The Fifth Official

Short change at Sunderland

April 1, 2013
By The Fifth Official

Few of us like Monday, but The Fifth Official does, for it brings with it a chance for him to point the finger and laugh. Here he pulls out the pretty, the puzzling and the downright pig-ugly from a week brimming with potential victims.

O'Neill comes up Short

Paolo Di Canio
GettyImagesPaolo Di Canio is looking to ignite Sunderland's season

What a weekend in Sunderland. They stage a Nelson Mandela Day on Saturday, then appoint a self-confessed fascist as a manager on Sunday. You couldn't make it up.

I didn't have Ellis Short down as a gambler, but he must have cojones the size of Iceland to parachute the paranormal force that is Paolo Di Canio into Sunderland's grim relegation dogfight. Branded a "managerial hand grenade" by a former colleague, Di Canio has described himself as "a fascist, not a racist" in the past. Pull up a chair, people, and sit back and enjoy the final seven weeks of the season: this could be car-crash viewing. I'll give Sunderland one thing - he'll probably do a better job than Terry Connor.

Di Canio's shot at the big time has come at Martin O'Neill's expense. Notoriously bouncy on the touchline, O'Neill hasn't often resembled his usual ball of nervous energy this season - he's looked more like an ECT patient. You might think a one-goal reverse to the champions-elect isn't worthy of a sacking, but the chasm between the two teams was painfully obvious. O'Neill insisted afterwards that his glass was "three-quarters full", but surely now the glass is not only empty but shattered at the bottom of a grubby skip filled with used nappies.

"The timing is bizarre," croaked amused Geordie Alan Shearer, who has clearly forgotten that he gleefully accepted an eight-game contract on April 1 2009, when Mike Ashley Direct came calling with a JFK-sized SOS.

Di Canio now has seven games to save Sunderland without getting arrested, assaulting anybody or causing an international incident. He and this kind of exposure could offer a potent, hilarious cocktail. His second game is a clash with Pardiola's Newcastle - it may have to be renamed the hubris derby. One thing is for sure, it won't be dull. After all, Di Canio's no Ricky Sbragia, is he?

Ode to Adkins

The Premier League's most vainglorious poetry-reciting manager is back. Nigel Adkins, sacked by Southampton just as he'd turned their season around, is now in situ at Reading, presumably to ensure that their top-flight last rites are administered with a healthy dollop of self-flagellation and an abundance of mechanical back-office speak.

I wonder if Adkins asked the man in the glass if he should take the job? If he did, I'll bet the man in the glass replied: "No, you're an ass." Despite his love for haikus, sonnets and acrostic prose, he speaks publicly like a man reading a tax return. After a besting at Arsenal, he said he now has a week to "work through the process of winning a football match". With this sexy language you are spoiling us, Nigel.

His one-game-at-a-time rhetoric and insistence Reading can survive notwithstanding, I'm reasonably sure he only took the job for one reason - because they play Southampton next. He's picturing a wave of adulation from the away end, a triumphant victory and a smug, self-satisfied look at both Saints chairman Nicola Cortese and Mauricio Pochettino at the final whistle. In reality, he'll be scuttling back to the Championship with a smutty Spanish limerick in his ear.

Rafa tinkerman

Before I tear into Rafa, as you surely know I will, let me start with this caveat: Chelsea's fixture pile-up in the next month is a horror show. The only people enamoured with their run of eight games in 23 days are sure to be those fans who delight in taunting Rafa for every minute he is visible on the touchline or furiously scribbling notes on pieces of scrap paper.

His decision to rest a few players at Southampton was understandable - surely even the most pea-brained of Chelsea's fans can see that - yet my issue is with the lack of appetite amongst those he selected. Where was the want? This was the sort of performance you get when players know the manager is on a short leash and soon to toddle off into the sunset. Instead of lambasting their gaffer, why don't the fans decry another half-hearted effort from their ensemble of European starlets?

The whole lot of them had their collective heads plunged into septic tanks by Pochettino's hungry outfit, who built on their win over Liverpool with another famous home scalp. The only worry is that this show-pony tendency has seen them trump Liverpool, Manchester City and now Chelsea while losing to Queens Park Rangers and Newcastle.

And to spice up next week's meeting with Adkins, Pochettino and his interpreter both bristled at the suggestion he'd thank his predecessor when they come face to face next week. Oh, the cheek of it.

The wonder of Mulumbu

Youssouf Mulumbu sent off at West Ham
GettyImagesYoussouf Mulumbu is handed his marching orders late on at Upton Park

It's rare I get to expend 150 words on the basis of one weekend incident but there was one so joyous, so hilarious and so naughty at Upton Park on Saturday that it warrants a full chapter all of its own. It was a violent vignette that also catapulted Youssuf Mulumbu into my 'top five tantrums of all time' list.

Picture the scene: West Brom are well beaten - 3-1 down in stoppage time - when Gary O'Neil, the chief architect of their downfall, executes a completely innocuous trip on the Baggies' Congolese midfielder. What follows is pure comedy, as Mulumbu reacts with spitting rage, picking the ball up and hoofing it at O'Neil's backside from five yards. O'Neil, probably still astonished at his own competent performance, looks utterly perplexed, as do several of his team-mates.

A red card duly follows, at which point Mulumbu offers the entire West Ham team out - one that consists of hard-nuts James Collins and Andy Carroll don't forget - and almost starts a fight on the way off with two of the biggest Premier League stewards you will ever see, stewards who might be well be distant relatives of the Kray twins. If there has been a finer red card in top-flight history, please send me the link.

Baker Street

Nathan Baker is fast becoming Aston Villa's £70 million man because, if he carries on like this, he may well be the reason his club misses out on the pot of gold on offer to all top-flight teams when the new Premier League TV deal comes in next season. The poor lad is having a fully-fledged nightmare.

He's already tied down the own goal of the season award for his howler at Reading, and on Sunday he gifted Liverpool all three points with a challenge so rash it looked as though it belonged in League One, which it probably did. Baker has shown enough promise, like many of Villa's players, to suggest he'll be all the better for this knee-trembling experience if they can just claw their way to survival, but the vultures are circling.

The trouble for Villa (and Sunderland) is that Wigan are at it again, trotting away from the drop zone with all the casual indifference of a banker who's just lost billions on the stock market. A narrow squeak of a win over Norwich has them out of the bottom three and climbing the Premier League ladder. A clutch of teams are now looking over their shoulders nervously, and not only because Di Canio has that maniacal grin on his face.