Paolo Di Canio’s quintessential volley with the outside of his boot, in the spring of 2000, remains one of the most iconic goals the Premier League has seen. A perfectly flighted cross from the right found the West Ham man lurking with intent on the far side of the penalty area. It didn’t look like a clear shooting chance, and certainly not with the right boot, the Italian pushed off with his left leg for leverage and, with consummate timing, the ball dropped for him and at the optimal moment he smashed it into the far corner with his right foot from the most absurd of angles. A typically extraordinary moment from an extraordinary player.
Another such moment had come two years earlier, when Di Canio was in his second season in England at Sheffield Wednesday. In a home match against Arsenal, Di Canio and Martin Keown were both sent off for a clash. The former’s reaction to being shown the red card was to push referee Paul Alcock in the chest, who staggered backwards in stages and eventually hit the deck. Di Canio received an 11-match ban and Wednesday effectively showed him the door.
The villain then became a saint two years later, as an act of spontaneous sportsmanship was widely praised. With Everton goalkeeper Paul Gerrard on the ground injured, Di Canio passed up the chance to score what would almost certainly have been the winning goal for West Ham, by catching a cross to allow treatment for the stricken player. But that was Di Canio’s career; just one incredible moment after another.
As a 20-year-old, he scored the winning goal for boyhood heroes Lazio in the Rome derby to serve notice of his developing talent. Moves to Juventus, Napoli, and AC Milan were to follow but, despite picking up a UEFA Cup winners medal at Juve and a Serie A title with Milan, he could never quite establish himself at either of these clubs during Italian football’s golden era.
Perhaps his most memorable Serie A moment came at Napoli, against his future employers Milan, in the 1993/94 season. He broke down the left of the penalty area and turned two defenders inside out before smashing the ball high into the net at the near post from a narrow angle. The celebration saw Di Canio discard his shirt, run to the fans and disappear under a pile of bodies, mostly ball boys, before emerging, overcome with emotion.
The need for a fresh challenge took him to the unlikely destination of Celtic; a club undergoing a revival after years in the doldrums. After a slow start to the 1996/97 season, with the Italian injured, Di Canio announced himself by coming on as a second-half substitute with his side 1-0 down at Kilmarnock and turned the game.
He scored the first with a piece of trickery and nonchalant finish and set up the third for Jorge Cadete to seal a 3-1 victory. There followed a tumultuous year at Celtic, as the club fought to prevent Rangers equaling their record of nine titles in a row. Di Canio was part of a fearsome attack alongside Cadete, Pierre Van Hooijdonk and Andreas Thom.
Fans still reminisce about the last-minute winner Di Canio scored at Aberdeen. Wearing golden boots, he killed a long ball stone-dead with his left foot and flicked the ball over the advancing keeper with his right, to seal three points. A week later, he led a stirring fightback in a must-win game for the Bhoys at Ibrox. With his side 1-0 down, Di Canio took the fight to Rangers, levelled the score and, just when it looked like Celtic would go on to win, they were hit with a sucker punch before being denied a second equaliser by a rogue linesman’s flag.
While Di Canio’s emotional side was always on display, that game at Ibrox highlighted what a fierce competitor he was. Despite the histrionics, his work ethic was second to none. When the season’s end came without success, Di Canio decided he wanted a pay rise or a move and effectively forced through his transfer alongside Van Hooijdonk and Cadete, leading Celtic chairman Fergus McCann to dub the trio the ‘Three Amigos’ in a term that was not borne out of affection.
Di Canio soon made an impact after arriving at Sheffield Wednesday for a reported fee of £4 million. He memorably turned a bewildered Andy Hinchcliffe inside out, when he scored at home to Everton in October, and a number of spectacular strikes followed. Everton were again the victims, this time at Goodison Park, when he tricked his way inside two challenges and rounded Thomas Myhre to cap off a 3-1 victory.
But Di Canio’s explosive temper was also a problem. He was sent off in the FA Cup tie against Watford, first getting booked for complaining to the linesman and then receiving a second yellow for remonstrating with the referee over the same incident: a disputed throw-in, of all things. While many felt the referee was excessively officious, it demonstrated a lack of self-control on Di Canio’s part. Temperament was perhaps one of the most pertinent reasons a bigger club did not come in for him when his second season with Sheffield Wednesday ended in September, after his folly against Arsenal.
Once his 11-game ban had been served, Harry Redknapp felt Di Canio’s extravagant talents were worth the risk and took him to West Ham United for a bargain £1.5 million, in January 1999. At 30 years old, it looked like he was entering the twilight of his career but he was ready to write a new chapter and become a legend in his four years at the East London club.
The West Ham he joined boasted the mercurial burgeoning talents of Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand, Michael Carrick, and Joe Cole, and Di Canio soon settled; getting off the mark with a goal against Blackburn Rovers in his fourth game and helping the Hammers to a fifth-place finish in the Premier League. He would score a further four league goals between March and May, as he put the controversial ending to his time at Sheffield Wednesday behind him.
The following season Di Canio was the Hammers’ top scorer with 16 league goals. Against Arsenal, in October, his double won them the game. The first goal may have been a scruffy finish but it was Di Canio’s memorable surge through several Arsenal challenges that helped to set it up. The second was a beauty as he deftly flicked the ball inside a lumbering Martin Keown before sidefooting high into the net.
Di Canio again showed his fondness for the big occasion as he dragged the Hammers back into a game at home to Manchester United. His brace took West Ham to 3-2, after falling 3-0 behind but, despite his best efforts, the Red Devils would prevail 4-2. The Italian’s taste for the theatrical was again on display in February 2000 when, unhappy with a referee who had denied him a penalty on more than one occasion, he asked Redknapp to substitute him against Bradford City. This involved starting to remove his shorts and gesturing impatiently as he made his way off.
Redknapp had to use his renowned man-management skills to persuade his prize asset to stay on the pitch with his side 4-2 down. It paid off as Di Canio netted a penalty before Cole equalised. Amazingly, the Italian then set up Lampard for a dramatic winner in the 84th minute.
And the following month we saw that incredible strike against Wimbledon, which remains widely celebrated to this day. It was the standout goal in a season of many brilliant efforts that showcased the exceptional range of Di Canio’s repertoire. There were spectacular shots from distance but also several brilliant solo efforts.
That season had arguably seen Di Canio at his peak, in his 32nd year. But the following years would see West Ham’s fortunes slip as their brilliant young talents began to move on to bigger and better things. Di Canio continued to delight the Hammers’ faithful, and take their breath away with some outrageous pieces of improvisation, most notably the volley from distance against Chelsea in 2002.
But his time at Upton Park was to end in disappointment as West Ham were relegated in 2003, despite reaching 42 points: an unusually high tally for a relegated club. Di Canio’s career was far from over as he enjoyed a year at Charlton Athletic before returning to Italy for a productive spell at first club Lazio. He then ended his colourful career at Cisco Roma just before his 40th birthday.
Controversy followed him into his management career with bust-ups with his players at Swindon Town, and a short stay at Sunderland that was overshadowed by disapproval of his alleged political beliefs, but Di Canio the player was something special. The depth of skill, the boundless passion, and a face that seemed permanently contorted into an expression of extreme emotion were all features of a player who was idolised by fans in Italy, Scotland and England alike.
By Paul Murphy @paulmurphyBKK