A year to remember for Di Canio and his Red & White Army
Saturday saw Paolo Di Canio guide Swindon Town back into League One at the first attempt, despite their 3-1 defeat at Gillingham. The flamboyant Italian joined the likes of Ossie Ardiles and Glenn Hoddle in Swindon folklore, having taken a punt on the Wiltshire side last summer.
Di Canio’s story may read like a fairytale, but his first season in management has been far from plain sailing. Having lost both of his parents during the course of the season, and coming under much criticism for his passionate displays, innocent bystanders are unlikely to realise what an achievement this season has been. On arrival in Wiltshire, the Italian became an immediate crowd favourite due to his vision and emphasis on team displays that had lacked in previous seasons. There was no place for egos in Di Canio’s squad, and he soon set about getting rid of dead-wood and molding a team that he could call his own.
After all of the pre-season euphoria, August 6th soon came around and all eyes were on Di Canio’s new team. A confident 3-0 victory over Crewe on the opening day was followed by four straight defeats, and already the knives were sharpening. The Italian came under more criticism after his highly publicised scuffle with striker Leon Clarke, which resulted in the striker leaving the club with immediate effect. As results began to pick up, Swindon’s trip to Crawley provided the turning point for their season. Prior to the game, Crawley boss Steve Evans branded Swindon the ‘Di Canio Circus.’ In typical Di Canio style, the Italian replied “I laughed in the face of 70,000 Man United fans when I scored, you could imagine what it would be like if I was worried by the words of him who I've never heard of before.” The fuse was lit, but it was Di Canio who had the last laugh as his Swindon side cruised to a 3-0 win.
From then on, Swindon never looked back. With Di Canio at the helm, the players felt invincible and oozed confidence as they quickly climbed to the top of the league. With things on the pitch going swimmingly, Di Canio’s life off it was to take a turn for the worse. In the build-up to his side’s trip to Plymouth, Di Canio lost his father. Ignazio Di Canio had been the major force behind convincing Di Canio junior to take the Swindon job and many expected the Italian to lose his way following the trauma. Always the fighter, Di Canio’s loss was to be Swindon’s gain. With the fire in his belly burning stronger than ever, Di Canio held no prisoners as he set out to dispose of any team that stood in his way.
Whilst Swindon dominated League 2, cup competitions gave fans the chance to see just how good a manager Di Canio actually was. Going toe-to-toe with bigger clubs, higher up the football pyramid, seemed to be something that the Italian thrived on. The disposal of Championship outfit, and local rivals, Bristol City was followed by wins against League One sides Exeter and Huddersfield. An impressive FA Cup run was rewarded with a home-tie to Premier League strugglers Wigan Athletic, set to be the biggest game of Di Canio’s managerial career. On 7th January, Wigan travelled to a packed County Ground hoping for a welcome distraction from their poor league campaign. Unfortunately, for Roberto Martinez’s men, it was not to be. It was difficult to distinguish the Premiership side from the League Two outfit. The 2-1 victory was described by Di Canio as his ‘greatest career moment,’ and although the giant killing was to end there, it was far from the end of the Di Canio fairytale.
Never far from controversy, it is little surprise that Di Canio has provided many a talking point for football fans this year. After referring to his players as ‘Chihuahuas,’ Di Canio then shocked fans when he ran across the pitch at Northampton to celebrate a last minute equaliser with his players. Numerous touchline bans followed, yet his stubbornness and arrogance prevented the Italian from curbing his passion. After being sent to the stands against Macclesfield, he launched into a crazed rant that has since become his trademark as a manager. When asked whether he was perhaps too animated on the touchline, the fiery Italian responded, “I am a passionate man and if I want to wave my arms in the air, nobody is going to stop me.” The outburst didn’t stop there, with Di Canio adding: “If they (The FA) send me off 25 times it does not matter. I will still win this league.” Many questioned Di Canio’s confidence, suggesting the pressure had finally got to him. However, yet again, Di Canio proved the doubters wrong as his side pulled 8 points clear at the top of the table.
With the league title all but sealed, or so it seemed at the time, Di Canio and his players booked themselves a place at Wembley for the final of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. This was to be the first occasion that Di Canio had featured at Wembley as a player or a manager, and as football fever swept Swindon, the stage look set for the Italian to win his first silverware as a manager. Following a dismal performance, and a 2-0 defeat, the Wiltshire club were left deflated after their failure on the big day. Since the defeat at Wembley, Swindon’s league form has also suffered. As if the poor string of results was not enough for such an inexperienced manager to deal with, the killer blow came when Di Canio’s mother passed away the night before the reverse fixture with Plymouth. Di Canio stunned Swindon fans when he appeared in the dugout to inspire his side to a much needed 3 points, before making a swift return to Italy to mourn his mother’s death. What is more telling of Di Canio’s character, both as a manager and as a man, is that he was back in the dugout for the Tuesday night game with Aldershot, only 3 days after his tragic loss.
A string of poor results has allowed the chasing pack to close the gap and threaten to crash the Di Canio party bus. However, if his side can gain a point at home to Port Vale tomorrow then Di Canio will end his first season in management with a league title. It is not yet known whether he will still be around next season, despite his promise of guiding Swindon into the Championship. The call of his beloved West Ham grows stronger with every defeat under Sam Allardyce, and the opportunity to return to his adopted club may prove too strong. Following last Saturday’s win, the Italian revealed he was close to walking out on the club little over a month ago, but stayed to maintain his promotion promise to the people of Swindon.
A rollercoaster of a year, it would be fitting for Di Canio to lift the League Two title tomorrow in front of his adoring followers. Not only has he transformed a team struggling for confidence, he has reinvented the town and helped the people of Swindon to rediscover their passion for football.