LONDON (Reuters) - New Sunderland manager Paolo Di Canio won the backing of most of his club’s travelling fans despite their 2-1 defeat at Chelsea in his first match in charge on Sunday when football returned to centre stage after a week spent dissecting his political views.
The Italian’s appointment was overshadowed by an old statement that he was “a fascist” with photos of him giving the right-arm salute appearing all over British media.
Whatever he thinks privately about politics, his main concern is keeping Sunderland in the Premier League but his new team slipped closer to relegation when they lost at Stamford Bridge after Aston Villa won at Stoke City on Saturday and Wigan Athletic drew with Queens Park Rangers on Sunday.
With six matches to play, Sunderland have 31 points and are 17th, level with Wigan, who are in the drop zone and have a game in hand.
Di Canio said on Thursday he was not a fascist despite his old comments praising Benito Mussolini, using a fascist salute during games in Italy and having a tattoo of the word ‘DUX’ on his arm, which means leader in Latin, or Il Duce in Italian.
Whatever the pros and cons are of those symbols, what Sunderland need is a leader who can save them and Di Canio was his usual, animated self throughout the match, standing for all of the 90 minutes and barking out encouragement to his players.
A vintage Di Canio moment came in the 20th minute when he playfully slapped his defender Phil Bardsley on the cheek.
He also had a lengthy exchange with Connor Wickham late in the game when the striker stayed sidelined after suffering a facial injury.
Later he exchanged high-fives and hugs with Chelsea players and his former West Ham United team mate Frank Lampard.
Sunderland, who parted company with Martin O‘Neill last weekend after eight matches without a win, went into halftime on a positive note, leading 1-0 thanks to a Chelsea own goal from Cesar Azpilicueta and some sloppy passing from Juan Mata and Oscar, but they could not hold on in a second half that was dominated by the hosts.
Chelsea were level two minutes after the restart when Matt Kilgallon put through his own net and grabbed what proved to be the winner when Branislav Ivanovic flicked in after 55 minutes.
Di Canio approached the supporters, who had chanted his name nearly non-stop for the first three minutes of the match, at the end and applauded them before heading into the tunnel.
“We’re behind him,” said a Sunderland fan before the game. “I think he’s said what he needed to say. If he can keep us up, then great. That’s what I‘m really interested in. There are some that don’t like it, but I’ll still support the team.”
“The fans love him,” added Louise Wanless, Sunderland’s head of communications, who said it had been a long week.
“You get a few who don‘t, but he brings an energy and passion that our supporters are all about.”
An Italian journalist sitting in the Chelsea press box added: “He’s actually never said he was a fascist. I think a lot of this is overblown.”
Di Canio might have won over the fans on the day, however there are still groups of supporters who are firmly against his appointment and former UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband showed what he thought by immediately resigning his non-executive seat on the Black Cats board.
Others aggrieved include the Durham Miners’ Association (DMA), a group that protested the new manager’s appointment and threatened to remove the Wearmouth Miners’ Banner from the Stadium of Light unless Di Canio publicly rejected fascism.
Di Canio addressed the issue this week, saying: “I am not political, I do not affiliate myself to any organisation, I am not a racist and I do not support the ideology of fascism. I respect everyone.”
The DMA did not accept the statement, but agreed to meet a representative from Sunderland to discuss the issue.
As much as Di Canio would like to focus on football and keeping his team in the Premier League, the interest in his earlier statements on fascism does not appear to be waning.
Following the game, despite pleas from Wanless to keep the questions to football, several journalists brought the matter up, only for Di Canio to decline to comment, apart from calling the journalist who mentioned fascism a “sinner”.
Asked about the DMA after the match, Di Canio said: “I‘m sorry for them.”
The DMA said it would release a new statement on Di Canio on Monday at 1600 GMT, following more discussions with the club and among the group’s executive committee.
Meanwhile, for Di Canio, a far more pressing meeting is with arch-rivals Newcastle United in the north-east derby next Sunday. (Editing by Mike Collett/Mark Meadows)