Il Duce's New Suit
In League One this weekend a goalkeeping stalwart kicked a ball directly to an opponent — an error which resulted in a goal, faced the first public criticism of his long standing spell between the sticks and was dispatched to the bench. I am, of course, talking about Carlisle United’s Adam Collin, whose unbroken run in the Cumbrians goal ended at 149 appearances in this week’s JPT clash with Preston North End.
Collin, of course, wasn’t the only high profile goalkeeping victim of this weekend’s round of fixtures. In a quirky twist of fate, Preston’s previous opponents Swindon Town had goalkeeping problems of their own.
The difference is that this is a story you know — following an error remarkably similar to Collin’s, Swindon keeper Wes Foderingham was hooked twenty minutes into the Preston game by Robins manager Paolo Di Canio.
As a snapshot, the differing treatments of these two players encapsulate the difference between Di Canio and traditional football management.
The Italian went on record criticising (blithely unaware of the inherent irony) Foderingham’s ‘arrogance’ and has spent the subsequent few days futilely attempting to defend his actions by calling in comparisons to both Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho, claiming that such a move was acceptable as this was ‘only League One’ and, remarkably, suggesting fans disappointed with his decision should ‘go to watch Oxford’.
Forgive me if I do just that.
The Roman’s Revolution
When Di Canio was appointed to Swindon at the beginning of last year I confess to doing little more than raising an eyebrow. With Swindon relegated this seemed just another odd move which would do little to aid their aims of gaining immediate return to League One.
There were some murmurings about his on field and post-match antics but these barely registered — as far as most football fans, even Football League fans, were concerned he was of no import.
But that has seemingly changed this season, and for the worse.
Di Canio is everywhere.
Every time you turn on Sky Sports News he seems to be staring back at you. Every print article on lower league football seems to devote 70% of its copy to the workings of his obtuse mind. And every conversation snatched on tubes and buses and in work canteens seems to be dwelling on the man.
Last Thursday his team beat Stoke City in the Capital One Cup. It was one of nine upsets that evening, yet it seemed to be the only one receiving coverage. In the aftermath of Carlisle’s defeat of Ipswich I had to watch the Swindon goals and an interview with Di Canio three times before our highlights were shown at all.
It isn’t difficult to suggest that some sort of saturation point is already being reached.
Narrow the Angle
Even before last weekend I found myself puzzling over this. How has this man with a dubious political past, with a notoriously fiery temper and who famously pushed over a referee become such a constant in public dialogue?
The answer can be only this — the football loving public, but particularly the football priming media has become obsessed with characters. No longer is it quite enough to take sport for what it is; a joust, a contest and intriguing as such. There needs to be something else; some angle, story or trivia.
And if that means painting a patently unpleasant or unhinged man as some sort of cuddly gift to the game of football then that is seemingly what we must do.
If nothing else, it’s somewhat insulting to the intelligence of the modern football fan, suggesting, as it does, an image of some gurning regressive chimp unable to understand the nuance of a game which is nothing more than kicking the ball in a net without some half baked ‘X Factorisation’ of the whole product.
‘That Di Canio eh? Remember when he caught that football/goosestepped/done a sub/shouted that one time (delete as appropriate)? What a LAD.’
I have found myself wondering what Swindon fans must think. I know something about supporting a club where a personality is a bigger story than the club itself; during the Michael Knighton era at Carlisle fans had trouble balancing their glee at our initial success with misgivings over the man’s public profile and love of the limelight.
Every time I hear Ed Chamberlain, David Garrido or Jeff Stelling glibly refer to ‘Paolo Di Canio’s Swindon Town’, or even, as one Sky wag did listing the cup draw in the Stoke aftermath ‘Paolo Di Canio’s team’, I physically wince and ask whether actual supporters of the club feel the same.
Swindon Town existed a long time before the Roman bowled into the County Ground and will endure long after he takes his leave.
Forza Il Duce?
It also remains unclear quite whether he is the coaching genius that the media seem desperate to paint him as. Since his appointment last summer he has made a raft of signings — some such as Foderingham or summer capture James Collins have been a success. Others — Leon Clarke, Jonathan Tehoue, Oliver Risser less so.
Only last week Swindon added Giles Coke, John Bostock, Federico Bessone and Darren Ward to a squad already chock full of top League One talent.
This followed a summer spending spree where the likes of Gary Roberts, Tommy Miller, James Collins, Troy Archibald-Henville and Alan Navarro were tempted to join the Di Canio revolution and are part of a bloated 28 man squad. It wouldn’t need me to be a cynic to suggest there may be motivations beyond the manager’s welcoming repartee.
Roberts was reputedly on a figure in excess of £5k at Huddersfield — a fact that priced several clubs out in bids for him this summer – and one can’t help thinking that his fellow County Ground virgins, all top performers at their clubs last year, are commanding similar pay.
Indeed, Lee Clark’s Huddersfield are an interesting parallel — a club where the supposed achievements of a young manager overshadowed the vast amount of money invested in his playing staff and how this tilted the playing field in the West Yorkshire outfit’s favour. For Huddersfield, read Swindon. It’ll be interesting to see whether this seeming profligacy is called up if things stop going the Italian’s way, as they were eventually with Clark.
Amongst all this, stalwarts of last year such as Alan Connell and Paul Benson have felt the sharp end of Di Canio’s pen — the former joining Bradford and the latter, whose post January goals boosted Swindon to promotion, out of favour.
Such instability is hardly the mark of a patient manager who takes time to coax the best out of players.
Di Canio certainly isn’t that, just ask Tehoue who he dropped indefinitely after two appearances with the payoff ‘he’s not as good as I thought he was’; a statement which sums up his charm, scouting abilities and scattershot approach to transfer policy in one go.
A Fellow Philosopher
Perhaps the nearest comparator to the Di Canio shit-storm is that surrounding Joey Barton following his recent conversion from rapid uber brat to thoughtful Twitter philosopher. Again, in this instance we saw a media willing to forgive Barton’s cigar stubbing antics, his quasi-racial slurs and his fighting with team mates past as here was a footballer with a character — a man to fill the column inches.
As Barton’s form waned and his recidivist streak resurfaced, so the interest has dropped off too — he’s now just a sideshow, a footnote and a laughing stock.
Only time will tell whether Di Canio will suffer the same fate as Barton, but few of his disposition cope well with such fervent media glare — especially when things stop going their way. Perhaps this weekend was the first crack in the artifice. One hopes at least some on Fleet Street noticed the echoes and confessed that we’ve been here before.
The new Paolo Di Canio is just the old Paolo Di Canio in a better suit. Seemingly an amalgam of the worst parts of Joey Barton, Michael Knighton and Lee Clark. The sooner people realise this, the better.