Paolo Di Canio: Explosive Italian
Paolo Di Canio is without doubt one of the most colourful characters to have ever featured in the Premier League. A mercurial and controversial talent, he was infamously banned from the game for flooring match referee Paul Alcock, but went on to be awarded the FIFA Fair Play Award for a remarkable piece of sportsmanship. He walked a rocky path between those two extremities whilst exhibiting sublime skill and an ability to score outrageous goals.
Although the Italian never won any silverware in the English game, and his critics may argue that he never hit the heights that a player of his talent should have reached, Di Canio brought such individual finesse, passion and excitement that he was worshipped by the supporters of his many clubs and deserves the sobriquet of Premier League Hero.
Born in Rome, in 1968, Di Canio grew up in a working-class family and signed for his boyhood club of Lazio before moving to Juventus in 1990. Here he had the first of what proved to be many clashes with figures of authority. After winning the UEFA Cup with the Blanconeri he fell out with manager Giovanni Trapattoni and was sent on loan to Napoli, during which time manager Marcelo Lippi called him the best player in Serie A. A move to AC Milan followed in 1994, but frustrated with competing for a first-team place with Dutch legend Ruud Gullit he once again fell out with the manager, this time Fabio Capello, and joined Celtic in 1996.
Italian football's loss was British football's gain and following a single season in Scotland, scoring 15 goals in 37 games, Di Canio made the journey south to join Premiership side Sheffield Wednesday. The striker was an instant hit at Hillsborough, ending his debut season as The Owls' top scorer with 14 goals, including a particularly memorable strike against Southampton when he twice rounded goalkeeper Paul Jones before slotting home an 87th minute winner impudently from the narrowest of angles.
His time in Sheffield was not all glory and admiration; it was also the scene of Di Canio's most controversial moment in England. After being sent off against Arsenal at Hillsborough in 1998 the frustrated Italian shoved match official Paul Alcock to the floor and was subsequently banned for 11 matches and fined £10,000. Di Canio never played for Wednesday again.
Di Canio still looks back on the watershed incident with incredulity and wrote in his autobiography: "I've watched the video a million times and to this day I still don't understand how he managed to fall over like that...My first reaction was that somebody must have been crouching behind him, like in one of those old slapstick comedies."
The Italian eventually returned to action in January 1999 following a £1.7 million to West Ham United and under the guidance of manager Harry Redknapp, who nurtured the spark of genius that flickered within the Italian and gave him the freedom to display his individual brilliance, Di Canio not only rebuilt his reputation but quickly surpassed expectations at Upton Park.
He helped the Hammers qualify for the UEFA Cup in his first season with the club and secured his place in Hammers folklore with an audacious volleyed finish against Wimbledon during the 1999-2000 season that was voted as the BBC Goal of the Season and still sits comfortably amongst the greatest goals ever scored in the Premier League.
Di Canio leapt acrobatically in the air and volleyed home a deep Trevor Sinclair cross from the right into the far side of the net, from a tight angle, with the outside of his right boot. It is this type of unpredictable brilliance that his career in England is remembered for.
Such brilliance that he repeated with an improvised strike in a 3-2 win over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in 2002 when he looped the ball over a defender on the right flank, cut inside, flicked it up with his right foot and volleyed a shot beyond Carlo Cudicini with his left foot from 35 yards out.
It was a truly memorable goal and the type of individual inspiration that prompted Redknapp to say of Di Canio that other footballers would pay to watch him train and persuaded Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson that he could be the final piece of the puzzle as he built yet another team to challenge for football's top honours at Old Trafford in the winter 2002.
Unfortunately for Di Canio, who had been desperate to go, West Ham demanded too much money and the high-profile move collapsed. Instead, he remained at Upton Park and despite another priceless winner against Chelsea in the penultimate game of the 2002-2003 season the club were relegated. An uninspiring move to Charlton Athletic followed in the summer and in 2004 the Italian took a massive pay cut to return to boy-hood club Lazio as English football said goodbye to an enigmatic talent.
Reflecting on the transfer that never was, United boss Ferguson said: "Di Canio would have been capable of becoming a truly great player at Manchester United. I mean, he was a great player. But when you have a player like Di Canio, who expresses himself as an individual, like [George] Best and [Eric] Cantona did, and [Ryan] Giggs, [Wayne] Rooney, Ronaldo and [Dimitar] Berbatov do... we make heroes quickly here. Di Canio could have been in that category."
To many football fans, he always will be.