On May 23rd 2011, the new Swindon Town manager Paolo Di Canio said he “was close to signed Lionel Messi”. In hindsight, he’s had the kind of season you can’t help but be impressed by – lighting up every game he’s been part of, appearing to be several steps ahead of the opposition and gained even more admirers than he already had.
And Lionel Messi has had quite a good season too.
Paolo Di Canio’s first season, not only as Swindon manager, but also as a manager full stop, has been little short of perfect. Many ‘experts’ wrote him off instantly and declared he would be out of the door at the first sign of trouble. Understandable, yet humorous with hindsight. What has transpired is a title-winning season, FA Cup giant-killings, a trip to Wembley and the bottom line of Di Canio still in charge of the club he joined a year ago.
The stats are the simplest way of describing the Robins’ path to glory – the best home record in the league, the most victories in the league, the best defensive record in the league. Cogito ergo sum; they’ve ended up as the best placed team. Curiously, they’ve lost ten away games, whereas a team like Crawley have lost just four. Yet, amazingly, in twenty-three home league games they’ve conceded just eight goals – seven of which came in three matches. Yes, that’s nineteen clean sheets at home, let alone including away games, all season.
Yet, when they lost at home to bitter rivals Oxford United on the 21st August, and then lost away at Shrewsbury Town, Swindon sat 21st in the league having lost four of their first five games. Doubt poured through the minds of Robins fans like cheap Italian wine at high-streets restaurants across Wiltshire. Had we paid untold fortunes to this man to see him leave before the first leaf fall of Autumn?
Arguably, the turning point came with Swindon’s televised victory over the team then top of the table, Rotherham United, but defeats still found themselves sown into the team’s form. The fact the team found themselves either winning or losing, and not dropping points in the form of draws proved vital as the season progressed (a stat they’ve maintained all season, drawing only one game throughout 2012). Yet as Paolo finally settled and players began to warm to his style of management, things back to bloom at the County Ground. But that’s not to say he’s always known who his best players are…
Before the season started, I wrote of the early flames of what would be Di Canio’s roaring season. Yet, the list of players he collected, and latterly disposed of is quite staggering for a level of football where money is tight. Alberto Comazzi and Ibrahim Atiku left the club after cancelling their contracts, Mehdi Kerrouche fell out with Di Canio and was shipped out on loan to of all clubs, Oxford United, and Mattia Lanzano’s contract was cancelled by the club, but curiously he later changed his mind and made his way back to the County Ground. These are just players who he had already bought in by mid-July, let alone other car-crash signings such as Leon Clarke and Lukas Magera. While he has freely acquired players left, right and centre, at a higher level where wages increase and the financial risks of failure are greater, this is something which cannot be risked from now onwards. His mistakes must be learnt with immediate effect.
That’s not to say there aren’t methods to his madness. Take Wes Foderingham in goal – pinched on loan from Crystal Palace and latterly signed permanently, he has been an incredible find and proved a constant rock, albeit a very agile one, in between the posts and surely not coincidental that Swindon have not only broken their club record for clean sheets during this season, but the fourth tier record has been rewritten.
Of course, far be it from me to reminisce just of the good times – thirty thousand Swindon fans rocked up at the Venue of Legends in March and were odds on favourites against Chesterfield in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final. They promptly walked away empty handed with a performance devoid of anything which had been witnessed by fans in the recent months before the day at Wembley. At least the heavens didn’t open, which had magnified most supporters irritation when the club last appeared in HA9 back in May 2010 against Millwall in the League One play-off final. Big days out appear to be Di Canio’s Achilles heel, if indeed he does possess such a mythological weakness – Oxford fans will continue to remind Robins fans of both derby victories this season. However, I’m sure collecting the league trophy will numb the pain over knowing their rivals up the A420 will be spending another year behind Swindon in the standings.
The past twelve months have actually been the most tumultuous and upsetting of Di Canio’s life with his father, Ignazio, and his mother, Pierina, passing away within months of one another during his time at the club. His father’s illness was actually something that stopped Di Canio becoming Newport County manager in March 2011, yet when the Swindon job arose, his father insisted on him pursuing his dream of becoming a football manager. Somewhere they’ve looked down on him and guided him through a period of his life when lesser men would have understandably walked away. The ability to separate such personal hardship and continue your fledging professional career can only stand him in good stead wherever the next few years take him.
Chairman Jeremy Wray has justifiably said that Di Canio was a ‘risk’ – the biggest risk now however is keeping hold of the man. Di Canio has provided a catalyst of hope for Swindon Town the whole way through the club – from the Chairman to the fans – which many worried may not arrive with immediate effect after Paul Hart’s atrocious spell at the club which saw them consigned to relegation last season. Yes, they were early season favourites to bounce straight back, but so were Bristol Rovers, who have ended in mid-table, and Cheltenham Town were favourites for relegation yet ended up in the play-offs – nothing is certain in football, regardless of what level its played at.
The close season will now, inevitably, link Di Canio with various managerial positions as they become untenable and available. The enormous elephant in the room still remains West Ham United, although with Sam Allardyce on the verge of guiding them back to the Premier League via the play-offs, it could mean he receives a deserved stay of execution. Would Di Canio really want to go elsewhere other than West Ham? Although managers will come and go over the next three months, no job will arise that will honestly have Paolo bolting for the County Ground door – no Premier League team will risk going for him, and why would he leave for a Championship or League One club when his intention all along with Swindon was to get them back to the second tier of English football?
His commitment and professional to the Wiltshire club has surprised many at times, myself included. Although money inevitably talks louder than most things in these situations, he doesn’t appear swayed by moving on after one season at Swindon. He appears to have committed himself to launching Swindon onwards and upwards – not something that is a god-given right as Chesterfield have proven this season after walking away with League Two last season, but something that isn’t beyond the realms of possibility either if Di Canio stays at the club.
Players will come and go between now and the middle of August – players such as Matt Ritchie, Paul Caddis & Wes Foderingham must remain, and a proven striker must arrive. Season tickets will be sold, new fans will be found, and hype will be built. But as long as Jeremy Wray keeps hold of his Italian gaffer, Swindon Town have every hope of being the latest team to become part of the “double-bounce” phenomenon which the likes of Southampton, Norwich, Stevenage and Crawley have all enjoyed in recent years.
All together now – Paolo Di Caniooooo! Paolo Di Caniooooo!
Written by Carl McQueen – We Are Going Up Podcast member and Swindon Town Blogger
Carl tweets at @mrcarlmcqueen