Today, we welcome back Sheffield Wednesday fan John Leigh, co-author of The Football Lexicon and author of Voltaire’s Sense of History. Here, John reacts to the rumours that are linking Paolo Di Canio with a return to Hillsborough.
My brother was at THAT infamous England vs Croatia game at Wembley. Remember the one: the Euro qualifier, the one we lost 3-2, the game in which Scott Carson blundered. But it would be easier simply to commemorate it as the game at which Steve McClaren stood under the umbrella and mutated into ‘the wally with the brolly’. When I spoke with my brother after the game, it was apparent that he did not know what I was talking about, when I expressed some sympathy for McClaren’s failure to show a common touch (apparently unlike Louis Philippe who got deliberately wet when meeting his subjects on tour in France). Funnily enough, he had not been looking at the manager on the touchline. It was apparent that we had rather different experiences of that match: He watched the game; I watched the television.
Our response to football matches and to the teams that contest them is being increasingly and, I think, unduly mediated by the conduct and appearance of the manager. Cameras are trained on him, after each and every goal, in a bid to gain cheap access to dramatic extremes of delight and despair. Those managers that do not oblige by endearing themselves in this way need to look out. McClaren made the twin mistake of sheltering himself against the rain and of appearing to be hiding from the cameras. Paolo Di Canio, by contrast, seems to have built a career on moments that beguile the camera. Such is the striker’s prerogative of course, and his finishes could be especially sublime. But his career as manager has exploited the same vein: Last season’s win against Newcastle is now memorable, I suspect, above all, for his touchline celebration (unless you were present at the game). I forget who scored Sunderland’s goals that day. I had nothing invested in that game when I watched the highlights, but felt sickened at the way the media gobbled up the idea that we were privileged to see a passionate man, breathing Italian fire into a moribund club. I saw the outburst rather as an insult to long-suffering Mackems. How could it mean so much to him after a mere few weeks in post? How dare he purport to simulate the joy of the fans so soon? I like passion when it’s quietly closer to its etymological cousin ‘patience’. Di Canio may, of course, be vulnerable to forgetting himself in the heat of the moment. But I have never seen a more accomplished player one-on-one with the goalkeeper (remember Fabien Barthez’s vain attempt to distract him), and I saw this as another cynical ploy.
The malaise brought back painful moments in the 1990s, when I wanted to like Di Canio, admired his talent, but earned the mockery of fellow Owls for daring to prefer the rudimentary abilities of Andy Booth and Graham Hyde. (Maybe they had a point with Hyde). Talent, of which Di Canio had obscene amounts, is obviously redemptive. But the badge-kissing, the telegenic tantrums (or tantra?) I found insufferable. He tended to be booked gratuitously, leading infallibly to suspensions over holiday periods. Again, something cynical seemed to be at work. The famous, culminating incident with Alcock might have looked comical, but it not only helped to relegate the team eventually but degrade the club. When the club management travelled over to Italy in an attempt to talk him into returning from his depression, a proud club reached a new low-point. Like the passion he acquired at little cost for Sunderland in that derby, the sudden depression trivialised the illnesses of those seriously in its thrall.
I am therefore horrified that his name should be whispered as that of a possible replacement for Dave Jones, who seems more embattled and weary by the day. PDC’s chief qualification would appear to be that of having played for the club, however briefly and notoriously. In the hard-nosed world of the Premier League, there are currently no managers who once played for their employer. Nevertheless, there remains a bizarre, if understandable sentimental compulsion to always consider a manager who played for the club: it’s undoubtedly useful to have someone who ‘knows his way round’ (so he won’t need to be told where the toilets are), ‘understands the culture at this club’ (so he would have a drink at Christmas with the kitman), but I think it’s one way of maintaining the pretence that there are yet continuities and loyalties in a world where our insatiable media not only record the shots, but have begun to call them.