The American actor and composer Oscar Levant once quipped, ‘There’s a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line’. Paolo Di Canio has this famous adage hung aloft in his office at the County Ground…and if he doesn’t, he should. A career strewn with controversy and brilliance – yes he’s pushed the odd referee, yes he’s saluted the odd fascist regime, but now he’s set up shop in Wiltshire, and will not be doing things quietly.
Many of you will have read this article at the start of the week on Paolo’s adventure in the Swindon half marathon – having lost his bearings on the shorter fun-run section, he ended up putting in a time just 36 minutes short of the winner of the race and ultimately told BBC Radio Wiltshire, “I couldn’t stop, there was a challenge.” This man laughs in the face of adversity. He encapsulates Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’ poem as if the wordsmith had instead written his immortal piece of work in March 2000 having seen Di Canio score that goal against Wimbledon rather than in 1910. But yet, despite that memory being over 11 years ago, and the Italian now at the age of 43, every Swindon fan holds a particular yearning…what if he was to put on a Swindon shirt just once. What if he took to the hallowed turf and dazzled Robins fans the way he once did West Ham fans. What if he scored in front of the Town End. Just think about it Paolo – which is more, you’ll be a man, my son.
The idea may equate to mere blue-sky thinking or any number of workplace-based idioms, but when you sit in League Two with a manager who once called the Premier League and Serie A his home just a few years ago, the idea borders on genius and insanity. Go on, admit it, you’re edging towards the side of genius…
There was a time when the term ‘player-manager’ was not something sneered at or seen as a sign of a club desperate to avoid the drop with a minimal number of games left having just kicked their manager unceremoniously into the job centre, but instead was an in vogue scheme which chairmen up and down the land (although, predominantly just Ken Bates) thought could steer the club onwards and upwards – Chelsea encouraged Ruud Gullit, Gianluca Vialli and Glenn Hoddle to take up the challis during the 1990s, regardless of how much poison it contained. The latter of those three did of course begin his managerial career as Swindon’s player-manager, culminating in the club winning promotion to the Premier League, with Hoddle himself scoring in their play-off final victory over Leicester City. Liverpool fans will recite Kenny Dalglish’s first managerial spell as an example of it working and him truly being crowned a King. Swansea City will utter John Toshack’s time as the prime example of fighting their way through the divisions. Crystal Palace will proclaim, err, Attilio Lombardo. Okay, sometimes these things just weren’t meant to be…
But at present all four teams relegated from League One last season sit in the bottom half of League Two – Swindon, Bristol Rovers, Dagenham & Redbridge and, perhaps inevitably, Plymouth Argyle all call the ‘doldrums’ their home at present. At the start of the season, Swindon’s odds for promotion were just 9/4, with 9/1 to win the league outright. There may still be nearly three-quarters of the season to go, but this is not the outcome supporters wanted, nor necessarily expected in August. Even Di Canio admitted the club must gain promotion back to League One this term; there was no ‘maybe’ in his outline for the season – his conviction led fans into a spell of mass hysteria that we could walk through this league without breaking a sweat. The reality is proving slightly more complicated.
Swindon Town has a knack of embracing risk and ambition. For a town with the cultural appeal of a wet dishcloth, its managerial roll call is heaped in history and glamour. The juxtaposition of a legendary footballer managing in a town with little more than a confusing roundabout as it’s modern day clamour for tourists is an odd one, but one which has always paid off. When inert creatures such as Paul Hart or Maurice Malpas take charge, only negative occurrences happen at the County Ground. Paolo Di Canio is the risk and ambition which fans desire, and expect.
Despite his short tenure at the club so far, turmoil has followed the Italian. Many would say this is a natural inevitability with the national media waiting for him to slip up in the same way they want him to succeed. The Leon Clarke incident was pure Di Canio. The vast majority of fans sided with the manager and Clarke was out – loaned to Chesterfield, and although many will admit they could do with him scoring for us now, his spell at the club was so inferior to make an impression, they’ll never know.
Quite simply, mess with Paolo and you’ll never play for the club again. Picture this scene from Scarface and imagine every single player being brought into his office, one-by-one, sitting down whilst he sips from a snifter glass having poured a precise gill measurement of his finest brandy from the Royal Doulton decanter he keeps hidden from view, and then, in his immaculate Italian-English simply echoes Sosa’s words. Haunting.
Strikers such as the once Czech Republic international Lukas Magera have failed miserably at the club at the time of writing – Algerian Mehdi Kerrouche and winger Matt Ritchie are seemingly single-handedly lifting the club above the parapet, which inevitably means one of them will be sold in January. Alan Connell is bouncing in and out of the starting line-up on more occasions than can be healthy, and therefore no form can be found. Di Canio’s fellow countryman Raffaele de Vita appears to have secured a starting birth but fans are often left scratching heads at his inclusion, especially when he’s regularly substituted after an hour. New loanee Jake Jervis reportedly has the potential to provide a beacon of goals but has minimal experience in professional football.
Quite simply, it appears Paolo has yet to find the strike partnership he’s fond of. He’s yet to find the strikers he trusts. There is a short-term solution, however. Play Paolo. His managerial style has naturally fused his flair and awareness of the beautiful game, which sometimes comes unstuck in League Two when meaty defenders blunder their way through the back of your midfielders legs when they’re performing intricate give-and-go play, added with the simple fact that players at this level are not going to be able to habitually execute the brilliance that Di Canio once fed the paying audience on a weekly basis. Instead Di Canio sees players skewing it straight out of play, slicing it for a throw-in, or punting it into row Z. He may be 43, but he wouldn’t do this. He’d be a modicum of talent, inventiveness and inspiration in a morale-sapping league. When you sit in the fourth tier of English football, no one enjoys staying there for long.
What harm could it do to Swindon’s already faltering season? Di Canio would obviously be required to register as a player rather than just strap on his boots at will while manager, but come on, don’t sap the fun out of this. The idea may be maniacal and purely something light-heartedly observational to fill the pages of a Football League website giving a soapbox to the opinions of fans, but everyone would want to see it. Everyone would love to witness Paolo Di Canio on the field of play one final time. People would come from far and wide to watch the ever growing soap opera of Swindon Town. He would become the player that the fans of the beautiful game always wanted to see return. His goals, assists and sheer motivational intensity will be a standard of which the fourth tier of our national game has never seen…
… and then we’ll sell him for an undisclosed fee in January.
Written by Carl McQueen – We Are Going Up! Podcast member and Swindon Town Blogger
Carl tweets at @mrcarlmcqueen