Story of Maverick’s remarkable achievement with Swindon Town.
On a sunny afternoon of May 6th 2012, an English band ‘Toploader’ was belting out their biggest cover hit ‘Dancing in the Moonlight’ at County Ground in Swindon. On the stage, a non band member in his mid 40s dressed in denims, immaculately fitted chequered Jacket, trademark black leather gloves and dark shades was giving the chorus. His voice was anything but hoarse but surprisingly audience of more than 15000 people loved every minute of it.
And why not?
The concert was a part of ‘Party on the Pitch’, an event that was hosted to celebrate Swindon Town FC’s promotion to League One (3rd tier of English football). And the man who was giving the chorus was none other than their talismanic manager, Paolo Di Canio.
From being one of the teams who played in inaugural Premier League season in 1992-93, Swindon have seen continuous downward journey. In the past five seasons, the Robins have had a whooping six managers and fallen from mid-table stability in the Championship to relegation from League One.
It was not only the promotion that got Swindoners excited, but the manner in which it was achieved was phenomenal. And di Canio – a man who epitomizes intelligence, passion, skill and fierce loyalty was at the heart of it.
Born into the working-class Quarticciolo district in Rome which was a hotbed of AS Roma support, he chose to follow their bitter rivals: Lazio.
At the age of 17, Di Canio signed up for Lazio’s youth team. Simultaneously, Paolo struck close chord with ‘Irriducibili’ (Lazio’s hardcore ultras which are feared all over Europe) and became their active member. When not playing, he travelled with them to away games. In his autobiography Il Ritorno (The Return), he recollects, “I’ve had bricks thrown at me by opposing fans. I’ve been tear-gassed and beaten by police.” Also he describes being just five yards away when Bergamo chief of police getting knifed.
Known to never hold back his opinions and effectively communicating them to people by all means possible, he has had bust ups with almost every manager he’s played under. Notably infamous spats with Trappatoni at Juventus and Capello at Milan (which literally had ended in exchanging punches) ended his flourishing career in Italy.
Milan eventually sold Paolo Di Canio to Celtic. Having played in combustible Derby d’Italia, Derby della Madonnina and Eternal Deby della Capitale, Paolo relished his chances to play in Old Firm Derby.
For his part Di Canio was a nothing less than a sensation in Glasgow. An outrageously gifted player, the skilful Italian rapidly became the darling of the fans. His commitment to the game and dedicated efforts to consistently elevate his own standards and of his team mates is second to none. Due to his team mates’ standards or lack of it, Paolo was increasingly getting frustrated. In one of the training sessions, Paolo Di Canio stormed off the pitch and let his manager Tommy Burns know in no uncertain terms that he thought the calibre of player he was asked to work with was below him.
In his first and only season at Celtic, Paolo was voted Player of the Year by the fans. He eventually ended up with a row with club’s chairman and was soon traded to Sheffield Wednesday. He took a final dig at the chairman by saying “I don’t play for liars and traitors,”
From Barbarian to Immortal
Under Ron Atkinson at Wednesday, Paolo seemed to flourished and he was a top scorer in his first season for the Owls. His fiery temperament quickly made him fans idol and earned him a nickname ‘The Volcano’. He literally put that name to test in his second season.
In a never-seen-before moment in English Football, while playing at Hillsborough in a match against Arsenal, Paolo Di Canio was sent off and later suspended for 11 matches and was fined £10,000 for pushing referee Paul Alcock.
No wonder Big Ron had once said about him, “I have managed a few nutters in my time, but Di Canio takes the biscuit.”
Paolo was finished at Wednesday and was sold to Harry Redknapp’s West Ham in January. There he cemented his place in the heart of West Ham fans. He quickly established himself as a maverick on the pitch.
His performances earned him high praise and he scored one of the best goals in the history of the Premier League: an exquisite volley in mid-air – for West Ham against Wimbledon in the 1999-2000 season. The extraordinary goal was declared as Goal of the Decade back in 2009.
“Paolo,” said Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp, “did things with the ball that made you gasp. Other footballers would pay to watch him train”.
Another very famous incident took place in December 2000, which many felt was one of the finest example of sportsman spirit in the game, as he made the decision to catch the ball rather than put it into the unguarded net when Everton goalkeeper Paul Gerrard was lying badly injured. As a result he won the FIFA Fair Play award and was lauded for his behaviour. Who’d have thought it?
He again demonstrated his flair for the unconventional by staying loyal to the West Ham fans and turning down Fergie’s attempts to lure him to Old Trafford. “There was no way I could ever have betrayed the fans at West Ham,” he told The Independent. “Football has never been a business. Football is a passion.”
