After almost three days of controversy and confusion, Paolo Di Canio was finally forced into distancing himself from fascism on Wednesday. The Sunderland manager's move came after criticism that culminated in the dean of Durham calling on him to renounce the ideology publicly or risk being associated with "toxic far-right tendencies".

Di Canio and the club had reacted slowly to the firestorm that has engulfed them since the Italian's appointment on Sunday night, when David Miliband reacted to the 44-year-old's installation as Martin O'Neill's successor by resigning as the club's vice-chairman.

In the past Di Canio has said he was "a fascist but not a racist" . He refused to confirm whether he was still a fascist during an introductory media briefing on Wearside on Tuesday but now Di Canio has sought to clarify his views.

"I am not political, I do not affiliate myself to any organisation," he said in a statement to Sunderland's website clearly designed to draw a line under the matter. "I am not a racist and I do not support the ideology of fascism. I respect everyone. I am a football man and this and my family are my focus. Now I will speak only of football.

"I feel that I should not have to continually justify myself to people who do not understand this, however I will say one thing only – I am not the man that some people like to portray."

Sunderland's American owner, Ellis Short, and Northern Irish chief executive, Margaret Byrne, have evidently been shocked and stunned by the opposition to their new manager from assorted quarters including the Church of England, former Durham miners and war veterans.

It certainly did not help the struggling club when, earlier on Wednesday, new photographs emerged of Di Canio seemingly attending the funeral of a well-known Italian fascist and when the Lazio historian Alfonso Dessi told ITV News: "He was a true fascist. He declared himself a fascist and never denied his ideas but this matter had no impact on the … football institutions. He had a huge impact on the so-called hooligans because of his political ideas but no impact on the media." 

Belatedly Sunderland's previously confusingly opaque manager has answered back in a coherent manner.

"I have clearly stated that I do not wish to speak about matters other than football, however, I have been deeply hurt by the attacks on the football club," he added. "This is a historic, proud and ethical club and to read and hear some of the vicious and personal accusations is painful. I am an honest man, my values and principles come from my family and my upbringing."

His words were posted on the club website shortly after the dean of Durham wrote an open letter to Di Canio. The Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove, a Sunderland supporter and the son of a Jewish war refugee, said he was struggling to stay loyal to the club and that he found Di Canio's "self-confessed fascism deeply troubling".

In his letter Sadgrove wrote: "Your appointment raises very difficult questions. You see, I am the child of a Jewish war refugee who got out of Germany and came to Britain just in time. Some of her family and friends perished in the Nazi death camps. So I find your self-confessed fascism deeply troubling.

"Fascism was nearly the undoing of the world. It cost millions of innocent lives. Mussolini, who you say has been deeply misunderstood, openly colluded with it. You are said to wear a tattoo DUX [the Latin equivalent of Duce and a reference to Benito Mussolini's title Il Duce] which speaks for itself. This all adds up to what I find baffling.

"You say that you are not a racist, but it needs great sophistication to understand how fascism and racism are ultimately different. I can promise you that this distinction will be lost on the people of the north-east where the British National Party is finding fertile ground in which to sow the seeds of its pernicious and poisonous doctrine.

"You did not necessarily know this before you came. But I believe that unless you clearly renounce fascism in all its manifestations, you will be associated with these toxic far-right tendencies we have seen too much of in this region."

Di Canio had little choice but to respond. Now Sunderland can only pray that the only F-word mentioned at the Stadium of Light is football. Considering the team are without a win in eight games, one point above the relegation zone and due to visit Chelsea on Sunday and Newcastle United the following week such refocusing seems essential.

"I doubt Paolo's political views are really relevant to keeping Sunderland in the Premier League," said Jeremy Wray, Di Canio's former chairman at Swindon. "I've known Paolo for two years and I don't think I've heard him discuss politics once."

Short will doubtless be delighted if the same proves true at Sunderland.