They are there for all to see; the burning intensity of the glare, the endless cavern of passion, and the relentless desire that seems to give an advantage in any confrontation. They’re ever-present in the sublime, the ludicrous, and the controversial, and on show throughout a career that has encapsulated reruns of all three. If the eyes are indeed the window to the soul, Paolo Di Canio is at least consistent.
While the transfer window slowly simmers to life and training ground car parks begin to fill with Sky Sports coats and microphones, spare a thought for those pushed down the pecking order of transfer gossip column inches, the temporarily forgotten ones; the out of work football managers.
José Mourinho has been readily available for some time, and Rafa Benítez is relatively fresh on the scene. Young hopefuls and Swansea alumni, Brendan Rodgers and Garry Monk, remain free agents, as do the coaching dinosaurs of Harry Redknapp and Dick Advocaat. Nothing. No takers as yet.
Then, while in sympathetic and slightly nostalgic mood, spare a thought for the Premier League’s favourite feisty Italian. Paolo Di Canio has been reportedly rebuffed by the likes of Celtic, Bolton and Rotherham over the past four years and is seemingly no closer to landing another managerial job in England.
As an occasional pundit for Sky Italia, and an equally enigmatic, talented and troublesome ex-player, Paolo Di Canio is a divisive character. The ability to polarise has remained with Di Canio as a manager. For Swindon Town, the unlikely setting for his first foray into the technical area, he was a deeply loyal miracle worker. He demanded much from his players, and invariably got it. At Sunderland, his big chance in the big league, Di Canio is remembered as an evil dictator and excluder of ketchup and joy. However, delve a little deeper, trudging through the obvious and sometimes lazy headlines offered by mainstream media, and Paolo Di Canio surely has plenty to offer the right club.
Before considering the ‘right club’ for a character as complex and compelling as Di Canio, it’s worth noting his appointment at Sunderland represented, at best, a marriage doomed for failure. A more apt description could read, ‘a match made in hell’.
Di Canio, with his own relentless commitment to physical conditioning, demands a lot from his players, arguably too much, and operates under principles of unwavering devotion to the cause. In 2013, if there was one Premier League squad that was destined to be quick to disappoint Di Canio, do little more than just enough, and shy away from throwing blood, sweat and tears to the cause, it was Sunderland.
Since the turn of the century, Sunderland have finished in the top flight’s top 10 only once. Considering the fan base, budget and muscle flexed in the transfer market, serious questions regarding structure, organisation and ultimately application, form naturally. Since 2000, the Mackems were also relegated twice, occupying the position of rock bottom on both occasions.
Though Mick McCarthy and Roy Keane quickly gained promotion as champions, they both failed to sustain any forward momentum in the Premier League. The same is true of Martin O’Neill, Steve Bruce, Ricky Sbragia, Niall Quinn, Howard Wilkinson and Di Canio. Gus Poyet followed suit and Sam Allardyce looks a good bet to do the same. Di Canio, though, didn’t lose his job because of his points tally.
“Systematic destruction of the players’ self-esteem and self-worth” was the official reason reported for Di Canio’s Sunderland sacking. As damning as that may be, its practical meaning will differ depending if you’re a professional footballer who doesn’t mind posing for photos on a bed of 50 notes at a casino, a politician/board member with a reputation to behold, or if you happen to be a football coach with an insatiable appetite for hard work and happen to be often misunderstood.
Famously weary of giving interviews, Di Canio opened up to discuss some of his political views – and much more besides – in a 2007 GQ feature with Robert Chalmers. In the club office of Cisco Roma, the interview Chalmers conducts with the 38-year-old player/coach reveals a deceivingly intelligent, reflective and sensitive man, and Di Canio himself makes you warm to him. For Paolo Di Canio, politics and football do not mix. Sharing in and working for a collective cause is more important. It’s with only a minor stretch of the imagination to state that Di Canio’s association with fascism is little more than a geographical coincidence. Though he has expressed that Mussolini was “deeply misunderstood”, Di Canio belongs to Lazio, a football club, and not a political party.