Recently West Ham have opened the ‘Paolo Di Canio Lounge’, within the West Stand of Upton Park as a tribute to their hero.
By the same time, his boyhood club Lazio were struggling on the pitch and off it. They were broke and unfancied, and a long way from their largesse of old; what’s worse, they were lingering in the shadow of their eternal city rivals, Roma.
Although Paolo had extended the contract with Charlton; he decided to answer SOS from Lazio. He could only apologise to the Charlton fans for his decision: “This is possibly the most difficult career decision I have ever had to make and I can only apologise to Alan Curbishley and the supporters of Charlton, for whom I have the greatest affection,” he said. “The supporters were always right behind me and I hope they will not be angry with me and will understand that, where your family is involved, you sometimes have to do things which are very painful.”
Lazio’s situation at the start of 2004 season was so bad that they only pulled together a third of their squad on the final day of the transfer market. Di Canio chose to accept a 70% pay cut from Charlton just to answer Lazio’s SOS call.
A remarkable incident in his first game epitomized his passion towards Lazio. Paolo di Canio duly started in the season opener against Sampdoria. Paolo released his fellow strike partner Simone Inzaghi (brother of Pippo and even less masculine than him) one on one with the keeper through a back flick. Inzaghi was fouled and earned a penalty.
Inzaghi started walking towards the penalty spot as he was designated penalty taker, but Di Canio already had the ball in his arms. “It is mine. MINE!” he shouted at Inzaghi. A frustrated Inzaghi looked over to the sidelines, where manager Caso is shouting at him to go and take the kick. But Di Canio was in no mood to give up the ball. Di Canio duly slotted the ball away, and he raced towards the Sampdoria fans to celebrate. The rest of the team followed him bar Simone, who stood looking hurt in the centre-circle.
As soon as Di Canio had finished squabbling with the Sampdoria players post-goal, he raced up and grabbed Simone by the shirt, incensed by his lack of celebration. So furious was Di Canio’s expression that players from both teams raced to separate the two.
William Wallace and “Il Duce”
‘The Volcano’ erupted again January 2005 on the occasion of Derby della Capitale. Paolo scored for Lazio and while celebrating a goal in front of Irriducibili, he raised his right arm to join them in their trademark Roman fascist salute. He repeated the salute twice more in Lazio colours, and as a result he has been branded by some as an ideologically committed, fully fledged fascist activist. There is no denying the DVX tattoo on his shoulder (the Latin appellation for Benito Mussolini) symbolizes the respect Di Canio has towards ‘Il Duce’.
In the wake of this adrenaline boiling derby, it was Paolo’s roommate who suffered most. Apparently the poor chap was made to stay awake all night as Paolo di Canio had watched DVD of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart repeatedly to pump himself up. In the days where players ‘loyalties can be easily bought, Di Canio’s struck ‘Not for Sale’ tag.
A few years ago an Italian journalist asked him about Francesco Totti; a player who achieved, at Roma, the same iconic status Di Canio enjoyed with their detested rivals, Lazio.
“Totti has said that he wouldn’t sit at the same dinner table with me,” Di Canio replied. “I said that was no great loss because if you tell Totti there are tensions in the Middle East, he’ll assume that a fight has broken out on the right side of midfield.”
Di Canio took shelter in the teaching of Samurai Culture to curb his channelize his energies. As a manager he is a less volatile than he was as a player, partly through his study of Samurai culture and the spiritual teachings in the traditions of Hagakure, and Bushido.
The code of Honour and Loyalty was the nucleus in the Samurai culture and the man who lived all his life by it, took no time in adopting it.
After quitting Lazio in 2006 he moved to Serie C2 side Cisco Roma where he got the chance as a player-manager. After hanging up his boots in 2008, Paolo swiftly moved towards coaching. Not only did Di Canio pass all of his coaching badges to UEFA Pro standard at Italy’s Coverciano facility but, according to his biographer Gabriele Marcotti, he topped in all subjects.
A clever footballing brain, immense experience and tactical acumen bolstered Paolo’s resume, but his volatility, eccentricity and a despised political stance meant appointing him at the helm would be a big social and political risk.
With Dietemar Hamman, George Burley also in contention, Swindon’s interim Chairman Jeremy Wray looked for passion, pride and professionalism in the candidates for the position of manager at the club. None other than Paolo fit the bill perfectly and Wray took a massive step into unknown.
His appointment brought in mixed reaction amongst the fans. Many loved the idea of having an enigmatic, animated and furiously passionate character in the dugout but others were sceptical as this was Di Canio’s first management job.
