It was always going to be a hot baptism for the fiery Italian when he took over the reins at the Stadium of Light. Di Canio had entered the arena with Sunderland apparently in freefall. Martin O’Neill had been dismissed after a couple of seasons, leaving the club in a similar position to where he found them – except for being a few million pounds lighter. First up was an away game at European champions Chelsea, followed by that passionate derby game away at Newcastle United.
Never one to shirk the limelight however, Di Canio was happy to take charge of his first game at Stamford Bridge, and conjured a performance from his team that had looked beyond them when O’Neill was calling the shots. Stubborn in defence, and aggressive on the break, they took the lead against Chelsea, and for a while looked capable of causing a major upset. Eventually form took over and Sunderland lost 2-1, but a belief that had been previously lacking, had now been rekindled.
Moving on to St James Park at the weekend, the derby game was in prospect. Even a draw at the home of their local rivals would have been acceptable, but conventional wisdom said that this would have been difficult to achieve. For all the promise at Stamford Bridge, the game had still ended in defeat for Sunderland. The drop still beckoned, and the club still lacked belief. The Italian however is nothing if not defiant, and somehow his passion and belief was transmitted into a squad that had been bereft of that essential quality. After a relatively early Sessegnon goal, that belief became manifest and the team grew in confidence as their defence, and particularly goalkeeper Simon Mignolet, defied the indignant Geordie thrusts. As the storm blew itself out, Sunderland struck two further goals to tie up an undreamed of victory, and re-launch the hope that had previously fell away. Di Canio celebrated each of the goals with a passion that can only inflame the hopes of the club’s fans that relegation can be avoided and the future bright.
Next Saturday, Sunderland face Everton in a home game, and although the Merseyside team are currently in a rich seam of form, the game against the Black Cats suddenly looks an entirely different proposition to what it was a week or so ago. Clearly, flames that burn bright, can often burn short, but if the Sunderland hierarchy were hoping for a lift from their new manager, they have certainly got that. The attendance at the game next week should be boosted by the renewed hope, and the passion should be in plentiful supply. Di Canio has given the club hope where there was none, keeping that belief going may be more difficult, but it’s a start to his tenure that probably is everything he could have hoped for.