A TWO-MONTH buffer between bouts of excessive hand signalling and brutal assessment was brought to an end yesterday afternoon, writes Chris Young in Hong Kong.
Paolo Di Canio hadn’t faced the Press since the final game of last season at Spurs until he appeared at the launch of the Barclays Asia Trophy.
Had he calmed down? Not a jot.
But the content change in Di Canio’s message during the summer hiatus was stark.
Infamously at White Hart Lane in May, Di Canio spent half an hour after the game publicly lambasting the casino antics of Phil Bardsley and Matt Kilgallon, along with the other unprofessional elements in Sunderland’s squad.
It was meat and drink for the media and inevitably, the Sunderland head coach was depicted as the officious headmaster trying to banish some sort of laddish culture – a theme which continued when news of the PFA’s involvement on Wearside later emerged.
Di Canio returned to the topic yesterday, but with a far softer tone – suggesting it was perhaps natural that Sunderland’s players had slackened off given the rules of previous regimes.
But the sight of eight new faces on the training ground has undoubtedly prompted that re-evaluation after the first phase of what Di Canio describes as his “revolution”.
“It’s difficult to smile (as a manager) if you have had a bad habit in the past,” said Di Canio reflecting on last season.
“It wasn’t easy last season, but at the end of the day, I’ve seen many changes.
“We’ve got a few, young, genuine guys, but because of the past, they found it difficult. Not because they are bad professionals, but because the environment had changed completely.
“But now people are start to understanding this and realising that they need to make this sacrifice.
“At this moment, I am very happy and very positive.
“Obviously we made a revolution, but to be honest, I wasn’t worried at the beginning and now even less so.
“The lads are working very hard and have bonded very well.
“I’m very happy with the way the lads have approached the training sessions.”
Di Canio insists that his work in renovating Sunderland’s resources is far from finished.
He reflected on a post-match conservation with David Moyes last season (although he declined to identify him by name) when the then Everton manager discussed the gradual progression he had made at Goodison Park.
“The process of changing the environment completely takes a bit longer,” said Di Canio.
“Last season, I spoke to a manager after a game and he told me that when he got the job at his club, he found a similar environment and it took him one year to change the mentality completely.
“This club under him, became a very good club for 12 years and played for the top eight places.
“It’s not easy, but I can see people changing because they are starting to understand.”
Di Canio believes his blueprint will see Sunderland play a more attractive brand of football next season after he took over a team that too often resorted to the direct approach.
The former Swindon boss says there was little opportunity to dramatically alter Sunderland’s style in the early stages of his reign after presiding over just seven games.
But by being granted the benefit of a full pre-season campaign, Di Canio believes he will be able to put his stamp on the side.
Di Canio said: “We’ve been working so hard and not only physically.
“We’ve worked a lot on shape and how we want to play this year
“We didn’t have chance to implement my philosophy last season.
“We tried to deliver the ball forward directly last year because we didn’t have enough quality or time to change everything.
“This summer, we have had the chance to change everything.
“That’s why I have enjoyed being with the team from the first day.
“On the field, we want to bring a clear identity.”
But can this re-modelled side – both in terms of style and personnel – improve upon Sunderland’s league position?
The Black Cats failed to even hit the 40-point mark last season, trundling over the finishing line fourth from bottom in the top flight table.
Di Canio insists – publicly at least – that he has not set any targets for where he wants Sunderland to finish this season.
But he is quietly confident that Sunderland can enjoy a fruitful campaign and avoid the pitfalls of being engulfed in another relegation scrap.
“It’s obvious that when you change a lot, it’s difficult to think about a place where you can finish at the end of the season,” he added.
“But our plan is to play better football and stay up more comfortably than last year.
“Your plan at the beginning of the season can change. It depends on how you start.
“I’m sure we can finish in a very comfortable position because the players we have brought in are very good players.
“Obviously it’s important to keep going and working hard – not just physically, but also change the mentality that I found last year in this environment.
“But already, I can tell you that something has changed a lot which makes me feel like we will have a very good season.”