When Paulo Di Canio was appointed Swindon Town manager nearly a year ago many pundits commented that he was destined for failure and that his fiery temperament would cause his downfall. Eleven months on though, Swindon are celebrating one of their best and most exciting seasons in recent memory, clinching the League Two championship with a thumping 5-0 victory over Port Vale in front of very nearly 13,000 fans at the County Ground.
Di Canio had to completely rebuild a team who had gone from play-off finalists in League One in 2010 to finishing bottom in 2011. Most of the squad left as the Italian started afresh and attempted to rid the club of the losing mentality and drinking culture that had engulfed the team during the relegation season.
With four defeats in their first five league games the critics seemed to being proved right, especially after the spat between Di Canio and striker Leon Clarke. After a home defeat to Southampton in the Carling Cup and with TV cameras watching, the coach and player were involved in a bust up on the sidelines, which spilled over into the tunnel. Di Canio swore that Clarke would never play for him again and the Swindon board backed their manager. Clarke was loaned out to Chesterfield and Di Canio called a team meeting to improve the unity in his squad. Four days later Swindon responded with a 3-2 victory over then league leaders Rotherham and have never looked back.
Whilst it is easy to say that Di Canio is all passion and discipline and almost intimidates his players into performing, this would overlook his tactical ability and knowledge of the game. Moving players into positions they have not played before such as the left-footed Matt Ritchie onto the right of midfield has been rewarded with 11 goals and Ritchie becoming the League Two player of the year. Add to this the case of Alan McCormack; a centre midfielder moved into the centre of defence, which has made Swindon’s goals against record the second lowest across all four divisions.
Di Canio’s coaching and organisation of the team has seen them concede just eight league goals at home all season and just one in their last seventeen home league games. An incredible run starting on New Year’s Eve saw Swindon win ten straight league games, which propelled them from seventh in the division to a four point lead at the top that they have never relinquished.
It isn’t just in the league that Di Canio has transformed Swindon though, with a fantastic run in the Johnstone’s paint trophy, which saw them reach the final at Wembley where they lost 2-0 to Chesterfield. This season saw Swindon’s best run in the FA cup since 1996 where they reached the fourth round knocking out Huddersfield and winning the Ronnie Radford award for the shock of this season’s competition for beating Premier League Wigan 2-1 in the third round.
Discipline and respect is a big part of Di Canio’s management style though, as was shown most recently when he dropped nine players over the space of two games for going out drinking after a victory over Plymouth, even though promotion was not yet secured. He has a ruthless side that has been shown throughout the season when a number of times he has taken players off within the first half for not following his instructions.
Di Canio has done all this whilst dealing with the personal tragedy of losing both his parents within six months of each other, but has still shown great professionalism to be pitch side for games within hours of finding out the news. This has further endeared him to Swindon fans and he now joins the list of Swindon managerial legends alongside Glenn Hoddle, Ossie Ardiles and Lou Macari. Not many now would doubt him repeating the feat in League One next season.
By Chris Newman