Paolo Di Canio’s Uncertainty Principle

Wes Foderingham has followed Paul Caddis in falling foul of Paolo Di Canio, but even he won’t be the last, writes Alex Cooke.

First it was Paul Caddis, now it seems to be Wes Foderingham; the list of players who have offended Swindon’s Paolo Di Canio swells week by week. Leon Clarke was the first (and the fastest) to fall from favour but under the Italian there always seems to be something, or someone, to distract us all from the simple pleasure of watching winning football.

You might expect that the experience of seeing a popular captain demoted and dumped, or a good ‘keeper embarrassed and ostracised would be unsettling for Swindon fans, his fellow footballers, and the club, but no. In fact, it has become almost depressingly routine since Paolo Di Canio arrived. Time and again, since Swindon fell under the Italian’s spell, storm has replaced calm.

The unifying factor in all this disorder is Di Canio. The man seems to thrive in a state of permanent change or flux. He actually seems to cultivate and court it – both as a player and a manager. With his underdog obsession, cultivated in the slums of Rome and reinforced by every brush with authority since, he has become almost the anti-Saint Francis of Assisi: where there was harmony, he brings discord.

Last season provided one example after another: once Clarke was sent away, the squad united and results improve – then top scorer, Medhi Kerrouche was exiled. When the wins mounted during the cold winter, Di Canio publicly claimed that referees and the FA were conspiring against him, even taunting them to ban him. When the championship felt like it was finally in Swindon’s hands, swathes of the side had to be dropped for a night out that went on too long, and again the team struggled. Now, as the new season unfolds, Paul Caddis has added weight but lost his place and his armband, and the local media were temporarily sent to Sibera for mentioning it.

This pursuit of uncertainty seems to be part of a scheme by Di Canio to ensure his unassailable position as the strong man, the leader, a champion. To do so he creates enemies, real and imagined, internal and external, to bond his sides together and shape his players’ thinking.

But this procession of crises and threats not only gives Di Canio inspiration, they also give him license. And as any ruler knows claiming you live in tough times allow you to use tough measures – and Di Canio’s autobiography is littered with justifications: social class, geography, jealousy, conspiracy and racism. In Paolo’s mildly paranoid world of hidden Roma fans, deceitful chairmen and lazy players, his means are always justified.  Without trying to bring politics into it, you could almost see the Roman styling himself as Machiavelli’s The Prince.

There are as many examples of discord dotted throughout Di Canio’s playing career as his managerial one. For a man who preaches loyalty his time was iterant, at its peak taking in five clubs in just nine years. Granted, circumstances can cause players to move on quickly but he seemed to have been hell-bent on driving himself through conflict. He fell out with his home club, Lazio, argued his way out of Juventus, punched his way out of AC Milan, sulked his way out of Celtic and hit Ron Atkinson at Wednesday before falling out with pretty much a whole country with an officious shove. Few of these fights seemed necessary – two were over substitutions in pre or post-season friendlies and many others were over money – but Di Canio was always willing to embrace the ‘change’ of being slapped on the transfer list.

And yet, here is Di Canio the manager, the arch disciple of discipline: a man who would have little truck with his behaviour as a player. A clue to this conversion can be found in his autobiography. For while Di Canio once tried to ‘land one’ on former England boss Fabio Cappello, that man, his methods and his Milan squad have become his model.

“The club actively encouraged competition between the players,” he wrote of his time at AC Milan. “You were given the feeling that nobody was sacred, that if you were good enough, you would get your chance. In that sense, Fabio Capello, the manager was brilliant. He knew how to motivate us, how to pit us against each other in a healthy way. This does not mean I liked him, because I didn’t. It just meant that he was a winner and a successful manager.”

And while Di Canio continues to build a vast squad, he hasn’t had the riches that Capello had at the Giuseppe Meazza. There each player’s place could be taken by not just one international, but two. At Swindon, Di Canio has tried to replicate this competition for places, and this rivalry: he chops and changes, he drops and picks again. Of course, he also seems to have other methods for keeping the squad on their toes when a player’s position isn’t under threat, such as with Caddis and Foderingham, when removing the captain’s armband, subbing them, or selling them just seems to be acceptable.

For Di Canio that ruthlessness is vital: “I have come to realise that, with a few very rare exceptions, to be a successful manager you need to be mean, tough and often a little bit unfair.” While this thought struck him as a player, his comments on those managers he played for seems unchanged. While he fell out with numerous hardmen (Luciano Moggi and Capello) he has less respect for the weakness he saw in David Pleat or Danny Wilson in England. Instead Di Canio permanently poses as the underdog and the outsider. He even favours the almost Jose Mourinho-like position of shielding his players from the press and pressure – mainly through exposing himself. Fortunately so far this has involved copying Louis Van Gaal’s strategy at Bayern Munich of showing the team how big his balls are, literally.

The problem to come could be that so far the Swindon board have been ‘enablers’; they have backed him in every confrontation, selling the players he casts aside, taking any financial hits his spats cause. When Di Canio’s man-management has failed, they’ve not forced him to cope, to learn, to coach his underperforming player – they have acquiesced. Other boards, and Swindon’s when results aren’t so positive, will surely be less forgiving.

