Paolo Di Canio: Passion and conflict north of the border

A maverick.  A free spirit.  Someone who marches to the beat of their own drum. Depending on which way you look at it, such traits in a person can either be highly desirable or cause for concern.

Celtic Football Club were perhaps willing to go with the former viewpoint when they signed Italian forward Paolo Di Canio from Serie A giants AC Milan in the summer of 1996.  Di Canio arrived in the east end of Glasgow with a promise from manager Tommy Burns of regular first-team football.

This was something he had found difficult to come by in two years at San Siro.  Competing with players of the standard of George Weah, Roberto Baggio, Dejan Savicevic and Zvonimir Boban for the midfield and forward positions, it’s easy to see why.  Though he still managed a respectable 37 appearances and six goals for the Rossoneri, Di Canio relished the opportunity to become the player around which Celtic’s team would be built.

Di Canio joined Celtic at a time of great change for the club.  Just two years prior, in March of 1994, they were mere hours from bankruptcy.  However, Canadian businessman Fergus McCann saved the club at the eleventh hour, acting as guarantor for the club’s existing £7 million debt.  Simultaneously, he ousted the unpopular Kelly family from their position on the board, a position they had held for over a century.

Standing on the steps of Celtic Park on a typically damp Glasgow evening, McCann told waiting fans news that would be music to their ears. “I can now tell the fans that the club is safe,” he announced, “We have been able to resolve the critical short-term financing at Celtic, and shortly will be able to discuss long-term packaging.”

Di Canio was just the latest part of that ‘long term packaging’.

In the intervening period between the saving of the club and his arrival, significant steps were being undertaken to revamp Celtic Park.  This resulted in a 60,000 all-seater stadium, at the time one of the finest and largest in Europe.  Changes were afoot on the pitch too.  Having failed to win a major honour in the five years prior to McCann’s takeover in 1994, Celtic had gone on to win the Scottish Cup in 1995 and close the gap on a dominant and heavy-spending Rangers side.

It wasn’t simply the trophy count that had taken an upturn, however.  Di Canio was joining a side – led by former player Tommy Burns – that was playing some of the most exciting football in its history.  The Italian would go on to form a lethal partnership with Portuguese striker Jorge Cadete and Dutch powerhouse Pierre Van Hooijdonk that would see them dubbed ‘The Three Amigos’.  Supported by the talents of German midfielder Andreas Thom, as well as a solid base of homegrown players, the Glasgow club had added continental flair to domestic grit to provide their fans with a level of entertainment they hadn’t seen in a decade.

During his one season in Scotland, Di Canio took the game by storm.  Operating mostly from the right wing or up front, he dazzled defences in his distinctive green and white Pantofola d’Oro boots.  A brand never before seen on British shores, they soon became the number one desired item for boys and girls taking to their local pitches in Glasgow that season.

Making 26 appearances in green and white, and contributing 12 goals, Di Canio helped push the Bhoys to within five points of rivals Rangers.  Not only were Celtic beginning to gain ground on a team who had out-spent and out-played them for half a decade or more, they were doing it with a style and vigour that pleased their fans.  And Di Canio was a major part of that.  Reflecting on his time in Glasgow two years after his departure, manager Tommy Burns said, “Paolo di Canio was the best player I’ve ever managed and possibly the best player I ever will manage. He was also the most passionate footballer I’ve ever come across.”

Di Canio’s impact on Scottish soil cannot be understated, at least in footballing terms.  But his fiery character, which would become widely known in later years at Sheffield Wednesday and West Ham United, burned no less brightly at Celtic.  Never far from controversy, his verbal bouts with the great and good of Scottish football created more column inches for journalists north of the border than almost any other player at the time.

Di Canio’s picking up the SFA Player’s Player of the Year in 1997 was overshadowed as he found himself at the centre of a dispute between the football association and the players’ union.  Having been booked and subsequently suspended for what the referee mistakenly thought was a dive in the Scottish Cup semi-final, Celtic were unable to appeal on the Italian’s behalf as there was no formal appeals procedure on the basis of video evidence at the time.  Di Canio would become the first of a number of players whose incorrect bookings would lead to the SFA eventually implementing an appeals procedure that would bring them in line with their counterparts in England.

But it wasn’t just externally that Di Canio was attempting to fight fires at the time.  Celtic were forced to issue a statement on the same night as his award was given, denying he would be leaving the club.  While Di Canio admitted he had a “little problem” with the club, thought to be based around their inability to agree contract terms going forward, he insisted he was happy to remain in Glasgow.

This would eventually prove untrue however, with Di Canio’s time at Celtic ending in the most acrimonious of terms.

Accused of disrespecting the club and its supporters by Celtic general manager Jock Brown, Di Canio reportedly wanted a contract improvement which would see him pocket a £1m yearly salary.  Brown, a lawyer by trade, was not willing to play along however, stating that it wasn’t simply a case of ‘ask and you shall receive’ for the Italian. “He is insisting on a review of his salary, which is fair enough,” Brown said at the time. “But what if we decided that, on reflection, Celtic wanted to reduce his wages instead of increasing them? A review can work in more ways than one.”

The one way in which the review did work was in prompting Di Canio’s exit from Celtic Park in August of 1997.  Sealing a £4.5m move to Sheffield Wednesday, a final parting shot was fired from his camp towards the Glasgow club.  “Paolo has always had an ambition to play in England,” advisor Favio Parisi was quoted as saying. “He always saw joining Celtic as a stepping stone in his career. The idea was that one day he would play in England.”

So, it would seem Paolo Di Canio’s time in Scotland was a snapshot of the type of career he would become renowned for as his profile increased in subsequent years.  A talent on the pitch, always able to excite the fans, he was never far from controversy or from the back pages of the papers.  Despite this, there’s no doubt he remains a favourite in the heart of Celtic fans to this day.  He was part of a team that helped propel Glasgow Celtic back to the top of Scottish football, all the while playing the exciting brand of football on which the club is built.

As close as the club had been to extinction just two years before his arrival, Di Canio and his teammates managed to inject fun and, more importantly, hope back into the hearts of Celtic followers.  And for that, they’ll always be grateful.

Words by Laura Bradburn