Paolo Di Canio: West Ham’s flawed genius

Harry Burford

Few have ever sought to captivate, enchant or fascinate the West Ham United faithful with as much gusto or hard-nosed enthusiasm as the legendary Paolo Di Canio.

From the sublime to the inconceivable, the magnificent to the sometimes downright bizarre – this was a player defined by eccentricity, by an innate sense of majestic unpredictability that was difficult to tie down.

Despite his well-documented flaws and shortcomings within the wider public eye, many Premier League onlookers couldn’t help but admire the fiery Italian for his passionate and whimsical ways. Ask most Hammers fans of the modern era which player they cherished most when growing up watching their side, and nine out of ten of them will return Di Canio’s name in confidence – whether or not they wholeheartedly agreed with his red-hot personality or remarkably combustible nature.

The former Serie A favourite has since gone down in West Ham United history as a time-honoured son, a well-deserved cult hero in anybody’s books – but just how did the hot-headed Italian manage to find a second home for himself down in the East-End of London, and why do Hammers fans today still recount his name in wonder and delight?

Source: Twitter
Source: Twitter

In truth, Paolo Di Canio could have arguably been considered something of a journeyman before he even wound up plying his trade on these here shores. The former Italian striker represented each of Lazio, Juventus, Napoli and Milan before eventually signing for Celtic in the summer of 1996, with limited success among Serie A despite his growing potential.

It was at Celtic Park however, among the slightly less glamorous realms of the Scottish top-flight, that much of Di Canio’s extravagant character began to rise to the forefront. The striker certainly sought to wow the Scottish fans with his impressive range of skill and daring technicality, but after involving himself in one too many off-ball spats and more than just the odd heated discussion with the Celtic Park hierarchy, Di Canio was sent packing his bags for Sheffield Wednesday in the hope of reigniting his career among the English game.

The Italian’s spirited spell within the Scottish top-flight would certainly serve as a dramatic precursor for his time at Hillsborough, but not in the way most football fans were expecting. In late September of 1998, between an otherwise forgettable fixture between Sheffield Wednesday and Arsenal, Paolo Di Canio received his marching orders from referee Paul Alcock midway through the proceedings after involving himself in yet another scuffle.

Di Canio – being the stubborn, adamant character that he is – didn’t take too kindly to being asked to leave the field by the acting officials at the time, subsequently pushing Mr. Alcock to the floor in a fit of anger and petulance. After receiving an eleven-match ban for his openly transgressive behaviour, Paolo Di Canio’s reputation among the English top-flight was seemingly tarnished beyond all known recognition.

But this is where West Ham United, and most notably Harry Redknapp down among the Upton Park dug-out – went on to play a defining role in the striker’s so far turbulent top-flight career. Acting as a no-nonsense go-getter and a smart opportunist, Redknapp sought to sign the out-of-favour Italian for a knock-down price as soon as his ban had been lifted. Whilst other teams backed away from the prospect of signing Di Canio, West Ham found themselves jumping at the chance.

Here, Paolo Di Canio became idolised by his new supporters. Spurred on by the club’s newfound belief in his name, the Italian frontman went on to captain the Hammers for several consecutive seasons, winning the club’s coveted ‘Hammer of the Year’ award and becoming West Ham’s leading Premier League goal-scorer in the process.

Via his sheer artistry inside the final third, keen eye for goal and remarkable trickery with the ball at his feet, the West Ham United faithful simply fell in love with their newly sourced attacker. Although Di Canio will be fondly remembered for all manner of crazy and controversial antics during his time with the Hammers, it was his ballerina-esque volley against Wimbledon in March 2000 that arguably captivated the Upton Park crowd the most.

Was Di Canio’s effort the most sublimely taken goal the Premier League era has ever paid witness to? It’s a discussion that still rages on today…

From scoring a further flurry of audacious chips and fearless back-heels, to geeing up the Upton Park crowd with his wild demeanour and even catching the ball mid-play when an opposing goalkeeper was caught injured by the side-lines – most West Ham fans simply loved Paolo Di Canio, and it’s relatively easy to see why.

He may have lost several former admirers for his right-wing-inspired hand gestures back at his boyhood club of Lazio, but in terms of pure footballing ability and unrivalled passion alone, few could discredit the striker as a top-flight performer with burgeoning entertainment value. The man was a true maverick, a footballing extremist. A player who does not crop up twice within the same generation.

West Ham fans are known to hark back at their history through lack of modern day equivalent, for on most given occasions – this is a club with very little to shout about. Yet in the case of Italy’s untamed attacker in the form of Paolo Di Canio, a player who many top-flight English clubs would have loved to have called their own, the Hammers are completely justified in recalling such tales of wondrous talent and relentless contention.

He may not have deserved his second crack of the whip in England after dealing with Alcock’s infamous red card with such fiendish defiance, but once Paolo Di Canio first rocked up at Upton Park with it seemingly all to prove, the East-End of London was never quite the same…

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