In recent years, there has been little sign of stability at Swindon – a club that were promoted to the Premier League in 1993.
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. Still, Swindon, admittedly, have had their financial troubles – despite the fact that star players like Gordon Greer, Billy Paynter and Charlie Austin departed the club for other reasons – yet, incredibly, much-needed stability has come from the unlikeliest source: a hot-headed managerial novice who cites one Benito Mussolini as his muse (“a very principled, ethical individual”).
In a way, Paolo Di Canio was perfect for management – given that he was constantly associated with a siege mentality in his twenty-three year playing career. This mentality originated in his refusal to let his childhood knock-knees get in the way of his destiny of becoming a professional footballer. After all, Di Canio always had to battle to distance himself from the nickname of palloca, that is, lard-ball, and fell-out with Giovanni Trapattoni, Fabio Capello and even referees – notably pushing Paul Alcock against Arsenal on 26 September, 1998 – before settling down, somewhat, at West Ham in 1999. Di Canio became one of the Hammers’ all-time legends, not least for his incredible work-rate and for rejecting Manchester United in 2002, and the Italian combined his admirable 48 goals in 118 games with brilliant moments, such as his astonishing volley against Wimbledon on 26 March, 2000 and his brilliant Fair Play gesture with an injured Paul Gerrard and Everton on 17 December, 2001. At Lazio, though, his relationship with their Ultras and his near-endless fascist salutes soured his reputation and standing in many footballing circles across Europe.
Therefore, his arrival to the sleepy borough of Wiltshire on 20 May, 2011 was ground-breaking and could not have been a greater contrast to his predecessor, the bumbling and out of touch Paul Hart. From this, the GMB, 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:
He has openly voiced support for Mussolini so it beggars belief that Swindon could have appointed him, especially given the multi-ethnic nature of the team and the town.
So, why did Swindon appoint Di Canio? Yes, he had his UEFA Pro coaching license but few believed he had the temperament, mental consistency and dedication to manage his cherished West Ham in the long-term – let alone a ‘staple’ lower league club, a la Paul Gascoigne at Kettering Town in 2005, where he had little to lose with regard to his cult status. Swindon, though, had clearly tired of the placidness of Danny Wilson and Hart, whose reigns coincided with a failure of Swindon to even come close to selling-out the City Ground. From this, the Robins’ chairman, Jeremy Wray, targeted a candidate with “passion, pride and professionalism.” In this regard, Di Canio fitted the bill perfectly and even if it was his first serious job opportunity, the determined Di Canio deemed himself ready and declared, upon his unveiling, that “you cannot keep a lion in a cage.” It was clear that motivation, attractive football and a big-name pull were three elements Swindon struggled with in previous seasons and Di Canio has certainly delivered on these fronts.
Sure, Di Canio lampooned his celebrity, joking that “we are close to signing Lionel Messi” in his first press conference on 23 May, but there is no doubt that coups like Wes Foderingham (dropped two divisions from Crystal Palace), Alan McCormack and Paul Benson (dropped a division from Charlton), and Raffaele De Vita (from Scottish Premier League’s Livingston) would not have joined without the contacts and long-term vision of Di Canio. With the likes of Jonathan Smith and Alan Connell also joining, with the proven ability of Paul Caddis, Simon Ferry and Matt Ritchie already at the club, Di Canio certainly had the raw materials to put together a strong promotion push. Still, the scale of the rookie Italian’s challenge was evident in the fact that Swindon ended their 2010/2011 League One campaign with just two wins in their final twenty-four league matches and finished below an insolvent Plymouth in 24th.
Di Canio has brought a professionalism to Swindon that many would not have expected and has utilised the Italian hallmarks that the likes of Claudio Ranieri and Roberto Mancini were famed for when they began managing in England: double training sessions and as few days off as possible. In a way, it should be no surprise, given that Harry Redknapp referred to Di Canio as “absolutely mad” for his over-zealous effort in training as much as his well-documented volatile personality, that Di Canio talked of harnessing “100 Paolo Di Canios” in the whole Swindon set-up, from youth teams to the first-team, at their training ground at Liddington. From this, it is clear that Di Canio has taken pride in the Robins, accentuated by the fact that he wears a club scarf under his military-like hoodless parka (even wore this ‘lucky’ jacket at Wembley on 25 March). In return, the fans have taken to him and his vision, and the last song played on the PA before every home games is Verdi’s La donna è mobile. Still, it was not the greatest of starts: Di Canio led Swindon to just one win in their first five matches in League Two, with the lowly Dagenham & Redbridge among those who took three points off Swindon.
Few thought things would improve, particularly with Di Canio’s petulance evident in getting himself sent-off in the 1-2 defeat to Oxford at the City Ground on 21 August. Then, though, came the most unlikely of morale boosters: Leon Clarke’s outburst towards Swindon’s fitness coach, Claudio Donatelli. Donatelli was among three Italians (Fabrizio Piccareta, assistant manager, and Marco Panaresse, masseur, were the other two) Di Canio brought with him to Swindon. The incident occurred after the 1-3 defeat to Southampton on 30 August in the 2nd round of the Carling Cup, after the fiery Clarke took issue with Donatelli and a planned training session in the morning:
You telling me I’m going to run again tomorrow? F*** that!
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.” The nomadic Clarke, who went home in his kit while a livid Di Canio refused to do the post-match interviews, was immediately loaned to Chesterfield for three months before joining Charlton in January. From this, the squad witnessed not only the loyalty, brotherhood and dedication of Di Canio towards his staff, but also that he would remain hard-line “even if it was Messi.” It united the squad and Swindon won four of their next five matches in the league before a disappointing 2-0 away defeat to Macclesfield, upon which Di Canio, in trademark eccentric style, commented:
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.
Swindon, though, then went on a ten-match unbeaten run in the league (picking up 22 points from a possible 30), made the final (semi-final of overall competition) of their half of the draw in the Football League Trophy and reached the 3rd round of the FA Cup against Wigan. The Wigan match on 7 January showed how far Di Canio’s methods had come in just six months: Swindon sold out (13,328) the City Ground for the first time in two years and their flowing football brilliantly dismantled a then in-form Wigan outfit featuring the likes of Ali Al-Habsi, Gary Caldwell, Emmerson Boyce, Ben Watson, Jórdi Gomez, Victor Moses and Franco Di Santo. It was a sweet 2-1 victory for a teary Di Canio, but he was quick to acknowledge others:
I dedicate this win to my dad [Ignazio, who died in July, 2011]. It is a special moment because I never went to Wembley as a player. My lads today deserve to have their names put on this stadium. I know you normally do this when you win something important and I don’t want a big statue but maybe a plaque. Today we did something special.
So, while it was unlikely that Di Canio was to accomplish his Wembley dream in the FA Cup, with Swindon going out to Leicester in the 4th round on 28 January, he instead led them to the final of Football League Trophy against League One side Chesterfield on 25 March. In the league, Swindon have remained consistent and are currently 1st, with 76 points and with one game in hand on 2nd placed Torquay United on 69 points, which was much owed to a brilliant ten-match winning streak in the league from 31 December to 22 February. Still, perhaps, given Swindon’s history with successful high-profile rookie managers, be it Lou Macari, Ossie Ardiles or Glenn Hoddle, Di Canio’s success and 63.27% win percentage should come as little surprise.
While Paolo Di Canio has always dreamt of managing West Ham, with the Italian having the Hammers’ crest tattooed on his left bicep, perhaps the adulation and success he has enjoyed at Swindon has given him another club to savour and affirmed what once seemed the unlikeliest partnership.