On Her Majesty’s Service: The Turbulent Times of Paolo Di Canio

Feature Photo: © PA: Press Association
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Is there a word, phrase or metaphor that hasn’t already been used to describe Paolo Di Canio? The Premier League has long been home to the wild and the wacky, the brilliant and the obscene, and no single player fits all of those bills except the former Sheffield Wednesday, West Ham United and Charlton Athletic man.

A seven-year courtship with the Premier League began in the summer of 1997 when Di Canio joined Wednesday from Celtic Glasgow. The young forward was making quite the name for himself up in the highlands – for the good and bad. He picked up the SPFA Player of the Year in his first and only season in Scotland, the 1996-97 campaign where he scored 15 goals in all competitions.

But despite his evident ability and undeniable passion for the British game, we also saw the dark side of Di Canio – it was in the Old Firm fixtures where Di Canio’s tempers flared, notably the league fixture in March of 1997 when he was sent off after the final whistle for his actions towards the Rangers players. This kick-started a steep and slippery exit from Celtic Park.

Di Canio demanded a wage rise well out of the scope of Scottish football, kicked-up a fuss when Celtic wouldn’t abide and headed south of the border. Di Canio was let loose on the Premier League in a Sheffield Wednesday jersey, signing for the club in 1997 and becoming an instant hit at Hillsborough.

Charismatic, hot-blooded, and arrogant enough to make you either love him or hate him...As a player, Paolo Di Canio had everything a football fan could ask for!
Charismatic, hot-blooded, and arrogant enough to make you either love him or hate him…As a player, Paolo Di Canio had everything a football fan could ask for!

Celtic, Sheffield Wednesday, and West Ham are all a similar type of club – historic sides with old and iconic stadiums (Upton Park for West Ham at the time) with traditionally working-class fans. Di Canio arrived at Wednesday at a time of great change in the Premier League, with a lot of foreign imports arriving on British shores as the Premier League bid to be the “gold standard” of European football.

Di Canio was a palpable hit, not only at Wednesday but everywhere he went. Not as true for his fleeting visit at Charlton Athletic, but certainly for every other British team he played for – Di Canio’s charisma had never been seen over here before, and we simply fell in love with the good and bad of Di Canio. That first season at Wednesday saw him finish as the club’s top-scorer in the league.

His maiden season at Hillsborough couldn’t have gone much better, but his second was short-lived. Six games into the 1998-99 season, Wednesday played Arsenal in the Premier League. Arsene Wenger’s side bolstered by the hard-hitting names of Patrick Viera and Martin Keown were taking no stick from Di Canio on the day, who sparked a mild on-field brawl resulting in one of Di Canio’s most defining moments – after he was sent off by referee Paul Alcock, Di Canio shoved the man in black to the floor, received an 11-match ban and never played for Wednesday again.

Alcock with a bad back was livid and presumably rather embarrassed by the afternoon’s events, and the refereeing community lambasted the Italian whose ban was “not long enough” according to them. As disrespectful as it might have been, we’ve never seen anyone do that before and we likely never will. Di Canio for all his flaws was a born entertainer, an extrovert who let passion play the game for him.

Moving on to West Ham and probably the most iconic vision of Di Canio’s career is him in a Dr Marten’s West Ham shirt. A classic jersey as far as West Ham kits go, and it was best donned by the flying Italian who signed in January 1999 for Harry Redknapp’s Hammers. Redknapp admitted the risks that came with signing Di Canio, but couldn’t let a player with his qualities out of his sights, and thus began an intense four-and-a-half year relationship between Di Canio and the club.

His first full season at the club, the 1999-2000, was the most defining of his time at West Ham. Di Canio scored 17 goals in all competitions, 16 in the Premier League, lifting the Intertoto Cup after a 9th-placed finish in the league, being voted Hammer of the Year and scoring the BBC Goal of the season – which was later voted as the Premier League’s “Goal of the Decade.”

It is, of course, that flying scissor-kick goal v Wimbledon. Even today, there’s something about the brilliance of that goal that we can’t quite put our fingers on – was it the camera angle? The slow-motion replay? Or the simple fact that it was Di Canio scoring? The man who’d brought so much new passion and fire to the English game, now scoring goals which few Englishmen ever would’ve attempted.

Another iconic moment in his experience with the club came in December 2000. Paolo Di Canio’s West Ham were playing Everton and late on in the game he was presented with a goal-scoring opportunity, but with Everton goalkeeper Paul Gerrard down injured, the Italian caught the ball and brought a stop to play. It was a gesture that earned him a standing ovation from the entirety of Goodison Park, and the FIFA Fair Play Award in early 2001.

In four full seasons at Upton Park, Di Canio scored 51 goals in 141 games. He departed for Charlton Athletic in 2003 and spent a season there before heading home to Italy to finish his career. He helped the Addicks to a 7th-place finish in the Premier League – their best finish to date – and was a hit at The Valley as well.

It wasn’t as uplifting as his time with Wednesday or West Ham, but in seven years in the English game, Di Canio won and lost more hearts than any player ever has. He split opinion in the most typical way – if he was on you’re side, you loved him, if not, you hated him. Di Canio was that “Roy of the Rovers” type player and because of all the controversy, and the bad that he did in his time, we often forget how gifted a player he truly was.

Sir Alex Ferguson tried to bring him to Manchester United during the 2001-02 season and should the pair have linked up, who knows what might’ve become of it – a pairing so fierce that it’d go on to dominate football? Or a pairing so contested and alike at the same time that it would’ve blown up within seconds of take-off?

For all the good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful that Paolo Di Canio brought to the English shores, we can but loath and reminisce in the uniqueness of the Italian, in the knowledge that we’ll likely never see a player like him again.

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