ELLIS Short’s firing of Martin O’Neill and hiring of Paolo Di Canio marked by far the American’s most decisive intervention in the purely footballing side of Sunderland Football Club.
GRAEME ANDERSON examines the actions of an owner finding his feet and flexing his muscles.
IT was one hell of a Bank Holiday weekend for those of us concerned with Sunderland Football Club.
But when the dust settles, when the Twitter wars subside and the news-wires finally head off in search of other stories, the inescapable conclusion will be that this was the moment where Ellis Short placed his own unique stamp on the club’s destiny.
For better. Or for worse.
Of course the 52-year-old American billionaire he has been around for some time now, taking over the majority shareholding of the club in February 2009 and acquiring 100 per cent control three months later.
And it is impossible to under-estimate the importance and the influence of a man, who added the role of chairman to that of owner in October 2011.
Despite what football managers may be fond of telling you, ultimately there is no one of more importance at a football club than the man who writes the cheques.
And Ellis Short has written a lot of them in his four years in charge – spending over £100m in his quest to turn the Black Cats into a Premier League force.
Despite all that though, he has up until now been largely an owner who – unlike so many foreign owners – has made a virtue of non-intervention when it comes to the footballing side of the business.
When he was first persuaded to buy into Sunderland Football Club, he was the first to admit that he knew little of consequence about football. He was intrigued by the sporting and business opportunities and the challenge of turning Sunderland Football Club around so that it would achieve its full potential.
In those early days he saw his role as one of overseer and guarantor, trusting in the expertise and experience of those who clearly knew the game inside out.
Much has changed with the American since then though, and not just in the departure of Niall Quinn.
Short subscribed to the argument that if you bankroll it, success will come. To the belief that investing in Sunderland would bring regular full houses at the Stadium of Light. To the claim that the right manager would bring in the right players and that improvement after improvement would naturally follow.
Four years on though and he is entitled to think – to borrow a phrase: “It’s not like they said in the brochure.”
And this weekend was the moment where he finally thought: “You know what, I’ve listened to everyone else and got nowhere. It’s finally time to take things into my own hands.”
Sometimes in the insular world of football we are perhaps blinded by being too close to the centre of the wheel.
We see Roy Keane and Martin O’Neill and stand respectfully in front of genuine football icons, hanging on their views and insights.
Short, and others like him, don’t.
They see results first, and reputations a distant second.
And the inescapable conclusion to an owner who felt on Saturday night he had given fairytale signing Martin O’Neill more than enough time to make Sunderland fans’ dreams come true, was that sentiment was a luxury he could no longer afford.
What is clear is that the decision to sack Martin O’Neill was Short’s and Short’s alone.
The decision to bring in Paolo Di Canio was likewise, solely the decision of the American billionaire.
He had been influenced by others when it came to how to handle Roy Keane, when to appoint Steve Bruce and when to sack him. And he had likewise followed the wisdom of every expert going when it came to appointing Martin O’Neill.
But he has grown beyond the mere facilitator over these last four years.
He has been sucked into football, watched an awful lot of it, seen its inner workings, witnessed the sometimes unpalatable truths behind the scenes and he has started to form strong views of his own.
He has seen signings and sales that he has questioned but gone along with only to find afterwards his original views were vindicated. He has faithfully backed the judgements of others, believing that it is important to delegate responsibility in business to those who are experts in their sphere.
And he has been frustrated and disappointed with the results of that strategy.
It cannot have helped either to have seen the performance of Sunderland’s rivals up the road who seem to have done absolutely everything wrong and yet come up smelling of roses.
Newcastle owner Mike Ashley has been reviled, even by Magpie fans, as much as Short has been feted at Sunderland.
On top of that Ashley has done things which seemed to be the actions of the crassest of amateurs – ungratefully sacking the decent and successful Chris Hughton; making an unpopular appointment at the time in Alan Pardew; selling key players Kevin Nolan, Andy Carroll, Jose Enrique and Joey Barton at a stroke.
And what has been the outcome of that amateurishness? Relegation? No. A fifth placed finish in the Premier League, a manager of the year and Europa League qualification.
Is it any surprise then that Short chose to finally take things into his own hands and decided he couldn’t do any worse than make a few big footballing decisions himself.
The furore caused by his appointment of Paolo Di Canio and the baggage which blew up in Sunderland’s face has been of immense proportions.
And it remains unclear whether or not Short was aware that this could be a potential consequence of the installation of the Italian.
If he was aware, then it suggests that he is as ruthless and single-minded as some claim him to be.
If he was not, then chances are he will not be too distracted by the sound and fury.
For the likelihood is that he simply looked at Di Canio’s CV, and made his mind up that this was someone who more than anyone else aviailable, was a winner.
Businessmen like winners. And Short appears to have been very businesslike with his choice.
When you look at the early runners and riders mooted in the wake of O’Neill’s sacking – one thing was apparent – Di Canio had the best win rate of anyone on the list.
The Italian has won 56.8 per cent of his games.
Steve McClaren has a 44.9 per cent win rate, Roberto Di Matteo 51.4, Mark Hughes 39.53, Alex McLeish 45.91, Brian McDermott 44.97.
The chances are Short simply looked at the list of candidates and chose the one who has won most games.
You can play around with statistics as much as you want, and the experts certainly will.
But Short has had enough of experts for the moment.
He has made his own best judgement for his own club.
He will have been disappointed to the reaction in many quarters to the man he has chosen.
But he is not the sort of person to lose sleep over that, not when so much money is riding on staying up or going down, not when he became convinced Sunderland were sleepwalking towards relegation and something radical needed to be done.
Like everybody else, Short likes to be liked. He likes the idea of Sunderland being an ethical and principled club – a club rightly run.
If that reputation has been something of a casualty over the last 48 hours he will find it a cause for regret but no great concern.
Short does not want to trample on the sensibilities of anyone but he is focused only on the bottom line.
And that is continued Premier League membership; continued financial muscle; continued influence in one of the biggest sport franchises on the planet.
It’s nothing personal Sunderland fans. It’s business.