Paolo di Canio joins Swindon legends after promotion

By Gary RoseBBC Sport
Paolo Di Canio
Paolo Di Canio

By guiding Swindon to an immediate return to League One, Paolo di Canio has guaranteed his place alongside Ossie Ardiles, Glenn Hoddle and Lou Macari as one of the club's managerial legends.

It is an outcome that few anticipated happening when the fiery Italian was appointed almost 12 months ago, with many predicting that the unlikely partnership was doomed to fail.

Despite Saturday's 3-1 defeat at Gillingham the Robins secured their place in League One next season as Di Canio completed a remarkable feat by leading the club to promotion in his first season as a manager.

Swindon may have stuttered over the line, but promotion at the first time of asking is a fine achievement for the Italian, who arrived in Wiltshire carrying plenty of baggage.

And, from the outset, he had to work against a backdrop of cynicism.

His passion for football always made him popular as a player but his erratic behaviour and fiery temperament caused many to doubt his managerial ability.

Initially, those doubts looked well placed as Di Canio's summer transfer dealings raised a few eyebrows, while early-season results were a cause for concern as Swindon lost four of their first five games.

Then there was the infamous spat with Leon Clarke.

With TV cameras in attendance as Swindon hosted Championship high-fliers Southampton at the County Ground in a Carling Cup fixture, Di Canio and his star striker were involved in a heated dispute after the final whistle that was broadcast across the country.

It was an ugly incident and one that left a question mark over what the future might hold for both Swindon and Di Canio.

"In retrospect that was clearly a watershed moment," Swindon interim chairman Jeremy Wray told BBC Sport.

"I think at that moment we had a number of results that had gone against us, the players were lacking in confidence for whatever reason and there were question marks being raised over the appointment.

"I had no doubt that Paolo would sort things out but equally there is nothing like putting a few wins together to boost confidence across the whole team."

Fortunately, the wins did come, with Di Canio holding clear-the-air talks with his squad the day after the game to ensure everyone was pulling in the same direction.

The Robins were soon enjoying impressive runs in both the FA Cup and the Johnstone's Paint Trophy - where they reached the final - while they started their ascent to the top of the table, with Di Canio providing many amusing and memorable moments along the way.

His post-match news conferences quickly became famous for both their length and content - his players have been described as chihuahuas and rottweilers at various points during the campaign - and he is not afraid to be seen as outspoken, having risked the wrath of the Football Association on a number of occasions.

But behind the erratic behaviour and touchline antics is a very human story, with Di Canio having achieved all he has despite having to work against a backdrop of tragedy.

Back in March last year, he rejected the chance to explore the possibility of becoming manager of Newport County after his father was taken ill.

When the vacancy at Swindon came up a few months later, he sought guidance from his father, who urged him not to take his health into consideration and instead pursue his dream.

In October, prior to Swindon's trip to Plymouth, Di Canio's father passed away and in a tragic coincidence, his mother died the day before the return fixture earlier this month.

Yet Di Canio would not let it detract from him completing his duties with Swindon and, just one day after losing his mother, he was in the dugout to oversee Swindon's win over Plymouth that put them on the cusp of promotion, before flying back to Italy to be with his family.

"The way he has managed to both deal with his grief and maintain his professionalism in terms of carrying out his day job is testament to his whole character," said Wray.

"Inevitably, the side that we all see is the enhanced emotion and passion and I think that is probably one of the reasons why there has been so much heartfelt support after his father died and then his mother died.

"The fans all feel very close to him because they have seen him go through all this and yet still lead their team forward. He has huge respect and love of the fans because of the way he has dealt with it all."

Di Canio's success will not have gone unnoticed and he may be highly sought after in the summer.

But, whatever happens, the shared rollercoaster of emotions that he and the Swindon fans have been on this season will ensure he will always have a place in their hearts.

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