By CHRISTOPHER DAVIES
ANDY WARREN did not go as far as to say his job was easy but as the Swindon Town correspondent for the Swindon Advertiser he knows many football writers have a more difficult, challenging time to produce their copy.
Whatever adjectives may be used in association with Paolo di Canio “dull” does not figure on the list. On Saturday he celebrated his first season in charge at the County Ground by leading Town to the League Two title with a 5-0 victory over Port Vale. Along the way (and this is the short list) there was a heated confrontation with Leon Clarke on the touchline that saw the striker loaned out, initially, to Chesterfield, two Football Association touchline bans and nine players were disciplined for enjoying too good a night out after a game against Plymouth.
Warren said: “Paolo certainly guarantees you a back-page lead, there’s no doubt about that.
“He discovered that five players had an unauthorised night out. Most of those were left out of the team that played at Aldershot on the Tuesday. Subsequently he found out that another four players who had not owned up were involved and they were banned from playing at Gillingham the following weekend.”
As a player di Canio was something of a Jekyll and Hyde. In 1998, when he was with Sheffield Wednesday, he was given an 11-game ban by the Football Association for pushing over referee Paul Alcock. Three years later he won the FIFA Fair Play award. During a match against Everton di Canio shunned a goalscoring opportunity and instead caught the ball from a cross as Everton goalkeeper Paul Gerrard lay injured after he twisted a knee attempting a clearance on the edge of the penalty area. FIFA described the act as “a special act of good sportsmanship.”
The Italian has served two FA bans, the first for a Jose Mourinho-style touchline celebration after a stoppage-time winner against Northampton Town. The other was for comments to a match official. Typically di Canio thanked the FA after his second suspension, claiming watching his team from the stand was good for him. He said: “I give them permission to ban me for the rest of the season. We will win the league anyway. I don’t have homework because usually if I am in the dugout I have to watch the game again as I don’t have a clear picture. If they want to ban me again they can do.”
Di Canio is not the only manager who has had to discipline players for excesses he had also been guilty of and Warren said: “He admits there were high profile moments when he crossed the line of what is acceptable. Maybe the players look at him holding them to account and think ‘hold on, this is a man who pushed over a referee while he played’ but he is a very different person now to the player he was.
“It’s important for Paolo that any player who steps out of line admits what he has done. He sets incredibly high standards for them in terms of professionalism and demands those standards are maintained.”
Di Canio knows how to use the media and Warren is happy to be part of the process that produces story after story. He said: “Paolo talks a lot, he can almost talk you into submission and gives very long answers to questions. His English is very good but not perfect so occasionally things can be lost in translation.”
Many managers claim they never read newspapers. There was a famous occasion when one leading manager told the media: “You know I never read the **** you write…but you went too far this morning.” Di Canio certainly reads the Advertiser and has used his weekly column in the paper to clarify one of two things written about the team. Sometimes Paolo says things in the heat of the moment and he uses his column to explain what he really meant more fully.”
Whatever di Canio says or does, he remains a hero with Swindon fans. “They adore him,” said Warren. “I’ve never come across a manager who is loved as much as Paolo is. It’s not just the club’s supporters, either. The whole town’s behind him. He’s captured the imagination of everyone, not just those involved with football. I doubt if there is a single person in Swindon who doesn’t know who he is.”
Di Canio’s achievements with Town will inevitably alert clubs higher up English football’s pyramid. A manager who is successful, high profile and charismatic is hard to find and Warren said: “He definitely has ambition but at the same time he has clearly fallen in love with Swindon. The target he and the board set was to reach the Championship in three years. The first part of that was achieved in year one and there’s no reason why in two years’ time Swindon can’t be in the Championship with Paolo.
“But I am sure at some time in the future he will move to a bigger club. My dad’s a West Ham fan and I was told I had to like him.”
Warren has obeyed his father’s orders. “For me, Paolo is great to work with. Paolo is not the sort of person you necessarily want to like and he can be a little intense but being with him for 20 minutes you realise the absolute passion he has.”