Di Canio: Doing this job is crazy, but it can be beautiful too
21:30 GMT, 8 September 2012
Paolo Di Canio leapt out of the swivel chair in his Swindon Town manager’s office and paced the windowless room like a caged lion, searching for the right words to describe the difficulty dealing with today’s younger players.
‘It’s our fault,’ he said, gesticulating. ‘We give children of 10 a mobile phone. We give them technology and put them in a room, not communicating with them. When they grow up and something goes wrong, they are not strong enough, not tough enough.
‘I have noticed the changes in football, It used to be work, work, work. Now, for some players, the priority is the gold watch,’ added the Italian, tapping his wrist for emphasis.
At 44, Di Canio is a managerial tour de force like no other. He took up his first managerial post 16 months ago when Swindon chairman Jeremy Wray was left uninspired by the original list of applicants following the club’s relegation to League Two.
‘A high-wire act, but worthwhile,’ is Wray’s description of his relationship with his maverick manager. And no wonder. The former Lazio, AC Milan, Celtic and West Ham player — once banned for 11 games at Sheffield Wednesday for pushing referee Paul Alcock — has led a mini-revolution in Wiltshire, with his team dubbed the Barcelona of League One.
Bossing it: Paolo Di Canio talks passionately about the game he loves
They won promotion last season with 93 points, reached Wembley in the final of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy and have already defeated two Premier League clubs, including a 4-3 win at Stoke City in the Capital One Cup less than fortnight ago.
But controversy is never far away. Last Sunday, he substituted 21-year-old goalkeeper Wes Foderingham after 21 minutes of a League One game at Preston, then denounced him as ‘arrogant’ when the player kicked a water bottle on his way to the dressing room instead of sitting on the bench with his team-mates.
Di Canio is baffled at the personal criticism he received for what he considers a good managerial decision. He insists Foderingham was not substituted as punishment for a fourth-minute mistake that gave Preston a goal, but because the player had continued arguing with team-mates while the game, which Preston won 4-1, continued. Foderingham has since been restored to the side.
‘His head was blurry,’ said Di Canio. ‘That is why he came off. Otherwise we would have lost the game 8-0 and I would have been called a donkey manager of a donkey team. I am a foreigner trying to instil English discipline and rules. And the English people are saying “No, no, you mustn’t upset players”.
‘I read a tweet from Rio Ferdinand. He is my friend, but Rio was saying: “Oh no, Di Canio was too tough. I hope this goalkeeper doesn’t have a big problem mentally now.” I want to say to you, my friend Rio, I know in the last two years I’ve seen you more on Twitter than on the pitch.’
The gafffer: Paolo Di Canio looks out over Swindon's County Ground
Di Canio admits he is ‘obsessed’ with the job as he chases a second successive promotion and develops players like midfielder Matt Ritchie, once loaned out by Portsmouth to Dagenham & Redbridge and Notts County but now valued at 1million-plus.
‘I am not like many people who think it’s enough to do 90 minutes in training and then switch off,’ he said. ‘I’ll be in Waitrose shopping for pasta and tomatoes and my mind is thinking about the next day’s session. People think I can’t find the right food because I stand there staring, thinking about football.
‘It’s not been easy. I played in Serie A and the Premier League so I used to get frustrated in training with my players, less so now. I would explain an easy drill. “Understand guys” “Yes”. One second later they have forgotten, they don’t move. It drove me crazy but we joke about it now.
‘They aren’t bad professionals, the brain makes the difference. If something takes time, I have to put a frog in my throat and push it down. I know one day it will be different. I want to be the best so I have to go through this.
‘I look after the players like my brothers. It’s my natural way to speak out if someone makes a mistake. If it was my brother, I’d say “I want to punch your face because I know your potential”. The players know me after 16 months. I can start gentle but, at a certain point, they have to deal with the pressure. It’s kill or cure.’
Getting his point across: Di Canio talks
to the fourth official during the 1-0 defeat to Leyton Orient
Ideally, Di Canio would like to be a combination of Fabio Capello, who used to bellow at him on the touchline at AC Milan, where he played alongside superstars like Marco van Basten and Paolo Maldini, and Harry Redknapp at West Ham.
‘Harry isn’t a coach but he’s very intelligent, a clever fox,’ said Di Canio. ‘Some days, he’d let me rush out of the training ground because he knew I’d go crazy if he spoke to me.
‘He’d wait 24 hours until I was calm, wag his finger gently and say: “Paolo, you know I was unhappy yesterday”. He knew my commitment. He said I’d be the first player he’d want in his five-a-side team. You can argue if I was the best technically but, for my passion, I’d love a hundred Di Canio’s at Swindon.’
The root to Di Canio’s personality lies with his family. His parents, who have both died within the last 12 months, struggled financially to raise four sons in a tough part of Rome.
‘My dad (Ignazio) was a brickie, he’d leave the house at five in the morning to catch a bus to work. My mother was at home bringing up four boys and we all lived on 250 a month. At 17, I realised I had an ability for football and promised always, always to use it to give my best and help my family.
‘At Lazio, I was an idol in half of Rome but I still lived at home for 18 months, to give my parents all my money. I didn’t even keep enough to buy a car for the first year.
‘My dad gave me the best lesson in life. I was 25, a top player with Napoli and a husband and father. I was angry that Italy had not picked me for the 1994 World Cup and I answered my mother in a rude way at the table. In front of everyone, including my wife and daughter, my father got up and slapped me. Poom! I deserved it, I had been arrogant and stupid.’
There have been moments in Di Canio’s career that cannot be brushed over. As well as the push on Alcock, there were fascist salutes to Lazio fans, which Di Canio maintains was a cultural gesture rather than a political one.
He was also reported to the FA this year over an allegation that he had made a racial slur towards a former Swindon player. Di Canio has always strenuously denied the allegation and has not been charged. He believes he will be given a chance to manage at the top level and characteristically is setting his long-term goals high.
Strong characters: Harry Redknapp and Di Canio during their West Ham days
‘At 32, I didn’t think I would be a manager. But the game is like a drug. It is a mission for me,’ he said.
‘I am thinking two or three more years at Swindon, then go to the Premier League for 10 years. After that, the England national team for four years, take this nation to a World Cup final. And, when we have all become heroes, I will retire to Piedmont to look after my restaurants and my wine business full-time.’
Some chairmen would prefer to put needles in their eyes than have a colourful manager like Di Canio, who picked up his League Two manager of the year award last May with the line: ‘Winning is better than sex with Madonna’.
But Di Canio believes there will be at least one other owner with the vision of Wray, who can see immense managerial talent behind the emotional rollercoaster.
‘Mourinho has done strong things. He made a handcuff sign to the referee at Inter Milan,’ said Di Canio. ‘I am not saying my record is like Mourinho’s but why should I not have a chance if I continue to win I work every hour, study every opposition player to give my team the right details to win.
‘You can’t save your energy if you want to reach the top. I don’t know if I will get there but it is my dream. This job drives you crazy but it is beautiful.’