of talented players will find it difficult to raise themselves to his own naturally intense standards. Failure to do so ended up driving away talented players in Paul Caddis and Stephane Sessegnon without a strong reason.
While I think he was promoted to the top flight too soon, I enjoyed what I saw of Swindon under him, and wouldn’t be surprised if he eventually becomes a very successful manager.
But brute force won’t work as motivation every time. There’ll be plenty of instances when he’ll need to get inside his players’ heads, understand why their standards have slipped, why they put in a bad performance, rather than freezing them out and publically berating them.
But, unlike some fans, I still think di Canio has potential as a manager.
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