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It was a rush of blood, a moment of madness that would change the way that everyone looked at Paolo Di Canio. There was a big coming together in Sheffield Wednesday’s fixture against reigning champions Arsenal, with Di Canio, Patrick Vieira and Martin Keown at the centre of it all.
The Arsenal centre-back and the Italian forward were both sent off, but where Keown back took it on the chin, Di Canio couldn’t quite accept the situation. He shoved referee Paul Alcock, who took a slow, drawn out fall to the ground.
Alcock’s descent to the ground was slow, yes, but Di Canio’s fall from grace was rapid. He was given a £10,000 fine and 11-game ban. Less than a year after signing for Wednesday from Celtic for a fee of over £4 million, his club had no interest in keeping him. Worst still, nobody else would touch him. It seemed like the Rome-born star’s career in England was over before it had really started.
However, Di Canio had been Wednesday’s top scorer in the 1997-98 season and had shown across his career that he had talent. This was enough for West Ham boss Harry Redknapp, who took him on for £1.5 million in January.
Despite his previous tally, a 30-year-old misfit, with a reputation in tatters, for that price was laughed at. At the time, Redknapp’s decision was considered a massive risk for the West Ham manager, but he claimed: “You will all have your opinions, but in the end I’ll be right.” That certainly turned out to be the case, as he stayed at the club for four and a half years, playing 141 games in claret and blue and scoring 52 goals and writing his name in West Ham folklore in the process.
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The love wasn’t all one way, though; Di Canio would develop such a love for the club that he got their badge tattooed onto his arm. There was an immediate affection from him, and upon his arrival at Upton Park, the Italian said: “I made a mistake and I’m sorry. West Ham have given me a big chance and I’m very happy because they are a better team than Sheffield Wednesday.”
This may have been more of a dig at his former employers than a showing of love for his new club, but it highlighted how thankful he was to have a club support him through his career’s biggest mistake to date.
Some West Ham supporters were bemused by the decision but they immediately got behind their new man. His debut was relatively uninspiring, coming in a 0-0 draw with Wimbledon, but it didn’t take him long to show the Boleyn faithful why their manager was so keen to take him on. In just his fourth appearance for the Hammers, Di Canio was the star of the show in a 2-0 win over Blackburn Rovers. He set up Stuart Pearce for the game’s opener and then opened his own account four minutes after.
The Italian went on to bag four goals in 12 starts and become a firm fans’ favourite in his maiden half season at Upton Park, helping West Ham to a fifth place finish and a European spot courtesy of an Intertoto Cup win.
Despite the Hammers not reaching this level in the league again during Di Canio’s time at the club, he would only receive more adoration from the supporters. The magical moment that cemented his name in the history books of both West Ham and the Premier League came in his first full season in East London, during an entertaining 2-1 win against Wimbledon.
A diagonal ball was played over the Dons’ defence by Trevor Sinclair, and Di Canio effortlessly jumped up before volleying it past the keeper while still in mid-air from what was a near impossible angle. The goal was a thing of beauty, up there with the best that Upton Park and the Premier League has ever seen. Everyone in the stadium knew it, especially Di Canio.
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He celebrated by wagging his finger in the air and repeating the word no, while looking around the stadium with self-gratification and smugness. It was as if he was telling West Ham and the rest of the world that there was nothing else he could do to be respected and appreciated for what he does on the pitch.
It turned out he didn’t have to do anything else to prove himself: Paolo Di Canio was the name on everyone’s lips in the East End for all the right reasons. The West Ham fan base is widely regarded as being hard to please, but the moments of magic provided by Di Canio led to an unshakable between between the Irons and the Italian.
The Wimbledon goal wasn’t the forward’s only contribution for West Ham in the 1999/00 season, though, and he ended that campaign with 16 Premier League goals. It was also his overall manner around the club that endeared him to the fans; there was a perfect balance between passion and skill, which made him everything that a West Ham supporter loves.
Di Canio also had class in abundance, which he showed against Everton in December 2000. Paul Gerrard had twisted his knee while coming out for the ball and play wasn’t stopped by the referee, but when the ball was played in with the score at 1-1, rather than heading it into the empty net, Di Canio plucked it out of the air with his hands so that the injured goalkeeper could get treatment. This caused a wave of applause from everyone at Goodison Park, with Sky Sports’ commentator remarking: “Throughout his career Paolo Di Canio has never been far away from controversy, but few would have predicted that the hot headed Italian would make the news for such an outstanding display of sportsmanship.”
This was just one of many times in his career that Di Canio went with what he believed in, rather than conforming to what others expected from him. His ethos of doing so was truly tested when Sir Alex Ferguson made an attempt to sign the Italian during the 2002 January transfer window. West Ham had only managed a 15th- place finish the previous season, while the Red Devils were the reigning champions. The Hammers have fallen victim to a lack of loyalty many a time in recent years – as seems to be the case for most mid-table clubs in modern football – but there was no chance of Di Canio abandoning those at Upton Park.
He refused the offer outright, and when asked about this decision in 2011, Di Canio explained: “There was contact, but in the end I denied it because I couldn’t trade my fans, my family that is West Ham. My fans that are in my heart, they’re the team that I support first. Everybody knows this. Now I belong to them and they belong to me. We’re a unit because I’m a supporter and I couldn’t trade them. I couldn’t sign for another club because they gave me everything, even if I was nearly at the end of my time playing at the top level.”
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However, the time did eventually come when Di Canio had to leave Upton Park. In the 2002-03 season the Italian only played 18 times in the league during what was a turbulent campaign for the club, being dropped along the way after a public row with the manager at the time, Glenn Roeder. When Roeder was sacked, Trevor Brooking was brought in as caretaker manager and he reinstated Di Canio immediately, with the former Napoli and Juventus man ending the season as the club’s top scorer.
One of those goals came on the last day of the season in the shape of an 89th-minute equaliser against Birmingham. Sadly it proved to be his last meaningful contribution to the Hammers’ cause, and the club were relegated after a dismal season with one of the Premier League’s most naturally gifted squads.
The game before West Ham were condemned to relegation, Di Canio had scored the winner in a 1-0 win over Chelsea. It was a result that gave his team a fighting chance of staying up, and would prove to be his final heroic act at Upton Park as tears flowed from the Italian’s face. Knowing that his West Ham career was drawing to a close, to become a certainty if they were relegated, Di Canio’s emotion got the better of him as he received a rapturous reception from the West Ham faithful.
West Ham’s prodigal son left his adopted home to return to Italy, as many had predicted. With his departure, only memories were left; his goal against Manchester United that made a mockery of Fabien Barthez; the flick over Martin Keown’s head before scoring one of two goals to beat Arsenal for the first time in years; the Wimbledon volley; and countless other audacious flicks, tricks and strikes.
Paolo Di Canio is more than a memory, though, and the Italian will always have a place to call home at West Ham. He was one of the former players who emerged from a black cab on the pitch to help the fans bid farewell to the Boleyn.
Despite an inconsistent time as a manager, both Di Canio and a number of West Ham fans would love to see their former talisman return to the club in a coaching or managerial capacity. His passion, talent and extreme devotion to the cause is unquestionable, and it remains an intriguing thought that Di Canio may well represent the claret and blue again
By Danny Lewis @DannyLewis_95