Lazio is a club with a complex identity and any passionate association with them and their ultras is also a flirtation with fascist beliefs. For Di Canio, though, those beliefs were very much secondary in his thoughts, a distant detail. They were like the baggage of a previous relationship. Though Di Canio has condemned racism in numerous interviews and newspaper columns, he is happy to side with ultras that unashamedly empty their lungs of racist chants for 90 minutes on a Sunday, happy because in his eyes they are, first and foremost, Lazio supporters.
On Mussolini, Di Canio wrote in his autobiography: “I am fascinated by Benito Mussolini. I own dozens of Mussolini biographies. I think he was a deeply misunderstood individual. He deceived people. His actions were often vile, but all this was motivated by a higher purpose. Mussolini was basically a very principled, ethical individual. Yet he turned against his sense of right and wrong. He compromised his ethics.”
For Di Canio, the higher purpose is being the best you can be, and to win football matches. At Sunderland, neither Di Canio or the squad would compromise their impressions of the other, and it’s always easier to replace a manager than a team.
Post Di Canio, existence at Sunderland followed what is now a predictable pattern. Di Canio’s successor, Uruguayan Gus Poyet, enjoyed a brief honeymoon period. Players were motivated to impress their new manager and results improved. Even Lee Cattermole and Phil Bardsley found themselves back in the frame, and ketchup was no longer a banned substance. However, despite Premier League survival and a League Cup final appearance in 2014, the nucleus of a previous squad remained – and so did the cracks. Poyet struggled to win over the Stadium of Light fans and endured an often-tempestuous allegiance with local media. More pertinently, a difficult relationship with new Sporting Director Lee Congerton would prove the crux of Poyet’s downfall.
To a large extent, Paolo Di Canio dealt with similar challenges admirably. Having been handed an influx of 14 players prior to the 2013-14 season, all having been reportedly signed by Director of Football at the time Roberto De Fante, Di Canio played the cards he was dealt with an air of dignity. One year later, Gus Poyet dug his heels, insisting upon his own signings. To Poyet’s ultimate demise, these mostly failed and were shipped on at a loss. Last season, the vast experience of Dick Advocaat mustered a Poyet-equalling 38 points and a last day escape from the claws of relegation.
Considering Sunderland’s performance since Di Canio departed, and their current application and league position, it surely all points to wider, deeper-rooted problems at an ultimately dysfunctional club. Most managers entering the Stadium of Light dugouts are destined to fail. A young manager, as hungry to prove himself and as passionate as Paolo Di Canio, was destined to fail amid fiery confrontation.
In 1999, under the guidance and guile of Harry Redknapp, a fiery Italian forward, at 31 and very much in the autumn of his playing career, found a spiritual home in East London. In Redknapp, Di Canio found a father figure and someone who gave him unconditional freedom, love and trust. Di Canio basked in this relationship and repaid the reverence from the terraces by putting a calmer heart and soothed soul into the job at hand. West Ham meant a reprieve, and Di Canio knew it.
For five years at Upon Park, Di Canio was an eccentric model pro. Trevor Sinclair summed up Di Canio in a recent Sky Sports interview: “He was a leader. He always had something to say. He was a brilliant character with amazing professionalism. He was always the last one to finish in the gym, getting his body prepared with massages and knowing how to eat. For a young player like, say, Mark Noble who was at West Ham at the time, they must remember how professional that Paolo was.”
Other than glorious commitment and good old-fashioned graft, Di Canio provided humility and genius at West Ham. His sublime volley against Wimbledon in March 2000 is rightly regarded as one of the best goals in Premier League history. Months later, Di Canio earned a FIFA Fair Play Award for a moment of sympathetic sportsmanship. With Everton and West Ham tied at Goodison Park, Di Canio passed up a goalscoring opportunity to grasp the ball in his hands, ensuring opposing goalkeeper Paul Gerrard could receive treatment.
Read | Is West Ham’s class of 2003 the best to ever get relegated?
Shortly after, Di Canio was the subject of a formal approach from Sir Alex Ferguson. Fergie tried to take Di Canio from West Ham to Old Trafford on two occasions, and for admirers of the Paolo Di Canio story, it’s hard not to romanticise upon the possibility of positive authority, influence and man management, which Ferguson might have provided Di Canio with. A few Premier League winners’ medals would surely have calmed the blazing hunger for proving himself as a young manager years later.
