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Tuesday, 02 April 2013

Outside the Box – Football on TV: Sunderland swap experience for explosive as all eyes focus on Wearside


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On the day the new bombastic series of Doctor Who crash landed on to the screens of the BBC, there was the cataclysmic beginnings of a regeneration of a different kind in the otherworldly realms of the North East. That’s right, Martin O’Neill, football’s very own wide-eyed madcap enigma was unceremoniously cast out of the gates of the Stadium Of Light with not so much as a Dalek pleasure probe or a thank you. And O’Neill’s fractious demise set in motion an oddity of events at Sunderland in the following hours and days as news of his replacement sent shockwaves through the game. Paolo Di Canio, hardly a straight-laced, cord-wearing Geography teacher-type himself is the man charged with lifting Sunderland out of it’s malaise by injecting some of his red-blooded Italian lunacy into the place.

The story of O’Neill’s sacking broke mid-afternoon on Saturday and Twitter, Facebook and message boards were abuzz with the news. But I don’t know about you, I won’t believe any lurid football news I hear until the bronzed face of Gary Lineker tells me it’s true, so I sat patiently for hours until the opening chimes of Match Of The Day rang out. MOTD being what it is, still forlornly clings on to the out-dated notion that ANYBODY makes it to 10.30 on a Saturday evening without knowing every grubby detail of the day’s games, scorers and news. So Gary wilfully played along and still kept shtum until after they’d shown the highlights from Sunderland’s earlier defeat to champions elect Manchester United. I still find it genuinely bizarre that in this age of smart phones, instant 24-hour news and loud-mouthed gobby mates that Gary and his producers feel the need to shield us from the news until they think the time is right.

So we all sat through the highlights, pointing and laughing at the screen every time the camera gazed at O’Neill’s pained expression, with our knowing smugness that his efforts were all for nowt. As it happened, the game was pretty awful and Sunderland were toothless against a comfortable United team. There of course was also the obligatory ‘Titus Bramble looking like a tit’ moment when it was his inadvertent touch that sent Robin Van Persie’s winning shot past his despairing goalkeeper. Then the MOTD producers trampled down on the last remnants of O’Neill’s shattered dignity by showing his post-match interview in which he talked fairly positively of his team’s efforts and his desire to improve, thus making him look like an idiot when everybody watching already knew his fate.

Then it was time for the pundits to stick their oars in. The news had obviously hit shiny-bonced, crap-dispenser Alan Shearer hard because it rendered him even more inarticulate than usual, he could hardly speak he was so disappointed. And what of his grumpy namesake Hansen? Well he just recycled the same old guff he has done for the last ten years whenever a manager is sacked: “the rewards for success and penalties for failure have never been higher” and, “the alarm bells were there”. His cod-wisdom and tendency to err on the side of despondent doom makes him sound Yoda warning everybody against the perils of the dark side; the next time a boss is dismissed I’m expecting him to warn everybody that, “fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering”. Or something like that.

Of course the story was only half told on Saturday, it was late on Sunday that things really started to get weird at Sunderland. The news that Di Canio had indeed signed late in the evening livened everybody up at Sky Sports News. Usually at that time on a Sunday, the sleepy hosts are just peddling out the goals from Sunday, a touch of gentle golf news and perhaps the odd piece of Jamie Redknapp ‘insight’ from Super Sunday. But the galloping news of Di Canio’s appointment got them stirring and then they went all Sky News bonkers on us when they received a statement from soon-to-be-ex-Labour MP David Miliband denouncing the selection and resigning from Sunderland’s Board. Miliband cited Di Canio’s “past political statements” as the reason for him stepping down, and if you’re unclear on Di Canio’s ‘past political statements’, they roughly fall in to what Yoda was talking about earlier; Mussolini, Nazis, fascism: not pleasant things.

Martin O’Neill was the great hope of Sunderland’s resurrection when he took over. The boyhood fan with an armoury of peppy team talks, transfer market nous and passion for the club; but that’s all fallen by the “wearside” now (see what I did there?). Paolo Di Canio is a much different beast to the quiet introspection of O’Neill; who knows whether his brash, confrontational style will reap the rewards his predecessor so achingly strived for? Whatever, things are going to be very different at the Stadium Of Light from now on; for one, there’ll be no Miliband in power. Who says football doesn’t mirror true life?


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