My Favourite Premier Player: The Emperor of Rome

In our Premier League week we'll be celebrating 20 years of the rebranded top flight – including naming our favourite players from that era. This time, it's the turn of FourFourTwo editor, Mr David Hall, to speak of a certain feisty Italian...

They all thought he was mad. Harry Redknapp had finally lost the plot. Paolo Di Canio? Paolo Di effing Canio? He’s a complete lunatic. He pushes refs over, for gawd’s sake.

When West Ham took delivery of Sheffield Wednesday’s bad boy in 1999, there was more than a little concern over H’s mental health. Then the Italian played. And how he played. "Paarlo" was unique. He would happily pluck a pass out of the sky at chest height, hold the ball up, beat a couple of players and get a cross off. He’d then follow this by berating everyone within a 10-yard radius for not being on the end of his fine work. It took a while for the rest of the team to get on his wavelength.

West Ham have had a lot of great players pull on the claret and blue, but very few that fulfilled the cliché of "worth the entry fee alone". Di Canio was one of those men – entirely unpredictable, sublimely skilful and completely unhinged.

Here are some moments that define Paolo Di Canio:

The Spotkick Spat (vs Bradford City, 12/02/00)This game finished 5-4 to West Ham, but not before Paolo and Frank Lampard had enjoyed a wonderful handbags session over who was going to take a penalty. Paolo won (of course) and scored the spot kick (of course).

The Voluptuous Volley (vs Wimbledon, 26/03/00)For me, still the greatest Premier League goal of all time. It was a fairly quiet match in front of a not-very-full Upton Park, but that never really bothered Di Canio. Over comes the cross from Trevor Sinclair, and while he’s airborne, Di Canio controls a volley with the outside of his foot back across the Wimbledon keeper. Something to tell the grandkids? You betcha.

The Conscientious Catch (vs Everton, 15/12/00)Many fans wrote Di Canio off as a petulant child, particularly after his Alcock pole-axe while with the Owls. Then he goes and does a stupid thing like this. Rather than collect a cross and stuff it in an empty net, the Italian caught the ball. Why? Everton’s keeper had rushed out to collect a ball and had crumpled with what looked like an excruciating knee injury. Rather than give West Ham three points, Di Canio showed the world he was a mature chap after all. He won FIFA’s Fair Play Award for his trouble.

The Barthez Bungle (vs Man Utd, 28/01/01)Admittedly, this was an FA Cup game, but humour me if you will. Although not a spectacular strike, this was Di Canio at his best. Unerring self-belief had him ignore the attempts of Fabien Barthez waving his arm in the air as if an offside decision had been given. The Italian calmly continued, slotted the ball in the net and sent the away support into raptures. For many seasons after, West Ham fans still greated Man United followers by waving and arm in the air to the song "Let’s all do the Barthez".

The London Larrup (vs Chelsea, 28/09/02)East London doesn’t have much love for the West, so Di Canio scoring a brace of fantastic goals in a 3-2 win confirmed his legend status for Hammers fans. The first was impudence of the highest order – Di Canio flicking the ball up to set himself for a 35-yard volley past Carlo Cudicini. Bosh!

Weirdly, for all his on-pitch brilliance and arrogance, that probably wasn’t his greatest strength as a Premier League star. His biggest asset as a player was his ability to engage with and understand the fans.

Di Canio had form with his boyhood club Lazio, where he was a regular on the terraces. This experience shaped his innate ability to relate to fans – something that Swindon Town supporters will, no doubt, have noticed over this past season. He more often than not judged the mood of the fans perfectly, meaning he was a divisive character to have in the team. Just ask Glenn Roeder.

His name still rings out at Upton Park today as the fans pine for that stardust that Di Canio brought to West Ham. The Boleyn hasn’t seen the likes of him since he left for Charlton in 2003. Nine years is a long time. Many feel it won’t be much longer before he’s back, wreaking wonderful, beautiful havoc again.

PREMIER LEAGUE WEEK FEATURESThe 100 Best Premier League Games All-time domestic and foreign Premier League Perfect XIsMy Favourite Premier Player: The badly drawn artistThe Premier League's 20 worst kits and 20 best kits My Favourite Premier Player: The Emperor of RomeJudgement Day, 1994: The four-way relegation play-offMy Favourite Premier Player: The French revolutionaryBack to the future: How Sky changed football foreverMy Favourite Premier Player: The classy clownRoman Abramovich: He came, he saw, he conqueredMy Favourite Premier Player: The all-American hero

Topics