by Daniel Williams
I think the first time that I truly despised a football player was during a cold night at Hillsborough, home of Sheffield Wednesday. Despite the weather, a hotly-contested South Yorkshire derby between Wednesday and Barnsley was in full swing, and I was one of the thousands of Reds fans to make the journey. I vividly remember standing next to a grown man dressed as Snow White for most of the night, but I have no recollection of what happened to his dwarves.
On this very night, one player stood out above the rest. One player made all the difference. One player should have been sent off for dissent after picking up a yellow card earlier in the evening. One player scored a last-gasp winner to break my young heart. That one player, was Paolo Di Canio.
As D.I C.A.N.I.O rang out around Hillsborough (to the tune of Ottawan’s “Disco”), I watched Di Canio celebrate the final whistle with such a rage bubbling behind my eyes that I didn’t even notice Snow White leave. I couldn’t believe that this cocky and arrogant Italian had just ruined my evening, but, the eyes of a 15 year old weren’t qualified to realise that a genius was at work merely 50 yards from my seat. It is for this reason, and the majestic powers of hindsight, that I can say through gritted teeth, that I truly am a huge fan of Mr Di Canio.
His fiery attitude was something that his own fans loved, and opposition fans hated. Admittedly, we all know what happened when a certain referee ‘pushed’ it a little too far with him, but even that moment has created a lifetime of enjoyable watches online. He may have looked like a player that would throw his toys out of the pram at any moment, but his commitment was never in doubt. At Barnsley, we longed for a player of his calibre, with such flair. We had to make do with Clint Marcelle.
The Italian’s appeal stretched further than just the ability to shout at the opposition, and his team mates though. Who can forget his act of selflessness in a league encounter for West Ham against Everton when the Toffees’ keeper Paul Gerrard went down injured. Instead of burying the resulting cross, Di Canio caught the ball, giving Gerrard a chance to receive treatment, and not be punished by his unfortunate predicament. It won him a Fifa Fair Play Award, and a hell of a lot of fans in the process.
Then of course there were the goals. Chipped penalties, 30-yard screamers, you name it, he did it. And I doubt anyone has managed to forget the scissor kick volley that he scored past Wimbledon in March 2000. If so, it’s below, watch it, now.
Now I don’t want to dig too deep into his self-confessed fascist views; thankfully, in England at least, he let his football do the talking. But it will be fascinating to see how he fares in management, if the rumours about him taking on the Swindon job have any truth behind them. Will his on-field attitude reflect what he does in the dressing room, or should we prepare ourselves for Roy Keane part two? Only time will tell.
So, Paolo Di Canio. A hot-headed, referee-pushing, ball-catching, fair-playing genius who managed to overwrite all of the hatred and misery that brewed in a 15-year-old’s Barnsley fan’s head. When you have someone who can bridge a gap between the Tykes and the Owls, you know you are onto something more than a little bit special.
When not apologising for fascists — JOKE! — Daniel writes about Sunderland for Roker Report. He also blogs about something weird called “Not Football” (music, specifically) at The Adventures of Dan. Find him on Twitter @daninfrance.