Immediate impact on his appointment was negative as one of the club’s sponsors, the local trade union who paid £4,000 per year as part of Swindon’s many sponsorship deals, pulled out of their long-term partnership with Swindon, citing the reasons of him being a Neo-nazi.
Paolo’s made a nervous start to the campaign as initially he struggled to identify players with right skills and qualities to fit his system. He underestimated levels of League 2 players and brought in many foreigners (mainly Italian) players from the same level. Once he found out the players who were not up to his standards, he quickly let them go. What he brought with him was not only passion, but incredible professionalism and clear vision on how to take the club forward.
A few stars failed to cope up with tough regime and decided to move on. Di Canio branded them as bad apples and deemed it necessary to get rid of them. Looking at his overzealous emphasis on training and as few days off as possible, Harry Redknapp referred to Di Canio as “absolutely mad”.
From Chihuahuas to Rottweilers.
After thumping Crewe at County Ground in his first game in charge, Robins lost next 4 league games in a row including a fierce derby game against Oxford United, where di Canio was sent off in the stands.
Next game brought a defining point in the Robins’ season. In an ugly incident after the 1-3 defeat to Southampton on 30 August in the 2nd round of the Carling Cup, Leon Clarke who was signed from QPR just 11 days prior took issue with Swindon’s fitness coach Claudio Donatelli and literally abused him over a planned training session in the morning. Di Canio literally leapt to the defence of Donatelli and man-handled Clarke as the Englishman entered the tunnel and told him that he would “not play in my team.”
This incident brought his loyalty towards his staff and dedication towards the job in front of the world. Di Canio held one on one meeting with every player and clearly stated his expectations from them. Swindon won 4 out of their next 5 matches. But when The Robins lost 2-0 away to Macclesfield Town and it brought out rage in Di Canio.
In a post match comment he said, “With some players, if he has a chihuahua character, I can’t make a chihuahua into a rottweiler. He could be a proud chihuahua but he remains a chihuahua. So many players at the moment are Chihuahuas away from home. This is the truth.”
This outburst galvanized the team as they went on 10 matches unbeaten run before Torquay brought Robins down. But the unstoppable Swindon bounced back and won their 10 next League games in a row. Swindon were galloping not only in the League but Paolo’s army marched into Wembley for Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final and slay Roberto Martinez’ Wigan in FA Cup’s 3rd round.
Paolo Di Canio would’ve taken Newport County’s job in March 2011, but his father took ill and Paolo being extremely close to him, stayed at home to look after him.
In October 2011, prior to Swindon’s trip to Plymouth Di Canio’s father passed away and in an extremely unfortunate coincidence Di Canio’s mother passed away a day prior to the return fixture against the same team as Swindon were inching closer to the promotion.
Paolo did the unthinkable and stayed in England, most importantly was in the dugout as he saw Swindon defeated Plymouth 1-0 at the County Ground.
Having come close to quitting the club, Paolo stayed on to deliver the promise he’d made to the fans in the pre season about promotion. Swindon thumped Port Vale 5-0 in the penultimate match and secured the title.
While Di Canio principles are attacking, he is also pragmatic – and typically Italian. As he told the Independent: “Obviously I’ve always said that I’ll try to play attractive football for this league. I want to win, attack with five players, but also not concede a goal.”
Robin without the Hood
Along with incredible passion, commitment, extremely animated antics in the dugout what Paolo Di Canio brought along with him on the touchline was sublime Italian sense of fashion. On the match days he would always wear Olive coloured beanie hat, same coloured hoodless Military Style Parka and beneath that he’d wear Swindon scarf.
As season went on, Swindon Town’s merchandising store was getting flooded with the requests for Di Canio style Parkas. Di Canio starting the tradition of waving the scarf in front of fans after every home game and fans would respond with great verve and energy.
Next season will bring new challenges. Paolo will need new players who can help not only maintain his standards but surpass them. Di Canio must make sure the impact of ‘Second Season Syndrome’ is kept to minimum. Paolo’s contract with Swindon is only with 2 years and he’s kept mum about renewing it, leaving fans and his players in limbo. (This was at the time of writing the original article in May, now he has extended the contract with Swindon Town till 2015).
With a Hammer’s crest tattooed on his left bicep, there’s no secret that Paolo would love to manage West Ham one day. Now Hammers back in the Premier League under Sam Allardyce, Di Canio must focus on Swindon.
He “Came, Saw and Conquered”. And yes, he “danced in the moonlight” too.
The above article by me has been published in June issue of '90 Minutes', India's first and only football magazine. I want to extend my sincere thanks to the editors of '90 Minutes' and 'Footballspeak' for their permisson to put this article.