That the opera lasted only a few days short of six months was in itself a genuine surprise. Most people possessing logical football minds wondered why the hell it had been put into production in the first place.
Let’s concentrate initially on the Di Canio factor. The dramatic content in his life has always been such that it would be easy to visualise him in regular collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
His managerial engagement at the Stadium of Light evolved into a riot of cussedness, craziness and confrontation. Single-handedly, he attempted to destroy the theory that millionaire footballers are blessed with omnipotence.
But, by insulting them publicly and thus humiliating them, he took on the Mackem world in a catch-weight and un-winnable contest.
So, how could one man thrust himself into so many improbable and foolhardy situations? A small yet crucial part of the answer can be found by reverting to his one season with Celtic.
Having burned a veritable armada of boats in Italy (he played for Lazio, Ternana, Juventus, Napoli and AC Milan and tested the temperaments of managers such as Giovanni Trapattoni and Fabio Capello), he came to Britain in 1996. He became a short-term hero, not only one of the pioneers of the Fergus McCann revolution, but also a particular favourite of the then manager, Tommy Burns.
Burns, of course, was biased. Fifteen goals in 37 outings provided a foundation for that bias. His player, proud owner of the washboard stomach, was all about towering standards. Paolo, playing the role of the comprehensive professional, gave everything of himself and demanded everything from those around him. Celtic prospered and so did the player. He was refreshed and reinvigorated and ready to try his luck in England with first Sheffield Wednesday and then West Ham.
There had been, however, troubling signs of deficit in Glasgow. It seemed this man possessed an innate capacity for causing chaos if not on the park then off it. Never more so on a Thursday evening when the rain was pummelling the city with an almost unnatural ferocity.
Andy Ritchie, a scout who assisted in taking the player to Celtic Park, received a phone call from a man who sounded as if someone had applied a blowtorch to his backside. Di Canio summoned him to his house immediately.
Ritchie consulted his watch. It was 11.20p.m. He didn’t wish to waste time asking any further questions. But that didn’t stop his mind engaging overdrive. God Forbid, had something happened to Di Canio’s wife…or his family? He jumped into his career and broke speed records to reach the player’s home.
Thankfully, the emergency services were not required: there was no illness, no injury, no authentic trauma. No actual crisis, either. Di Canio pointed out a set of dirty windows that hadn’t been cleaned for a fortnight. The thought of being unable to see clearly was driving him to distraction.
But why had the panic button been punched at such an ungodly hour? Only Paolo could explain such a conundrum. There would be no explanation, however. Paolo doesn’t do explanations for eccentric behaviour.
The memories still live with Ritchie. “I remember being tipped off by a guy from Juventus. He said Paolo would be fantastico for Celtic as long as we treated Paolo double fantastico. And that we did. But sometimes things went above and beyond the call of duty. Look, I liked Paolo, but sometimes he was hard work.
“He set himself high standards, but he was a very self centred person who never really gave me the impression that he could be a leader of men. He was someone the fans would love…but the chairmen would hate.”
This anecdote brings us back to Ellis Short. We know rather less about him than we do about his former manager. What we know is that he is the owner of Sunderland FC and proprietor of Skibo Castle – Andrew Carnegie’s creation in the Scottish Highlands. He is also said to thrive on anonymity.
Apparently, he’s an expert in private equities and can provide personal funds of nearly two billion dollars – a fraction of which was splurged in the close season when 14 new players were recruited to bolster the Di Canio regime.
Expertise in business doesn’t transfer easily to expertise in football matters, however. Short, remember, had sacked Martin O’Neill after Sunderland became unfamiliar with the art of winning football matches. He needed someone to send a jolt of electricity into flagging, perhaps recalcitrant, bodies.
Di Canio was chosen to provide the necessary energy surge. And he assuredly did in those last few weeks of the season when the club held onto their blue chip status by the narrowest of margins. But, come on, consult your wildest dreams: did this form the basis for a long-term arrangement?
Look, many chairmen, blessed with business brilliance, are flummoxed by the idiosyncratic nature of the beautiful game. They take over clubs and almost immediately seem to forfeit their wits. Did Ellis perform due diligence? Did he peer into the Di Canio cupboard and risk disturbing any skeletons? Did he not recognise the unpredictable, enigmatic ways of the man? Apparently not. Incredibly not.
At the time, Di Canio had registered some managerial success with Swindon Town, but his methods were unconventional, to say the least. To become a success in the Premier League, the imperative is to alter the management psyche. Di Canio was not prepared to do that. Perhaps he was not capable of adjusting that Latin temperament to a more moderate setting; he needed to reason rather than rant.
But Di Canio is not the authentic culprit here. It is Short who should be humbled by the experience. Embarrassed even. But billionaires don’t embarrass easily. There are already signs that he has not learned from this costly experience. According to one newspaper, he has asked the players – yes, the same ones who complained about the Di Canio management style – who they would prefer to lead them. This mind is boggling already.
Meanwhile, it’s onwards and hopefully upwards for a quixotic Texan and his football club. Due diligence at all times, of course. If only…