Paolo Di Canio had everything that you expect an Italian football player to have. Technical beauty, overly animated gesticulations, chiselled cheek bones and a temper that makes Gordon Ramsay look like a bisexual baby Panda. He was a one man soap opera that possessed an openly passionate charisma, impossible not to watch. He was also a more than adequate football player.
It was ‘Big Ron’ Atkinson that was responsible for bringing the fiery Italian south of the border from Celtic. At Celtic he had scored 15 goals in 37 games; he had also managed to offend his teammates, by basically calling all of them ‘shit’ during a training session. Ron paid £4.2m to bring him to Sheffield Wednesday in time for the 1997-98 season. Di Canio became an instant fan’s favourite at Hillsborough, scoring 14 goals to become the clubs leading goal scorer. But more noticeable than his impressive form, in his debut season in English football, was the controversy he caused. In September 1998 Di Canio was sent off during a match against Arsenal. His reaction was to push referee Paul Alcock comically to the floor. But perhaps more memorable than the push was the aftermath, when an incredibly aggressive Nigel Winterburn approached Di Canio, the Italian pulled back his arm causing the Arsenal left back to flinch like an rattled cowardly bully. Speaking of the incident Di Canio later said, “one second Winterburn is barking at me like a dog. The next he is wetting his pants. All I did was look at him.”
Nevertheless it was enough to impress Harry Redknapp, and in January 1999 the wheeler dealer took him to West Ham for £1.7m. It proved an inspired move. The Italians classy leadership helped take the Hammers to a 5th place finish and also qualification for Europe, via the Intertoto Cup. His individual achievements that year surpassed that of his team. He was the OPTA player of the season, ‘Hammer of the Year’ and, most memorably, won ‘BBC Goal of the Season’ for a remarkable scissor kick volley against Wimbledon. In 2009 the same goal was voted as ‘Goal of the Decade’ by Sky Sports viewers.
Of course Di Canio’s West Ham career did not go without incident. During a match against Bradford, West Ham found themselves 4-2 down, with Di Canio having several penalty appeals turned down. He asked to be substituted, but when Redknapp refused he sat on the pitch with his arms crossed. Di Canio did not move until the Hammers fans began singing his name. Within minutes he was up on his feet, dribbling around Bradford players, and scoring two goals to level the score 4-4. In the final minutes of the game West Ham were awarded a penalty. With Frank Lampard holding the ball Di Canio ran over and wrestled him for the ball. Lampard eventually relinquished control, leaving Di Canio to nonchalantly chip the winning goal into the net.
Another memorable ‘Di Canio moment’ came in a match against Everton. On seeing Toffee’s goalkeeper Paul Gerrard crumple to the floor injured, Di Canio chose to catch a cross that he could have no doubt headed into an empty net. The Italian received the 2001 FIFA Fair Play Award for his sportsmanship.
His West Ham career finished in 2003, after scoring 48 goals in 118 games for the club. He then went on to have a brief spell at Charlton Athletic, before moving back to his homeland. In Italy his penchant for controversy continued as he regularly gave a fascist salute to Lazio supporters.
Since retiring as a player Di Canio has swapped his football boots with expensive leather shoes, ergonomically designed to literally kick his players up the arse as manager of Swindon Town. So far the mad cap genius’s qualities, that had served him so well as a player, seem to be working wonders as a boss. No doubt, that if he continues as he is, then he will one day manage his beloved West Ham United. I for one would love to see this passionately addictive Italian sustain a long and successful career on our shores, English football would sure be a duller place without him.
image: © infollatus