Just over 13 years ago on the 26th March 2000, Paolo di Canio scored what was arguably the greatest Premier League goal ever. He scored it for the team I support, West Ham. I was 15 at the time, and I pretty much idolised him as a player, so much so that when I first met Paolo 11 years later I was utterly star struck. OK, so we’ve got that out of the way, but that doesn’t mean this is a fawning biased article about how amazing he is.
I first met Signore di Canio when he was announced as manager of Swindon Town. Something of a bold gamble from then chairman Jeremy Wray in that he was a fiery character both on and off the pitch. Before the press conference unveiling him as manager, the gathered local media recalled his numerous career milestones such as pushing referee Paul Alcock and then attempting to decapitate Martin Keown after his inevitable red card; numerous occasions at West Ham where he argued the toss over every free kick, penalty and dead ball situation demanding that he take them; and then the crowning glory, seemingly giving a fascist straight-arm salute to fans after the 2005 Derby della Capitale.
There was some backlash immediately after his appointment in May 2011 with the union GMB withdrawing its sponsorship citing that as “a trade union we could not be seen to have a financial relationship with a club that has fascist manager”. However, a new and un-tested manager at a League Two club didn’t exactly draw the crowds of national football correspondents, TV and radio and the relatively small investment from GMB of £4000 wasn’t really headline news. Strangely, living and working along the M4 corridor did mean that I started spending a lot more time at the County Ground and it was once the minor furore died down and the football took over that Swindon fans, and the few local reporters and photographers started to see a different di Canio.
Sure, the fire was still red-hot in his belly, at the Swindon-Oxford match (the romantically named A420 derby) he launched himself down the touchline in a Mourinho-esque pelt towards the travelling fans after his side equalised. At that moment, pretty much every photographer edged closer towards the home dugout anticipating the boiling over of Wiltshire’s Il Duce. It was a fairly innocuous offside decision that did it, sending the new manager into a rage with his robin-red tie flailing around his neck, but it left referee Mark Haywood no choice but to send di Canio to the chairman’s box. In the post-match press conference we expected more fireworks, but instead we finally saw a light, a chink in the armour of di Canio; “I know the rules, I have to accept it” was the philosophical response from Paolo, said without irony, anger or jabbing from his press-officer.
As the 2011-12 season progressed Swindon Town kicked into gear, and by February Paolo di Canio had secured a Johnston’s Paint Trophy final place, and had won Manager of the Month for his efforts. Here was a prime opportunity for me, as close to an interview with the man himself whilst photographing him with an oversized plate made to look like a football. As it turns out, the conversation was brief, but enlightening; the Japanese Samurai, honour and respect were subjects talked about, as was the influence of his father into his life. One thing he ventured was that it was Ignazio, a bricklayer from a poor district of Rome who gave him the best guidance in his career and politically. Such was the affection he spoke of his father that it’s clear that everything di Canio does and says is a legacy to him. I don’t know anything of Ignazio’s political leanings, but nor should it make a difference.
By tragic coincidence, Paolo’s mother died last April, weeks before Swindon Town sealed promotion to League One. However, that didn’t mean he couldn’t dedicate the victory and celebrations following a 5-0 thumping of Port Vale to his parents, wearing a shirt printed “Mama, Papa; look at all this, thanks to you!”. Shirts aside, before the game there was an impeccably observed silence for both parents, no-one would have dared make a sound and di Canio stood, hand on heart, in tears for 60 seconds. This was passion and emotion of a different kind. There is no happy medium with Paolo, it’s all or nothing. Sure enough, during the game he was his usual dervish of emotion, hyperactivity, histrionics and outburst. Even after the game, with medal round his neck and shirt thanking his parents, he insisted, demanded that the photographs be of everyone but him, claiming that his players were the heroes, even the kit man and the guy that made Paolo his tea in the morning were more important in his eyes. His selflessness and humility were astounding that day, and regardless of his politics and sociological views, he has passion in abundance, and he knows how to get that passion stirred in his players. Former chief executive at Swindon, Nick Watkins said of him that it was “management by hand grenade”.
Even in a charity match after the season’s end, when Paolo scored a hat-trick there was passion overflowing from him. Lou Macari, the opposing coach for that game spoke of him being something unique, something which obviously rang true with Signore di Canio as he referred to himself as just that in his announcement press conference on Tuesday. I honestly believe he will keep Sunderland up and I hope that when he does, it’s the football that will be talked about rather than anything else.
His unique brand of energetic, frenetic management (which will undoubtedly also encompass fitness regimes to rival the Royal Marines) is right there on display and it certainly will entertain the public, even if it hasn’t won over some of the supporters groups or former vice-chairman of Sunderland. However, behind the facade of brash, passionate bravado and inferred political views, there is a man of real honour and true respect, something which we spoke very eloquently about in our conversation alongside his oversized plate.