Very public tears were shed upon Di Canio’s West Ham departure in 2003, both by supporters and the man himself. Upton Park’s ‘Paolo Di Canio Lounge’ and one of Di Canio’s many tattoos serve as testament to the deep-rooted connection. Paolo Di Canio was, and always will be, a West Ham legend.
If Paolo Di Canio’s footballing identity was defined in East London, it was most definitely shaped in Rome.
Growing up in the Quarticciolo area of Rome, an area notoriously populated by supporters of city rivals AS Roma, Di Canio’s streak of defiance was evident as he became a passionate supporter and fully fledged ultra of Lazio. As with many footballing heroes, Di Canio’s childhood resembled a conventional working class upbringing, and his unyielding tenacity came naturally. He quarrelled with his three brothers, often bitterly. As a child he was overweight, wore orthopaedic shoes, and, as documented in his self-titled autobiography, wet the bed he shared with his eldest brother, Antonio, until he was 10-years-old.
His aunt, who was largely responsible for protecting Paolo from his older siblings, was a sympathetic Lazio fan, surrounded by Roma colours. Spurred on by rebellion and an ever-growing sense of belonging with Lazio, Di Canio beat his cola and junk food addictions with an impetuous and overriding addiction to physical training.
With a self-made streak of defiance, a complex young man married into a football club with an equally compelling identity. In Lazio, Di Canio found a beautiful underdog, something to fight for, and a collective to fight with. As a teenager he’d travel to away matches with the Irriducibili, one of the groups that gave ultras across Italy a bad name. Having signed for Lazio aged 16, making a first team debut two years later, and in his first full season scoring the winner in the Rome derby, Di Canio never severed his ties with the Irriducibili. Upon being sold by Lazio and signing for Juventus in 1990, Di Canio suffered panic attacks, and the ultras lost one of their own.
Far from home and a without a sense of true belonging, and still to find that genuine father figure of a manager, Di Canio struggled. Monsters danced in the flames of intensity behind his eyes, but there was no-one and nowhere to neutralise them. By 1993, Juventus manager Giovanni Trappatoni had grown tired of the confrontation and Di Canio was sent south. Perhaps it was close enough to Rome to feel some attachment, perhaps it was the just slightly different shade of Lazio’s sky blue shirt, but Di Canio found peace in Naples.
Read | The decline of Napoli post-Maradona: from Paradiso to Inferno
Under Marcello Lippi, and still reeling from post-Maradona financial meltdown, Napoli took Di Canio on a season-long loan, and it turned out to be arguably his most successful in Italy. In the process of an unlikely victory in Roma’s Stadio Olimpico, Di Canio endeared himself to both Lazio and Napoli fans by scoring a decisive goal in a 3-2 win. However, with Napoli unable to make the move permanent, Di Canio was on the move again at the end of the 1993-94 season.
Just as Serie A was coming to global prominence for its international talent pool, captivating football and flair in abundance, Paolo Di Canio signed for Fabio Capello’s AC Milan in 1994, and was hailed by many as one of the most promising Italian players in the league. However, as with his relationship with Sunderland two decades later, Di Canio and Capello were destined for a confrontational breakdown.
Again alienated, far from his beloved Lazio, and struggling to cement a place in a Milan midfield containing Ruud Gullit, Demitrio Albertini, Zvonimir Boban, Marcel Desailly, Roberto Donadoni, Stefano Eranio and Gianluigi Lentini, Di Canio struggled to find an outlet for his passion. Sharing a dressing room with some other big egos and imposing characters – and without Lazio’s Irriducibili spurring him on and backing him up – consistent clashes with an often equally defiant Capello made for a final straw. Di Canio was on the move again by 1996. This time even further north, and deep into unchartered waters.
For the sum of £1.5 million, Tommy Burns and Celtic picked up a bargain. Having spent six years detached from Lazio, Di Canio was hungry for what Celtic represented. A move to the Scottish Premier League made him a big fish in a small pond, and though never afraid of a fight, the opportunity to play centre stage must have appealed. Furthermore, at a time when Rangers had won nine of the previous ten domestic championships, Celtic represented another underdog and another possibility to stoke the flickering flames of intensity within Di Canio, who wasted no time in firmly latching onto the historical roots and allegiances of an Old Firm derby.
