Paolo Di Canio: West Ham’s Imperfectly Perfect Prodigal Son

Paolo Di Canio was an eccentric, enigmatic, electrifying entity who went on to become one of West Ham United’s most cherished sons. His beginning, middle and end to his West Ham career were to be set in wonderfully peculiar circumstance, only further adding to the legend of the Italian. His goals, his dramatics, his passion, his ability to shock and surprise and make you cry, make Di Canio a living legend, a man that epitomises in a sense the modern West Ham United.

Di Canio’s early career took him across Italy, playing for Lazio, Juventus, Napoli and AC Milan. Despite turning out for these big clubs, the forward was never able to stake a claim to a permanent starting place, either due to competition for places at Juventus with Baggio and Vialli, or public fallouts with managers; Trapattoni at Juventus and Fabio Capello at AC Milan. His nomadic trek across his homeland ended with a move to Celtic in 1996. An excellent first season north of the border earned him the SPFA Player of the Year award and he finally looked to settle at a club. Instead, excessive wage demands meant he was swiftly moved on to Sheffield Wednesday, where once again he became a fan favourite.

However, Di Canio’s time in England looked to have come to a swift end after he was banned for eleven games for pushing referee Paul Alcock to the ground. Whilst the hilarious imagine of Alcock tumbling to the floor could be enjoyed, Di Canio would surely not be touched by a bargepole for the rest of his career. This is where West Ham and Harry Redknapp come in to save the day and ignite the creation of cult. Wednesday took a near £3 million loss on Di Canio as West Ham signed him for £1.5 million in January 1999, having not played since the September of last year. What followed next was four years of magic.

Out of his four years in East London, 2000 is the year in which Di Canio cemented his legacy. Three defining moments from the turn of the century stick out, each as unbelievable as the notion of Y2K itself. In February, West Ham welcomed Bradford to Upton Park. Di Canio was at the centre of the drama. West Ham were 4-2 down when Di Canio danced into the box, evading challenges like a tax dodger when he was finally taken down cynically by the defender. Instead of giving a clear penalty, the referee waved play on. Incensed, Di Canio demanded to be substituted, running to the touchline in frustration, arms gesticulating furiously. Redknapp forced him to stay on, his mercurial talent a key to winning the game.

Eventually, West Ham were given a penalty when Kitson was bundled over. Frank Lampard went to place the ball on the spot before Di Canio wrestled it from the teenager. If had missed, how his West Ham career may have panned out so differently. Instead, he slammed it past the goalkeeper and with muted celebration, he collected the ball for the kick off. He wanted to take responsibility, not for fame but to ensure his team had a chance. This catalyst led to West Ham turning out 5-4 victors, with Frank Lampard sealing the win ironically enough.

Come March, Di Canio was about to exhibit a piece of skill so far beyond what anyone was capable of. Wimbledon came to Upton Park and left having been struck by the boot of an Italian god. Trevor Sinclair pinged the ball into the penalty area, direct and with perfect weighting. Di Canio bent his run inside the box, moving away from blue shirts to find the perfect amount of space. We all know what happened next. The scissor kick to end all scissor kicks. The perfect second of football was witnessed, the technique, the genius and the audacity. He runs away, finger wagging in the air at how disrespectful it was to score a goal of this beauty, to manipulate that moment of simplicity into a flash of otherworldliness. Martin Tyler screams in commentary, ‘I do not believe that!’. From Andy Gray comes the cue to ‘take a bow, son’. The greatest goal in Premier League history, Bergkamp can do one.

Everton away in December 2000. Di Canio had the chance to win the game, poised at 1-1. In any normal circumstances, this wouldn’t even be noteworthy, either he scores or he misses, big deal. Instead, his outstanding display of sportsmanship meant that he further added to the mythology of his character. Everton goalkeeper Paul Gerrard had rushed out his box on the right hand side but injured himself in doing so, crumbling to a heap on the ground. West Ham played on and the cross was whipped into the Italian with the goal gaping. Di Canio in a flash of empathy, elected to catch the ball from the sky, plucking it out of the air. This drew a standing ovation from the Goodison Park crowd and enamoured him to rival fans. His lack of killer instinct here is what sets him apart from other strikers of his generation. It is perhaps why he never attained a senior Italy cap or why he had struggled at club level in his homeland. Here on Merseyside though, at that moment he was on top of the footballing world.

Di Canio’ 2001/2 season is awash with Manchester United. His goal at Old Trafford to seal an FA Cup victory that is remembered to this day, was a high point. Through on goal and presumed to be offside by everyone in the stadium, Di Canio faced up Barthez, who stood with his hand in the air like a taxi-taking regular. Di Canio proceeded to slide the ball past the Frenchman, utterly embarrassing him in the process. Barthez’s arms flailed at the linesman and referee in disgust whilst Di Canio sank to his knees in front of his disciples, basking in their feral admiration. Early 2002 and Manchester United and Di Canio were talked about together again. This time, Ferguson wanted to sign the Italian as a replacement for the outgoing Sheringham, Cole and hopefully; Yorke. West Ham didn’t budge and Yorke never moved on, leaving Ferguson to rue this missed opportunity. This failed transfer meant that West Ham had a man to truly believe in. They had seen Paul Ince leave for the Red Devils, but if their prodigal son did the same, the apocalypse would have been nigh.

West Ham’s relegation in 2002/3 is a major blot on the history of the club. Players such as Joe Cole, Michael Carrick, David James, Jermain Defoe and of course, Di Canio, couldn’t prevent relegation. Di Canio’s final season would end in heartbreak. A public row with manager Glen Roeder meant he was excluded from the first team, an absurd decision in hindsight. Sir Trevor Brooking took over for the final few games of the season after Roeder sadly suffered from a brain tumour and Di Canio returned to the side. His presence wasn’t enough to stave off relegation. His final goal came as a last minute equaliser away to Birmingham City on the last day of the season.

This is indicative of West Ham and Di Canio’s relationship, neither party able to ever fully fill their potential, even when together in the perfect storm. With the squad West Ham had, they should have been challenging for Europe, with Di Canio spearheading the charge. Instead, two years in the Championship beckoned, whilst Di Canio moved onto Charlton and spells in Italy. If given the choice, he would have never left West Ham, the club who gave him everything and nothing at the same time. Maybe one day, in a perfect future, we will see Di Canio prowl the touchline of the London Stadium, a manager supreme, so his simplistic chant can be bellowed to honour a man that was the absolute antithesis of simplicity.

‘Paolo Di Canio, Paolo Di Canio, Paolo Di Canio, Paolo Di Canio’

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