There’s something about Italians and eccentricity. It just seems to be built into their DNA, indeed you only have to look at the fact they elected Silvio Berlusconi as their Prime Minister (at least officially anyway) to see that the whole country loves a man who isn’t quite all there upstairs.
Another rather crazy Italian is making waves in an industrial town in Wiltshire right now. Yes, Mr Paolo Di Canio is catching the headlines in England once again, but this time not as a player. Swindon Town suffered a rather embarrassing relegation from League One in 2011, rolling through three managers in the season before finally sliding through the trapdoor into the dreaded League Two. It was all the more disappointing for Robins fans considering just a couple of years before, they were pushing for promotion under Danny Wilson thanks to the goals of Billy Paynter and Charlie Austin.
Still, the board saw relegation as an opportunity to start afresh and decided that Di Canio, with no managerial experience, was the man to bring glory back to the County Ground. The Italian overhauled the playing staff, bringing in a number of unheard-of names from all over the globe. He dipped back into his home country as well, bringing in four Italians to give Swindon a touch of flair. The dramatic change in faces made the Robins an unpredictable force at the start of the season, and although Di Canio promised promotion, how Paolo’s first job would go was anyone’s guess.
The new names didn’t bed in initially (indeed some never have) and Swindon struggled for consistency at the start of the season. A 2-1 defeat to bitter rivals Oxford United at home left some supporters questioning the Chairman’s decision to appoint a managerial rookie. Results improved though, and after a Boxing Day defeat to Torquay, Swindon have won 13 of their next 15 League matches, though unfortunately one of those defeats came again at the hands of Oxford. It wasn’t just league success that Di Canio enjoyed though, indeed Swindon produced a storming FA Cup run that included a 2-1 third round victory over Premier League outfit Wigan that prompted Paolo to tell BBC Wiltshire “My lads today deserve to have their names put on this stadium. I know you normally do this when you win something important and I don’t want a big statue but maybe a plaque. Today we did something special.”
Although the FA Cup dream ended in the next round in defeat to Leicester, the Robins did make it to Wembley in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy Final, though they met their match against League One opposition Chesterfield. Although the 2-0 defeat proved to be a bitter disappointment for Di Canio; indeed it denied him a first major piece of silverware as a manager, Swindon’s progression through the competition is a sure sign of glory to come.
It seems like Di Canio’s magical touch on the field is working in a similar fashion off the pitch as well. The Italian, though mercurial at times (see volley against Wimbledon for evidence), always cut a controversial figure. There was the 11-match suspension for the shove on referee Paul Alcock in 1998, not to mention his self-proclaimed support of Fascism that resulted in his Roman salute to Lazio supporters that caused a bit of a stir in the footballing world. This colourful side to his character has also come out in his managerial style. There have been a few bust-ups of epic proportions so far, see his clash with Leon Clarke at the start of the season that ended with the pair going head-to-head in the tunnel. Although the press conferences haven’t contained the fireworks one might have expected from Paolo, there have still been a few choice moments, especially regarding his touchline demeanour that often reveals his dramatic Italian nature to all. Prone to sulking, gesticulating and arguing, Di Canio got himself sent to the stands in a game against Macclesfield after protesting about a free kick in a way only Paolo could.
The showmanship is what we’ve come to know and adore about Di Canio, he was never a shrinking violet during his playing days in the Premiership. The larger-than-life personality doesn’t have to be a hindrance in management though; indeed has anyone heard of that Jose Mourinho fella? There’s no doubt Paolo’s presence at Swindon is a big draw for players, some of his recent loan signings shows that individuals are willing to drop down a few divisions to play at the County Ground. It is datable as to whether Swindon could have attracted the likes of John Bostock, Lee Holmes or Jay McEveley without Di Canio pulling the strings.
Nine games remain for Swindon to seal an immediate return to League One. They are four points clear at the top of the league, ahead of Torquay, who have also played two games more. Eight points is the difference between them and Crawley Town who lie in fourth position, so it seems that Di Canio and his men are on the right lines for promotion. They return to action against Bristol Rovers and will hope to put their Wembley defeat immediately behind them. A few more wins and Swindon can start dreaming again of what may be possible in the future. One thing’s for sure though, however long Paolo stays at Swindon, his career in the dugout is definitely one to keep an eye on.