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Is Di Canio a martyr or does he have a hidden agenda?

PYROTECHNICS are all part of the deal when it comes to Paolo Di Canio.

Di Canio: a volatile and unpredictable figure
Di Canio: a volatile and unpredictable figure

The 44-year-old Roman has always had a flair for the dramatic, so there have been knowing glances all round since he succeeded in bringing his first managerial job to an end on his own terms. One of the few admirers of Italian fascism to receive a Fifa fair play award, Di Canio has always been a polarising figure, his backstory strewn with contradictions and conundrums, and, as usual, his departure from Swindon Town leaves room for interpretation. While the Italian's tifosi – many of whom are among rank-and-file supporters – make him a martyr for taking a stance against a club which they feel is being mismanaged, others with longer memories feel it is part of the same pattern of self-promotion and capriciousness which characterised his playing career.

Such as they were, the facts were relatively prosaic: having been promised a three-year-plan and bounteous riches to take the club forward, Di Canio soon saw chairman Jeremy Wray removed and owner Andrew Black move the goalposts, fretting about administration-threatening debts of £13m. Having initially resigned after the decision to sell Matt Ritchie to Bournemouth for £500,000 without his approval, the Italian duly confirmed his departure when the purchase of the club by Oxford-based businessman Jed McCrory couldn't be rubber stamped by the Football League, ending the three-day deal the Italian had agreed to stay on.

As understandable as Di Canio's statement, which said his position at the Wiltshire club had "become untenable" amid "a number of broken promises" was, it was also a variation on the "little problem" which led to the Italian leaving Parkhead as a player in 1997. His time at Juventus and AC Milan having ended in rows with Giovanni Trapattoni and Fabio Capello, this was when Di Canio failed to turn up for pre-season then refused to travel to Holland with the team. The subtext was the feeling that an improved contract offer had been promised – perhaps earned by a season in which he was named SPFA player of the year – but the club's hierarchy was having none of it and before long he found himself infamously "traded" to Sheffield Wednesday. "Could I have handled those meetings better?" wrote Celtic's then general manager Jock Brown. "Maybe. But it was my impression that there was a hidden agenda."

Despite the personal tragedy of losing his mother and father in the space of six months, the Italian was certainly a success story at Swindon. He took them to the League 2 title, a Johnstone's Paint's Trophy final, a cup giant-killing against Wigan, and leaves the club near the summit of League 1. It would be fair to say his strengths lie more in tactical awareness than man-management: there was a claim of racist abuse in relation to a loan signing called Jonathan Tehoue which was never proven, while the Italian's fastidiousness about fitness has led to many a fall-out with his players – most of whom he never fell back in with. Striker Leon Clarke had the temerity to complain and never featured again, as did his former captain, and Celtic full-back Paul Caddis, suddenly sent out on loan to Birmingham after the birth of his child and accused of an attitude problem which, those who know him, find hard to believe. Goalkeeper Wes Foderingham is the exception who proves the rule, but then he was the only senior keeper on the books.

A volatile figure, no doubt, Billy Stark recalls a "genius" on the playing field that both he and Tommy Burns loved, even if it caused a headache or two. "He had an army of agents and I would never paint him as an angel, but what he did back then is what you have to put up with in the modern game," said Stark. "I remember him having a stand-up argument because big Gordon Marshall wouldn't throw the ball to him. He stormed off Barrowfield and walked up London Road. He also wanted a team meeting claiming that there was a divide between Andy Thom and Pierre Van Hooijdonk, the northern Europeans, and southern Europeans like him and Jorge Cadete. Tommy went up to his house that night with flowers, and by the next day he was best pals again with everyone."

The player himself is open minded about where his next club lies, but feels he has earned a shot at the next level. Already there is speculation linking him with a move to replace Sam Allardyce at West Ham United when his contract expires in the summer. There is method in the madness: Di Canio is used to life at big clubs, and West Ham are his club, their badge tattoed on his left arm, opposite an image of Benito Mussolini. The ego really will have landed once Di Canio gatecrashes the Premier League.

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