SAM MORSHEAD: It’s been four years since Di Canio… and the memories of the madcap Italian still live on
Four years ago on Saturday, Paolo Di Canio quit Swindon Town.
It was hardly a bolt from the blue… two weeks previously he’d released a statement – via my laptop in a Warminster pub garden – outlining his discontent at the County Ground.
Promises, he said, had been broken.
He insisted – in his own, unique way – that he had been let down.
In the 48 months since, Swindon have fallen, risen and fallen again; a typical Town ritual. After all, there is nothing supporters of this bizarre club know better than inconsistency and false dawns.
Swindon came to within a single Wembley implosion of a place in the Championship yet now seem irreversibly set on a collision course with League Two.
For everything Di Canio did wrong – and there was plenty, from the ostracising of the youth team to the personal politics which alienated some fans and the dramatic overspend which left the club on a treacherous financial footing – it is impossible to ignore the good he brought to our tiny Football League outpost.
The maverick Italian’s madcap ways upped attendances; his extraordinary press conferences indulged regional and national media; he was the centrepiece for a community.
His teams produced effective, efficient, dynamic, relentless performances with alarming routine. They didn’t tire, a result of pre-season fitness drills which left even a casual onlooker totally exhausted.
His was Machiavellian football – particularly in League Two, where opponents were brushed aside with the sort of no-look slap you imagine Mike Dean delivering that one year he played the pantomime dame.
Di Canio won a league title and took his team to Wembley – even if he did choose to start two debutants in that god-awful mess of a final against Chesterfield. Around Christmas 2012, Swindon Town were the top-scoring side in Europe’s professional leagues.
Premier League clubs were beaten in the FA Cup and League Cup and, until mid-January 2013, Di Canio was destined to restore the club to the second tier.
I am absolutely convinced that, had Andrew Black found it in himself to see out another three months, Swindon would be lodged in the second tier today.
There are good reasons why Mr Black chose to walk away after four years’ solid investment in a project he neither felt strongly about nor had the inclination to afford a watching brief, but as a fan it is my greatest regret – even if regret is not the right word – that he opted to move on.
Because when he chose to move on, Di Canio’s departure was inevitable. And when he chose to move on, Swindon’s trajectory was instantly changed. Perhaps forever.
Five years ago, former Robins chairman Jeremy Wray predicted that a drawbridge was about to be pulled up between the Championship and League One; he believed that it was crucial for clubs with aspirations of grandeur to make the leap to tier two sooner rather than later or risk relative oblivion.
Wray had aspirations of grandeur.
He is increasingly proven right.
League One is slipping into the shadows. Between January and March, Sky Sports – who holds a monopoly on live TV rights – is not screening a single game.
Clubs are being forgotten – terrific clubs, with terrific back-stories, like Charlton, Portsmouth, Blackpool, Coventry and, yes, Swindon.
They all had status once. Yes, even Swindon had status once. Not that long ago.
Di Canio’s character and Black’s backing, combined with effective PR and genuine inter-departmental communication, made the club stand out on the football map.
There were obvious deficiencies in the way Di Canio treated members of staff – particularly Paul Bodin, a legend of the club who suffered horrendously simply for standing up for what he believed – and the blueprint was not infallible.
There were to be losses.
The £5million deficit rung up in the final year of the Wray-PDC project has become a familiar go-to for the current ownership, but Di Canio had that mandate to spend from somewhere on high (even if it later emerged that Black had not committed to cover those expenses).
Wray believed in reaching the Championship before it was too late and gave his manager the green light to do just that. Promotion could have brought with it a domino effect – more money from broadcasters, the option to buy the County Ground, reinvestment in the squad, genuine growth.
It was a medium to long-term idea that never got past the short-term hiccup.
Di Canio could rightly be criticised for his disturbing politics, not for sticking to a plan.
I miss the man. Not for his 20-minute answers to simple questions in incoherent psychobabble, not for his slightly unhinged canine metaphors, not for his tendency for keeping the press waiting for hours, not for his fascist beliefs, not for his lack of empathy, not for his egocentricity.
I miss the bloke because he made Swindon entertaining, he made himself accessible and he made the club noticeable.
I miss that.
Paolo Di Canio’s record as manager of Swindon Town, courtesy of www.swindon-town-fc.co.uk