One more win for each club should be enough to ensure a Sunderland-Newcastle derby in the Premier League next season
Paolo Di Canio is puzzled by the British tradition of managers frequently delegating coaching duties. "In England it's common to have a manager and a coach," says the Sunderland manager. "I often think that's strange. If players are trained during the week by one person and then another comes to the touchline during games, they surely can't recognise the advice, the codes. It's easier for the players if it's done by the same person. It's more natural."
After working with three managers – Roy Keane, Steve Bruce and Martin O'Neill – who were much more about motivation than mud-on-boots coaching, the Sunderland owner, Ellis Short, made appointing a "tracksuit boss" a priority after sacking O'Neill in March.
The early indications suggest that Sunderland's players are fast improving under Di Canio's devil-in-the-detail tutelage but the Italian is far from a unique figure towards the foot of the Premier League. A key reason why Wigan's Roberto Martínez, Newcastle's Alan Pardew and Norwich's Chris Hughton have broadly retained the support of their respective boards is that, like Di Canio and Southampton's Mauricio Pochettino, they devote long hours to improving individuals and honing tactics on practice pitches.
"For me, it's important to teach the players tactically and technically and then prepare strategy for games," says Di Canio, as he endeavours to choreograph a home win over Southampton on Sunday that would all but ensure Premier League survival.
Significantly, Pardew believes that "a lack of time available to work on the training ground due to our Europa League involvement" is an integral reason why Newcastle, too, are desperately seeking a win at QPR. And why he accepts Mike Ashley, the club's owner, could yet dispense with his services.
"I don't doubt my ability as a coach," Pardew says. "I feel I've worked twice as hard as last season. But this has been a year of adversity. We've had terrible injury problems at bad times."
When Di Canio faced some adversity of his own – the furore about his perceived fascist sympathies – he offered to step down. Short would not countenance the idea. "Ellis's support has been crucial," Di Canio says. "After what happened in the first few days, all the rubbish they threw at me, I said: 'Tell me what I should do because I don't want to be a problem for this club.' Ellis said: 'You stay because you are our man.' I'm never going to forget what he did."
Despite the team conceding nine goals in home defeats to Sunderland and Liverpool, Ashley is understood to retain faith in Pardew. Not that he will necessarily like what his manager will shortly tell him about the need to invest in the squad this summer. "It would be ridiculous to say I'm criticising Mike," Pardew says. "But we need to have a conversation and it's not going to be comfortable."
Like Di Canio, it seems he also needs to strengthen his players' mentality. "A tide of criticism, of extra pressure, kicked in after the Sunderland game," says Pardew, who has rebutted suggestions that the signing of five French players from Ligue 1 in January created tense dressing-room undercurrents.
"We've had a reaction from that which knocked us off our keel. Some of the criticism has been over the top and we've all been a little bit shocked by it. Some of the players had never experienced anything like that. They were used to milk and honey."
His Wearside counterpart has no compunction about discussing what he terms Sunderland's "weak mentality" and admits he regularly spells out the consequences of relegation to his squad. "I make sure I remind them," Di Canio says. "They are a group of genuine fellas but sometimes they look at the sky [with minds wandering] so it's better to remind them.
"Some players don't care about their environment because they're selfish when they're young, so I tell them: 'Don't take this too lightly.' I say: 'Who says you'll have another chance to play in the Premier League?'"
Di Canio harbours a selection dilemma for Southampton's visit. Danny Rose has excelled this season but Sunday would be the Tottenham loanee's final game for Sunderland as he is ineligible to play at White Hart Lane next week.
"Danny Rose is a good professional and a talented player," Di Canio says. "But on Monday Danny is going back to London so, if he doesn't guarantee that he's really focused, I won't play him. I will play Jack Colback because I know Jack is going to play as a soldier for this club. Although I trust Danny I don't know him completely – and we are fighting for our lives. I feel the responsibility and the pressure."