In the Caddis case, regardless of the details of the falling out – and whatever anyone says they remain unknown – no-one seems to have tried to stop the rift widening daily. Instead the press were blamed for talking to the player at all. So far only one player who has been found to be not up to scratch has survived – and he is the other man to lose the armband: Oliver Risser. And while he has now gone on loan, Risser certainly comes across as a man who is far more pliant and grateful to Di Canio than almost any other player.

With Wes Foderingham seemingly having taken a similar path to Risser in admitting that Di Canio was right all along, the crisis seems to have been averted, for now. But the question remains, how long has the crisis been averted for, and who will be next to fall out with the gaffer? Because this is Paolo Di Canio’s Swindon and stability is the enemy here.

27 comments

  • Well written, especially the paragraph beginning….The problem to come could be….

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  • What a brilliant article.

    The para at the end dealing with the unflinching support of the Board – and what would happen if the support became more qualified in future – is very interesting. Personally, I think Paolo needs some criticism right now, from a mentor figure he can trust. Someone who can look him in the eye and tell him, when necessary, that he screwed up. He may not like it now, but he will have a longer and more productive career in management if he accepts that he doesn’t know it all.

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  • Excellent article, good read.

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  • A cracking read. Articulates perfectly the nagging doubts I’ve had over the past few weeks…

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  • Very good article. It also reflects my view of the situation having also read his ghosted autobiography. I am waiting to see what happens when he meets up with Danny Wilson. Expect sparks to be flying around then.

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  • copied ..
    pasted ..
    saved onto Word ..
    I can read it again and again

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  • Raffa De Vita's Tan Lines

    Very good piece.

    The psychology of the man is very interesting… I don’t know a huge amount about his ideology beyond the headline title (and I am led to believe that his is not a simple case!), but typically a fascist would be an authoritarian, expecting full, unflinching obedience from sub-ordinates (check!), but also giving the same consideration towards those with authority over themselves, which in the case of PDC is questionable at best!

    Whether the latter situation is because he does not consider the FA, previous managers, the board (???), etc to have legitimate authority over him could provide an answer, but only the man himself would know the true answer to that. Good luck to anyone willing to ask him!

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  • I Liked the Article But i think we should all listen to Jeremywrays comments on 5live yesterday evening(still on the radio player) he states that they the board know exactly what they were getting and wanted this type of very strong management as there was no way he ever wants the player power and factions of past seasons

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  • I believe there is method in the apparent madness – PDC behaves as he has been taught to behave and experience has taught him which behaviour brings the highest probability of success – the football season is long and arduous making sure the odds are in your favour is what PDC does best and in the long run will succeed – and any successful manager will always get the boards backing – Great article and a brilliant read as always

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  • Having briefly met the man, I told him that I was really enjoying watching football at Swindon again and the brand of passing football for league 2 was a credit to the club. With this he was very humble and spending some time talking to a complete stranger was no trouble to him. He’s a passionate man when it comes to football, but outside the game I got the impression of someone who was really relaxed and laid back. He’s in management to succeed and take the club places, not to be a media friendly, sterile, smiley faced, boring, average manager. He will succeed and I love the fact that he is our manager, anything, and I do mean anything after Paolo is gonna be just plain boring.

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  • Thanks for all the kind comments. Obviously this was written and re-written before Wray spoke. His comments make a lot of sense but also interesting that all his talk of Paolo learning at this level does prove that he acknowledges that Paolo must improve will still at Swindon.

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  • It’s a really interesting point that a completely authoritarian, my-way-or-the-highway style of management almost requires a sense of crisis and urgency in order to justify itself. Why must we take these ruthless measures? Because there is a war on!

    Should we have expected anything less? Who said this?

    “It is humiliating to remain with our hands folded while others write history. It matters little who wins. To make a people great it is necessary to send them to battle even if you have to kick them in the pants. That is what I shall do.”

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  • Well written article on Di Canio, we are indeed all awaiting the next Swindon crisis.

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  • Thought provoking article but my feelings are simple; I completely subscribe to the saying ‘In Paolo I Trust’ warts and all and frankly I am loving every heart stopping, emotional, confusing, frustrating moment of it. When was the last time did Swindon, let alone a single substitution, ever get news coverage ever hour or so for 3 days straight on Sky Sports News!

    Eventually the day will come when PDC blows up one time too many or walks out after Curley refuses to stir his tea in an anti-clockwise motion with his left foot. When that day comes, I guarantee that every Town fan will miss his character and managment style and will keep a place in their heart for PDC.

    In the mean time, when your faith in PDC wanes, just cast your mind back to that night against Notts County with Paul Hart in charge or the Leeds clique under Wilson.

    Strap yourself in and just enjoy the ride!!!!

