THERE are many words which could be accurately used to describe Paolo Di Canio the footballer; fascist, firebrand, contrarian and magician would be just some of them. Brilliant, box-office and unrepentant would also equally apply.

Of his 23 years as a professional footballer, only one of them was spent with Celtic but, for all the disappointments of that troubled 1996/97 campaign, Parkhead regulars still fondly remember the moments of genius (and occasional madness) which characterised his contributions to the cause.

He scored 15 times in 37 appearances for the Hoops, a more than decent return on their £1m purchase from AC Milan (Di Canio won Serie A at the San Siro that year but a difference of opinion with coach Fabio Capello led to a parting of the ways and moiré disagreements to come).

The Italian, who also featured in both legs as Juventus beat Borussia Dortmund home and away in the 1993 UEFA Cup final, insists he was willing to spend the rest of his career at Celtic but, following claims and counter-claims from the king of confrontation on one side and Celtic owner Fergus McCann and general manager Jock Brown on the other, he was off again, “traded” by the latter to Sheffield Wednesday, who gave the Glasgow club £3m and £1.5m-rated Dutch winger for him.

“I remember the three-hour discussion [in 1996] to negotiate a contract with the chairman, who said: ‘We want you at all costs,’” he told Four Four Two magazine in a comprehensive interview covering his career.

“We agreed that, at the end of the season, if I did well we’d renew at the agreed figures and with an extra year.

“Everything is relative in football and everybody has his own idea about the performance of a player but I was voted the best player in Scotland [by PFA members].

“Instead, the chairman called my attorney and told him: ‘Paolo played well but, for us, he had to do much more.’

“I knew something was wrong so in the end I just said: ‘Look, it’s better that I leave. I’m sorry because here – for the love and the way I am – I would have stayed for life.’

“I was 28 – I would have done fine for five or six more seasons there and been fine.”

He scored some stunning individual goals that season – a Boxing Day winner against Aberdeen at Pittodrie, which saw him kiss the golden boot which provided it will live long in the memory – but their temperamental talisman always played on the edge and, occasionally , fell off it.

Sent off after scoring against Hearts at Tynecastle, he was also shown a red card after a 1-0 defeat by Rangers at Parkhead in March which all but guaranteed that the visitors would retain the championship. That particular incident involved Rangers midfielder Ian Ferguson.

“We lost 1-0 to Brian Laudrup’s goal,” he said. “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 Scottish Cup quarter-finals ten 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! It was full of people, though, and they separated us.”

Like similarly volatile personalities (Paul Gascoigne, Allan McGregor, Neil Lennon, Leigh Griffiths), Di Canio fed off the highly-charged atmosphere of Old Firm matches, channelling the energy from the stands into his performances.

“I remember it as being incredibly emotional,” he said. “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 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 would warm 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.”