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.