Italian striker Paolo Di Canio was known for his hot-headedness as much as his divine talent during his time as a Premier League player with Sheffield Wednesday, West Ham and Charlton. Yet his season with Celtic in 1996/97 sums up his duality perhaps more than any other.
Di Canio won the SPFA Player of the Year Award after notching 15 goals in 37 appearances that season, but also came under criticism for his poor discipline throughout the campaign.
The most famous example of this came against Rangers in March 1997, when the Italian became embroiled in a bitter war of words with opponent Ian Ferguson. According to the midfielder, the Italian said "he was going to break my legs”. Yet Di Canio tells FFT his opponent had been looking to wind him up.
"We lost 1-0 to Brian Laudrup’s goal," Di Canio tells the February 2022 issue of FourFourTwo, which you can order here. "I didn’t score, but I hit the crossbar. It weighed us down, unfortunately. Ian Ferguson provoked me, of course, because of my character and the situation – I wanted to take him!
"He was the symbolic player of Rangers, the gritty one. I’d scored when we beat them 2-0 in the cup quarter-finals 10 days earlier, and was the quality player of Celtic with a bit of character. Ferguson had been a fool with some of the other players, then he’d done it a little with me – a foul from behind, pulling the collar of my shirt, trying to provoke me. From that moment, I wanted to go and get him. Then he was mocking our supporters at the end of the game. I even wanted to take him in the dressing room. [Laughs] It was full of people, though, and they separated us.
Old Firm derbies are renowned around the world for their fiery nature, and Di Canio admits being swept along in the energy of those occasions.
"I remember them as being incredibly emotional games," he says. "I’d heard so many stories, but didn’t imagine it could be like it was. The tension, the love, the songs... I was really impressed. We know it goes way beyond football, and this makes everything much stronger: at the stadium you can could feel this positive anger that sometimes became negative outside it.
"There was a competitive charge that we players had to pour in, in an intelligent way, on the field. Having been a Lazio fan, I was more sensitive than others about games like that: I appreciate them, admire them, and above all understand their meaning. When you play Rangers, there are no distractions – if my family were there, I would totally forget about them! I was so into it that we warmed up in -5 degrees and I still didn’t feel the cold, despite being short-sleeved! I thought, ‘I’m in Scotland, I’m among Celtic’s warriors and I have to put my qualities in’.
Just five months after his encounter with Ferguson, the prickly Paolo was gone, following fellow objectors Pierre van Hooijdonk and Jorge Cadete out the exit – much to the satisfaction of chairman Fergus McCann, who’d sarcastically dubbed them the Three Amigos. He went on to achieve god-like status with Wednesday and West Ham in particular, though controversy was never far away.
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Ed McCambridge is a staff writer at FourFourTwo, working for the magazine and website. Ed has been living in Berlin since 2015 and worked as a Bundesliga reporter before joining FFT. Formerly a season ticket holder at AFC Wimbledon, he's now often found at Stadion An der Alten Försterei, bratwurst in hand, on Saturday afternoons.
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