Paolo di Canio waits for the spotlight to fade at Swindon Town
With Swindon Town sitting just inside the play-off positions after 18 games, Matt Thompson gives an update on Paolo di Canio’s adjustment to life in League Two.
“He’s an exhibitionist, but a good lad…” – what a charming sentiment; no doubt delivered with a wink and ruffling of the young offender’s hair, perhaps a bout of playful faux-sparring? Of course, when you discover that it was Silvio Berlusconi passing endorsement on Paolo Di Canio’s character after one of his many ‘fascist salute’ debacles, it’s difficult to know whether the scenario becomes more serious or more ridiculous. Of course, a character reference from Silvio Berlusconi is about as reliable as one of his “acquaintances’” birth certificates, so Paolo must instead allow his fate to be judged by the Swindon Town fans he has inherited…
It’s difficult to believe that six months have passed since the announcement of the biggest mystery since the unaccounted disappearance of Owen Coyle’s top lip: Di Canio to manage Swindon. Probably a surprise to anyone but Swindon fans, their entrusting inexperienced big-ticket ex-players is well documented – Hoddle, Ardiles – but none came with quite the notoriety of their latest venture (Hoddle waiting for his biggest managerial stage before revealing his regretful insanity) – the unpredictable the only reliable prediction.
Despite the concerns of onlookers and a suddenly attentive media, Di Canio was swept into the arms of the Town faithful. All too often exploits on the pitch have failed to come anywhere close to matching the passion of its support, but Di Canio is passion embodied. His frenetic post-match interviews verge at times on the poetic and, for all the criticism levelled, he is undoubtedly a breath of fresh air from the PR-savvy drone that cruises through these formalities on auto-pilot. He connects directly to the club’s supporters – his words full of the same elation, frustration, singling out the culprits. Is it good management? That’s more difficult to answer. Needless to say, the supporters will continue to appreciate this candour until it compromises team morale; as with anything, you can get away with it so long as you’re getting results.
Results, of course, were always what it would come down to and there was a huge amount of uncertainty as to how Di Canio’s colourful character would translate from the pitch to the sidelines. Were Town to be subjected to a cringeworthy campaign based on the idea that testosterone alone could force the ball into the opponent’s net? And when that didn’t work, a tad more shouting should do the trick.
Certainly, there were signs of naivety from the off. Amid Di Canio’s self-proclaimed revolution came the revelation that of the new XI he and his team had accrued, a great many fell outside of the “home-grown” player rule. How many? Enough that team selection became less of a tactical consideration and more of a shoehorning exercise; the walk that leads out onto the County Ground pitch might be better served converted into passport control. Come January, expect a sizeable exodus of the deadwood that dared learn its trade outside England before any arrivals – if for nothing other than to be able to pick a squad without the need of an abacus.
Tactically, Di Canio has fared much better than expected and that is a much better compliment than the initial expectation might indicate. He has created a 4-4-2 with a distinctly attacking mindset, also managing to keep a sizeable stamp of his own personality in his doctrine. There is an enormous amount of emphasis on athleticism, discipline and a demand that everyone in red wants the ball considerably more than their opposite number. What results is a very open, direct side, who are on occasion compromised by a static defence and the absence of a creative fulcrum. This has shown itself in disappointing results against Burton, Macclesfield and most painfully of all, Oxford. Because of Di Canio’s focus on attack rather than possession and insisting on pressuring the ball in all areas of the field, he leaves his midfield easily overrun and surrenders space for the opposition to exploit.
But when it works, it works well. It’s a tactic that will certainly benefit from a gradually more cohesive XI and one Di Canio seems happy to allow to adapt. More recently, Mehdi Kerrouche has been sitting a fair bit deeper and using his pace to run at defenders. Assuming all 6’3″ of Lukas Magera can stay off the treatment table long enough to show some of the class that contributed to his four Czech international caps, he’ll be ready to make that centre forward spot his own. Di Canio, it has to be said, has pulled together a team of impressive quality and the positive effects of familiarity are already evident as the players find their feet. This is certainly a team set up to entertain. Whichever way it plays out, the Town faithful are going see their money’s worth of goals at one end or the other.
Unfortunately for Di Canio and Swindon, the former’s political allegiances are going to get rolled out at every opportunity. You sense he is a victim of his own candour in that respect, perhaps even of his own culture – where fascism doesn’t remain the dirty word it is here. Though to chastise Di Canio as though he’s the face of fascism in football is ludicrous, it remains a sizeable scar on the underbelly of the game and retains more than an affiliation with a great number of clubs throughout Europe.
We’re fortunate enough that the Swindon fans haven’t emulated their counterparts at Di Canio’s former haunt, Lazio, who presented AS Roma with a banner reading: “Team of blacks, crowd of Jews”. And nor will they. Most will care about his political affiliations and his chequered past as much they’ll care about his swimming certificates. I suppose the question for those on both sides remains: is Di Canio’s being a fascist any less strange than the notion that his views should prevent him managing Swindon Town?
One thing Di Canio has certainly brought to Swindon is a spotlight. His appointment has meant the club gleaning the most coverage this season since it slipped meekly out of the Premier League in 1994. You sense, though, that the attention is in anticipation of some inevitable combustion – the Leon Clarke bust-up would have had many journalists watching on zealously, savouring a whole season’s worth of articles as the whole thing slowly fell apart. It hasn’t. In fact, 18 games in and the team sit in the play-off spots. There is more of a fluidity to Swindon’s play as cohesion grows. It’s undoubtedly been a learning curve for everyone involved but you sense that Swindon, as a team, are improving with each passing week.
Perhaps the greatest challenge to Di Canio will be when the spotlight dims. Only then will he know that he’s just another manager doing well at a League Two club. And no-one is interested in that.