Personality and politics are all part of the Paolo Di Canio package and Sunderland may yet regret appointing him
We've got a chequered past, Paolo Di Canio and I. Nothing to do with fascism, he just had a habit of behaving a bit like a dictator. He was a flamboyant "character", as they say, but he certainly was not very popular in the West Ham dressing room. When I think back to those days, I remember a loud and extrovert person who was – despite all he had to shout about – very much on his own. He never seemed to gel with the team.
It seems the feeling was mutual – Paolo described me in his book as a "moron" and a "cretin" after I refused to shake his hand following a League Cup game at Upton Park when I was playing for Aston Villa. Actually I did more: I called him a cheat. He had deliberately stepped into me and kicked me before going down for a penalty. It was outrageous and I could not believe it. I was livid. When I refused to shake his hand he went ballistic, effing and blinding, and stabbing his fingers into the back of my neck.
That was the beginning of the bad blood. Admittedly there was a brief hiatus when I signed for West Ham and he cheerily came over to wish me luck, the first of my new team-mates to do so. But the friendly tone did not last long and we were soon back to clashing on the training pitch.
I just could not believe the front he had. During training sessions, if he was not happy, he would simply walk off. He would be swearing away in Italian, trudging back to the dressing room, leaving us all slogging our guts out. One time I snapped and yelled: "You are not effing walking off!" To be fair, on that occasion he did come back.
Paolo could talk for Italy but I never remember him talking politics. I never even knew that he had a Mussolini tattoo. Certainly if he had ever said anything racist to anyone in the team, it would have caused a stir. We had a number of black players at West Ham at the time and, while none of them would go so far as to describe him as a friend, I don't recall anyone having a problem with him because of his political views. The fascist salutes happened after he left West Ham, of course, and on hearing the news I must admit they confirmed my view of him as an unlikable person.
More recently I met him at the Leaders in Football conference last year. We were on a panel together and beforehand we shared a revealing exchange on coaching philosophies. I spoke about wanting to develop players, create a dialogue and reach an understanding about what they need to perform – but I soon realised I was talking to a brick wall. Paolo just said: "Yeah, yeah, yeah, but …" and it became clear that he was not interested in any of that. His approach was more, how shall I say, authoritarian.
Certainly if the stories spreading like wildfire through the footballing world are anything to go by, the Sunderland players will have been in for a shock this week. Paolo has a reputation for employing some harsh and intense training methods.
During his time as manager at Swindon, I'm told, he used to punish players for a poor performance by dragging them in at dawn after a game the day before. Compare that with the Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe's approach – he gave the players three days off last week after the team won five games in a row to reward them for their hard work. Even Guy Whittingham's relegation battlers, Portsmouth, will still be given days off for rest and recovery. I can't imagine Paolo giving the Sunderland players much time off between now and the end of the season.
Whatever his political views are – and despite the official Sunderland statement denying that he is a fascist, without some explanation of his past it seems impossible to understand what his exact position is – I am very surprised that Sunderland gave him the job in the first place. I can't argue with Paolo's management skills. He has proved himself with what he achieved at Swindon.
But an important aspect of any appointment is what the fans' response will be and the Sunderland board should have seen this furore coming. Did they not do their research? Even a quick Google search would have brought up the controversial fascist salutes at Lazio.
Sure, his managerial record is good but, if you know a manager's political affiliations might upset a large portion of your fanbase, it seems a very risky decision to make. And with the Durham Miners' Association demanding their banner back from the Stadium of Light, citing the number of miners who died fighting fascism in the war, it is a PR move that has the potential to backfire in a big way. Should Paolo fail to keep Sunderland in the Premier League, the club will surely lose even more goodwill from the supporters.
On the other hand, as the saying goes, all PR is good PR. After all, how often does Sunderland AFC make headlines outside the sports pages? Paolo is certainly box office. He gets his teams to play attractive football and, if he can save the club from relegation, he may soon be hailed as a hero.
He says his past misdemeanours were misinterpreted and misrepresented, in which case perhaps we should give him the opportunity to prove himself in the present and not just harp on about the past.