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  • ‘Do as I say, not as I do’ seems an apt way to describe the way DiCanio goes about his business. There is plenty material around, not only from during his playing career, but also during his management career at Swindon Town, which shows him acting exactly the opposite of what he expects of his players.
    In a way, how a lazy parent would make his child do something, “Why?” “Because I say so!”
    In a family setting, the autocratic management style DiCanio utilises in governing the Swindon team, will in the end cause complications – as in the long term dealing with people in this way is not sustainable; just check with the London Business School (someone must be preparing their dissertation based on his management style soon surely).
    But this is not a family setting; the tenure of a football manager is on average 2 years. If the results are not good, the manager gets dismissed anyway irrespective of his management style and if the results are positive, he is able to get away with a number of idiosyncrasies – just look at the previous Crawley manager.

    DiCanio does not care for convention and appears to make snap decisions in the heat of the moment, such as changing his keeper 18 minutes into the game, without considering the potential ramifications. Waiting till half time could have allowed for Wes to be spoken to and with it for him to keep some level of dignity and confidence in-tact.
    But not DiCanio, who afterwards then also puts his size 10 in during the post match interview. Some say, this should be kept behind closed doors, but this is not how he operates – unconventional.
    The CEO of a large Company would not last long managing this way, but this is different; I compare the way in which he manages, more closer related to the armed forces, in fact with a submarine commander – being under water from September – May.
    There is only one person at the helm dishing out the orders, with little or no opportunity for consultation. He fully prepares his troops with the battle plans / tactics and enemy weaknesses and strengths in minute detail.

    Not executing the plan as instructed, being disobedient or showing lack of respect for the entire crew/team is punished. A show of support for for someone who has been disrespectful or disobedient is treated the same; in our case those who sang Foderingham’s name when he was substituted, were indirectly kindly told by DiCanio afterwards to hand in their ST and support Oxford. In a similar vein, the slightest wavering from the board, will see him time take a militant defiant stance. “If you’re not with me, you are by default against me”.

    It’s quite likely that plenty of people would handle certain situations differently; but it’s DiCanio who is the manager making the decisions – and he hasn’t made too many bad calls thus far. And whilst the results remain good and he has the support of the board, he has my support as well for what it’s worth.

    He has changed the fortunes of the club around in a very small amount of time and brought smiles back on supporter’s faces; it’s fun and exciting watching and supporting Swindon; not only because the football is great, but because you never know what DiCanio is going to be up to next.

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  • It is an extremely interesting and coherent article. Thanks Alex. Whether it is accurate or not is another question. The issue seems to be one of discipline. It is perfectly reasonable to look back over PdCs career and point out the paradoxes; however, it is also perfectly reasonable to assume that the polychrome nature of his career as a player taught him some significant lessons. There is no doubt in my mind that one of the key issues in professional football, and increasingly in other sports as well, is player power. Let’s remember that we are mainly talking about issues relating to young men under 25, earning literally incredible amounts of money – even an STFC player is earning three or four or five times what we lesser mortals are earning. They drive fast cars, they are hero-worshipped (but also can face the wrath of the public, which can be as painful and damaging as the love is great!). And they are also able to wield great power within a club, especially the stars, and even more so the ones who think they are stars. We know that in the recent past, too many players exercising their own power led rapidly to relegation.
    Of course, the stories of the past year, up to and including the Foderingham event, must lead anyone to ask what sort of man management skills PdC uses! But a football team cannot be compared to any ‘normal’ occupation, and therefore, certainly for the time being, I support the manager and the board in making it absolutely clear that success will only truly follow when there is absolute discipline within the team under the manager’s direction. The kind of dissent shown by Wes aged 20, brilliant keeper that he may be, does him no credit and damages the team.

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  • Thanks for the article, loved it.
    As a Town fan living abroad it is brilliant that The Washbag exists and gives far-away fans like me an idea of what is really happening behind the traditional Press stories.
    My first Town match was when on Rogers was just out of the Youth Team, so I’ve seen a few seasons, enough to know that STFC are really a Div III side. Sometimes up, sometimes down. The best season I saw was when Lou Macari was manager, another maverick, but someone like PdC who was capable of getting the best (and more) from moderate players, of setting records, and giving us the fans something to be proud of.
    Lou and PdC are the best two managers we’ve had. Whatever their faults, you can guarantee that with men like them as manager, STFC will go places on MERIT and the season will be interesting, to say the least (even if with PdC’s broken Inglish, it is slightly incomprehensible).

    I’m lovin it!

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  • I come onto here as an Oxford fan and i would like to say this is a very well written piece. He is a very interesting man, and it is true that no manager while quite have the same passion and enthusiasm as PDC has. I just don’t like they way that he picked on James Constable before 21st August meeting at the country ground. He should of been concentrating on his own team and made sure that they would have the best possible chance of getting a win and bragging rights rather than picking on a player that he didn’t even hear of a couple of months ago. I also get the sense that there will be one act that will push the board and fans over the edge, i feel it may be this season. I really hope we can keep this intellectual and proper and not let this conversation get spoilt just by the fact that we support different teams on different sides of the A420

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    • The Constable thing was just weird. Even with all that I wrote above I don’t really know what he wax hoping to achieve – and if he really thought that his stunning minds games would work on him, why he didn’t try the same thing with our promotional rivals?

      It would be tempting to think that he wants to win at any cost but as his playing career shows, he actually values sportsmanship.

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  • Nice one! Shame it took me till the end of December to read it! More to come please….

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