Di Canio enjoyed a fruitful solitary season in Glasgow. Celtic’s attacking trio of Di Canio, Portuguese goalscorer supreme, Jorge Cadete, and aloof Dutchman Pierre van Hooijdonk, became known as the ‘three amigos’. Despite the three men amassing nearly 70 goals between them, it wasn’t quite enough for either the championship – which Rangers won by five points – or for a new and improved contract, which was allegedly verbally agreed upon by Di Canio and Celtic chairman, Fergus McCann.
Having been voted the Scottish PFA Player of the Year, Di Canio was riding high on a wave of personal acclamation. A state which probably made it all the easier to accuse Celtic and McCann of disloyalty, dig down some reticent heels and engineer a transfer to the promised land of England’s Premier League.
In what was fast becoming a journeyman’s career, Di Canio surprised many by rocking up at Sheffield Wednesday for the 1997-98 season. The Premier League was in its sixth incarnation and Di Canio at once seemed made for the full throttle thrust of the calendar and culture of English football. His first season at Hillsborough is, understandably, often overlooked. Di Canio registered 35 appearances, 12 goals, and as few examples of controversy and confrontation as he ever had. Six games and three goals in to the following campaign, controversy came knocking with its loudest thud yet.
Arsenal went to Hillsborough on 26 September 1998, and little would anyone remember, were sent packing courtesy of a wonderful goal from Lee Briscoe. Instead, the game is firmly implanted in football’s collective memory as the match where Di Canio shoved referee Paul Alcock to the ground. Frustrations had boiled over after rash Patrick Vieira tackle and the subsequent elbow he aimed at Wim Jonk. Quick on the scene, Di Canio ensured a melee followed and tangled with Martin Keown.
Alcock, who had quickly reached the decision to send-off both Keown and Di Canio, first flashed the red card at the Italian and, in a moment of childish petulance and boiling frustration, Di Canio firmly placed his two hands upon Alcock’s chest and sent him tumbling to the ground. The incident is a famed for Alcock’s bizarre fall as it is for Paolo Di Canio’s actions, and though it has since been played down by just about every talking head going, at the time it was greeted with widespread disgust and outrage. For a man with questionable political beliefs and a list of ‘previous’ that made for easy headlines, Di Canio was fined heavily, banned for 11 weeks and left undefended, high and dry, by Sheffield Wednesday.
In appealing the ban, Di Canio hired and paid for his own legal team, sought help from a psychiatric professional who specialised in nervous breakdowns, and trained on his own. Once again, the theme of strict physical training and conditioning as a means to overcome a personal trauma was evident. In throwing himself into a solitary fitness regime, Di Canio blocked out the headlines, beat the outrage and ensured he was the healthiest possible version of a caged beast, ready and waiting for his next club. For the duration, it looked with ever-increasing certainty his next club wouldn’t be in England. However Harry Redknapp saw differently, and the rest is history.
In total, Paolo Di Canio spent seven seasons in the Premier League and became an ever-stronger admirer of English football. After five relatively controversy-free years at Upton Park, Di Canio spent a season with Alan Curbishley’s Charlton Athletic, and broke a contract extension at The Valley to re-join Lazio aged 36, taking a rumoured 75 percent pay cut to do so.
Predictably, Di Canio didn’t end his playing days quietly. On paper, a return to his boyhood club should have meant a contented and tranquil fairy-tale ending, but Lazio means too much to Di Canio for a blissful air of tranquillity to linger. The pathos of his passion was palpable in Di Canio’s diary entry on the day he re-signed for Lazio: “I kept telling myself: I must stop crying. Lazio. I weep and I tremble. The sound of my heart torments me. It is beating at an incredible speed. I can’t breathe. I’m crying. I am weeping like a baby. I have lost the power of speech. In the care on the way to the stadium, I felt as if my entire nervous system might collapse.”
Wrestling the ball from Simone Inzaghi to take a penalty and score the first goal of his second spell at the club, mocking Roma legend Francesco Totti, and frequent public outpourings of emotion all served to cement Di Canio’s brotherhood with the Irriducibili. Ultimately, as an ageing Di Canio’s form and fitness wobbled between 2004 and 2006, his relationship with the ultras made him effectively more powerful than the manager Delio Rossi or chairman Claudio Lotito. A significant number of Lazio’s hardcore were visibly vexed at the Lotito’s treatment of Di Canio, and after two farewell seasons, 50 Serie A appearances and 11 goals, Paolo Di Canio would move on to the 10th and final club of his playing career.
