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The spotlight on the Premier League is so intense that it was no surprise that Paolo di Canio stepped into a media frenzy when he controversially replaced Martin O’Neill at Sunderland. David Milliband guaranteed that when he cited the Italian’s self-confessed admiration of the former Fascist leader Benito Mussolini for his resignation from the board.
The big mistake Di Canio made was being slow to unequivocally declare that he is not a racist. Now that we have all moved on and the battle for survival on the football pitch enters its final countdown, the big question is ‘Has Sunderland’s outrageous gamble on a manager unproven at the highest level been a huge error or a stroke of genius?”
The odds are that Di Canio will fail. My guess is that Ellis Short was banking on the new manager syndrome producing a rapid reaction and a couple of wins to reverse his club’s fall like a stone down the League. But the Black Cats were silenced at Stamford Bridge after taking a surprise lead, and next up is Sunday’s biggest north-east derby in years when Di Canio takes on Alan Pardew’s Newcastle United at St James’s Park.
This is the pivotal battle that could make or break Di Canio’s quest for survival. While a surprise win would give Sunderland hope, defeat would leave them on the same points as third bottom Wigan having played two games more, with only five matches remaining.
Queens Park Rangers and bottom placed Reading are as good as relegated already and what they have in common with Sunderland is that all three clubs have sacked their managers this season. Of the other teams in the mix, Wigan, Aston Villa, Stoke City, Norwich, Newcastle and West Ham United have all remained loyal to their managers and that is why I believe they will all finish above Sunderland.
Only Southampton in 11th place have prospered since ditching Nigel Adkins in favour of Mauricio Pochettino. Personally I believe Adkins deserved more loyalty after two successive promotions, and it is testimony to the good job he has done that the Saints have marched clear of relegation.
In my book, any team that panics and sacks their manager during the course of a season deserves to be relegated above a club that stands by their man. The mere fact that sacking the manager does not guarantee survival, and the later that happens the longer the odds of success, is good for the game. That is why I hope that Di Canio fails in his mission to save Sunderland. Any political view he may or may not have is irrelevant.
But Benitez and Chelsea challenge theory sacking boss makes it harder to succeed
Meanwhile, there is one club that continually defies logic. Chelsea have made a habit of winning trophies after sacking managers. The longer this continues the more damage billionaire owner Roman Abramovich is inflicting on the beautiful game. But you have to admire Rafa Benitez for the way he has persevered despite being the most unpopular manager in the history of the club. The Spaniard has worked wonders since deciding he had nothing to lose by standing up against the fans and the owner.
With two trophies still on his radar after guiding Chelsea to the semi-finals of both the FA Cup and the Europa League, the additional prize of a top four finish to qualify for the Champions League could yet produce an unlikely treble that would put Benitez in danger of becoming popular with Chelsea fans.
While his opposite number Roberto Mancini will feel under pressure to deliver silverware when Chelsea take on Manchester City on Sunday for a place in the FA Cup Final, there is a feeling that Benitez has nothing to lose because he is out of a job whatever happens in the final month of the season. If that gives Rafa the edge, it will be another hammer blow for job security in football management.