SUNDERLAND are determined not to be drawn in to a war of words with Paolo Di Canio after the club's volatile former manager launched a blistering attack on the players over the weekend.
In two separate interviews – the first with the BBC's Football Focus and the second an exclusive interview with the Sun on Sunday – the controversial ex-West Ham striker labelled rebellious players “cowards” while singling out skipper John O'Shea as two-faced.
Less surprisingly he also tore in to Lee Cattermole and Phil Bardsley; the two members of his dressing room he wanted to move on more than most during the summer.
Sunderland made no club comment yesterday and players were not allowed to talk about Di Canio after Saturday's 1-0 win over Kidderminster in the FA Cup.
Di Canio lost his job in September but the way he lost his job at the Stadium of Light clearly still rankles.
O'Shea is believed to have been among delegation of senior players who called on the board to take action after a 3-0 defeat at West Brom in September. The 45-year-old then lost his job.
Di Canio, told The Sun on Sunday, said: “I don't like people who, when they speak to you, don't look into your eyes. He [O'Shea] should say sorry to some of his team-mates for the many times he came into my office to say something unfavourable about them.
"This is the same person who also came to me when I first took over and said things about [Martin] O'Neill. Of course, he now says something different because he has to play for him again [with the Republic of Ireland]. So before deciding to speak out about me, he should be more intelligent."
Di Canio added: "I know things that can put him into trouble. My assistant Fabrizio Piccareta and I wrote down everything he said and did. I don't want to make it public as I'm professional. I also know he has to play in that team and for O'Neill. But one day I may do, if he keeps saying things about me.”
O'Shea was not the only player to be criticised, with Bardsley and Cattermole slammed.
Di Canio said: "These two players were rotten, the most unprofessional players I've ever worked with. What Bardsley has done in the last year speaks volumes. Photos of him lying on the floor in a casino covered by £50 notes and laughing at the team losing on the opening day, that's public. It's no surprise these players were kicked out of my plans.
"The reason Sunderland stayed up at the end of last season was because Cattermole was injured and Bardsley played very little. In Alex Ferguson's book he says, 'Never give chances to players who feel more stronger than the manager, otherwise it's the end'.
"I'm not in Fergie's league but I'm married to his idea. And it was crucial to have the board's backing, for them to make it clear that the manager is the one in charge, not the players."
Di Canio's comments on Sunday morning arrived just 24 hours after he spoke out on Football Focus. He suggested the Sunderland players who rebelled against him in the latter stages of his managerial reign at the Stadium of Light were “cowards”.
Sunderland had not won a Premier League game at the start of the campaign when they took just one point from the opening 15 available to them before chief executive Margaret Byrne was approached by the players.
"To be honest, I've never been part of a group of players that went to the chairman," he said. “That is for cowards.
“If the club is weak then they believe in the players, if they are strong they believe more in the manager. That is not something that can only happen at Sunderland, it can happen anywhere.”
Since Di Canio lost his job – just six months after he replaced Martin O'Neill last March and led the Black Cats to safety – his successor, Gus Poyet, has revived fortunes and raised hope of keeping top-flight football on Wearside, which paints a poorer picture of Di Canio's reign.
Director of football Roberto De Fanti has also lost his job in recent weeks and he was largely responsible for the 14 new signings that arrived under Di Canio's watch.
Di Canio, who claimed he could have signed Jermain Defoe and Tom Huddlestone after talking to both players, said: "We should ask the director who has now been sacked, De Fanti why all the targets I mentioned to them and we had all the chances to bring, why they didn't come.
"When something goes wrong it is obvious some relationships do not work, but I kept the club up with a similar group of players last year when I took over from Martin O'Neill. I saved the club.”
He added: "In some way, they blamed the previous manager but there was no chaos about that at the time. "It is not an issue for me. I was sacked like 100 managers in life - but when t happened to me, there is always said to be a problem, but there was not a problem."