Read | How Francesco Totti became the eternal man of Rome
Cisco Roma represented two final aspirations for Di Canio. Firstly to see out his playing career close to home without having to come up against Lazio (Cisco Roma started the 2006-07 season in Serie C2), and a smaller club where Di Canio could flirt with the transition between challenging authority, to asserting it in the role of player/coach.
Staying true to his love of English football and a down-to-earth demeanour, Di Canio’s first managerial position came at League Two’s Swindon Town. Located in an unassuming and quiet corner of Wiltshire, Swindon represented the less obvious choice for a high-profile player to begin a managerial career. Then again, Paolo Di Canio represented an equally less obvious choice for Swindon chairman Jeremy Wray.
As Di Canio found his feet, favoured suit and rhythm of life in the dug-out, his squad fell into line or quickly down the pecking order. Swindon lost seven of their first 13 matches of the 2011-12 season. Undeterred, Di Canio dug down his heels and continued to preach that his lofty demands would lead to success. And they did. Swindon bounced back to League One at the first attempt and did so as league champions, which gave Paolo Di Canio a league title in his debut season in the dugout.
He commandeered the media with the authoritative presence of José Mourinho, looked just as cool as José did ten years ago, and did so with an increasingly impressive command of the English language, not something he had in his locker as a player.
Along the way, there were a few examples of his authority being questioned, and rightly or wrongly, the doubters and rebels were made an example of. Wes Foderingham, Swindon’s young goalkeeper, was on the receiving end after being hauled off 21 minutes into a match and clashed with Di Canio. However Foderingham later apologised, and upon signing for Rangers last summer, said of the incident: “Paolo was a good guy to work for. Everyone knows about his mentality. It’s his way or the highway but his ideas and coaching are top class. Paolo is a good man and a good coach.”
Di Canio’s love affair in Wiltshire was over by February 2013, as the Italian’s position became untenable. Amidst a sea of headlines telling of failed takeover bids and transfer wranglings, the Italian was putting his own cash on the table to pay for certain players’ wages. With a takeover still unconfirmed, ultimately the nature of star player Matt Ritchie’s sale behind Di Canio’s back was the final straw. Along with his backroom staff, Di Canio departed and left Swindon Town top of League One. Just a month later, he was a Premier League manager.
Cesare Maldini, Giovanni Trapattoni, Marcello Lippi, Fabio Capello, Tommy Burns, Ron Atkinson, David Pleat, Harry Redknapp, Alan Curbishley and Delio Rossi; all of Paolo Di Canio’s previous managers will have left some kind of mark, but none will be listed as a hero or leaving a defining streak in Di Canio’s footballing DNA.
Sure, he’s a little bit mad. He has a strong tendency to be abrasive when he decides that 100 per cent isn’t being given, but isn’t professional sport about always giving it everything? And isn’t that teetering, on-the-brink mental instability what makes a genius a genius? Aren’t we all crying out for some properly colourful characters in modern-day football? Is Paolo Di Canio really someone who Rotherham United, no disrespect intended, should be overlooking as a potential manager?
In a parallel universe, one where Slaven Bilić followed Jürgen Klopp in politely declining the Upton Park hot seat, it is summer 2015 and David Gold has taken a small gamble on a risky yet romantic appointment. Paolo Di Canio is manager of West Ham United. A squad of lesser-known signings (Payet, Lanzini, Sakho et al), established pros with something of a divisive streak and a point to prove (Carrol, Moses, Collins), and impressionable youngsters (Oxford, Pike and Lee) are all fully on-board. Di Canio, post-Sunderland and post-enforced sabbatical, has been immersed English language study, and in reflecting upon lessons learned, is surprisingly mellow. The burning intensity remains, but a carefully ageing wisdom harnesses those wild eyes.
While time travel and the augmentation of recently past reality remain out of reach, there must be a Championship club that reckons he’s worth a punt?
By Glenn Billingham @glennbills