Sunderland's shock tactics in taking risk on Paolo di Canio

Sunderland cannot afford to be relegated this season, warns Jonathan Wilson - which may explain the club's risky decision to replace Martin O'Neill with the controversial Italian.

New Sunderland head coach Paolo Di Canio during his time as Swindon Town manager.
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In Niall Quinn's brief stint as Sunderland manager in 2006, he said that the club was blighted by "gremlins", the ghosts of failures past and the culture of underachievement. When he appointed Roy Keane as his own successor, at least part of the logic was to scare those gremlins away.

Briefly it worked: promotion was gained and, although Sunderland have been through three managers since Keane, they are one season off their longest stint in the top flight since first being relegated in 1958.

The problem is that the gremlins have returned. Having decided Martin O'Neill wasn't the man to shoo them away, Sunderland's owner Ellis Short turned to the scariest available option: Paolo di Canio.

This is an almighty gamble. Two weeks ago, Sunderland announced an annual loss of £27m. With a new TV deal kicking in at the end of this year, relegation would effectively deny them between £40m and £50m in broadcasting revenue alone; they simply cannot afford to go down.

That is why O'Neill, who admitted a lack of "real true ability" in the squad despite spending £22m on Stephen Fletcher and Adam Johnson last summer, went; less clear is why Di Canio has been appointed. His record at Swindon was impressive but his time there before flouncing out was so fraught his chief executive described his style as "management by hand grenade". The theory is presumably that players need to be shocked into life.

And then there is the matter of Di Canio's political beliefs. The widespread belief in Britain is that he positions himself on the far right but the situation seems rather less clear than that and the resignation of the former foreign secretary David Miliband as Sunderland's vice-chairman over the issue - seemingly without having consulted the Italian - is just another piece of expediency from a man at the forefront of a political class that has always valued image over substance. He had already announced he is retiring as an MP to move to New York.

Still, it would be useful if Di Canio clarified what he meant when, in 2005, he pronounced himself "a fascist not a racist". The journalist Gabriele Marcotti, who ghosted Di Canio's autobiography, has pointed out that the often-cited sentence from that book in which Di Canio describes Benito Mussolini s "misunderstood" is part of a passage condemning him.

Marcotti is cautious but suggests what Di Canio warmed to in Italian fascism was its pre-1933 guise when it meant "order, security, unions, national pride, universal pensions, government mortgages".

Whatever the truth of Di Canio's views, Miliband's actions show the awkward situation in which Sunderland now find themselves. They are perceived to have a fascist as a manager and that can only have a negative impact on a public image that is far from robust to start with.

Sunderland seem to have spent most of the past decade shunning publicity - refusing, for instance, to allow Asamoah Gyan to be interview by France Football when he was longlisted for the Ballon d'or - and with little positive image to sustain them, they may find the vacuum filled by negativity.

What matters most to the majority of fans - and to Short - though is whether Sunderland stay up. An away game at Chelsea isn't the ideal place to start but a derby away to Newcastle United the following week offers Di Canio the chance for instant glory.

No side that has sacked its manager in March in the Premier League has ever previous survived but the thinking seems to have been than anything was better than the slow sink into the Championship that seemed to be going on.

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