x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Di Canio dreams of Upton Park return

The former AC Milan great's goal is to manage West Ham and England, rather than Italy, would be the preferred starting point for the Italian's coaching career.

Di Canio in action for AC Milan Legends at the Emirates Airline Dubai Sevens last week.
Di Canio in action for AC Milan Legends at the Emirates Airline Dubai Sevens last week.

DUBAI // Paolo Di Canio is counting down the days until he can launch the next phase of a colourful football career which he hopes will lead him to his spiritual English home of Upton Park to become manager of West Ham United. The flamboyant Italian revealed his next ambition while playing a starring role for AC Milan Legends during last week's Emirates Airline Dubai Football Sevens at which he was by a distance the competition's top scorer with nine goals.

Di Canio, 41, stressed he has no intention of seeking to undermine the position of his fellow Italian Gianfranco Zola at a key stage of a Premier League relegation battle. His own planned return to London is several years away. "I have been studying for the last three years for my coaching certificates," he said, "and I am due to qualify in June so, I shall be looking to start off in management next season if possible. Wherever I start it should be good for the club and for Paolo Di Canio."

The well-travelled Di Canio - he played for 11 clubs over 23 years - realises that he does not yet have the credentials to land a top job in Europe. But he is setting his sights optimistically on the lower divisions in England. Why England and not Italy where he has been attending his coaching classes in Rome and Florence? "Italy is my country but England is my home," he replied. "When I go back there it's like I have never left. Everybody knows that I love West Ham. And it would be my dream to be their manager one day. But first of all I need to prove that I am good enough to do the job and show my quality as a coach."

Di Canio had a hero and villain label during his time in England. He earned positive accolades when, in the closing moments of a 1-1 draw at Everton in 2000, he refused to capitalise on an opportunity to score a winning goal because Paul Gerrard, the opposing goalkeeper, was lying injured outside the penalty area. Di Canio's decision to catch a high ball, rather than chest it down and shoot, earned him a Fifa Fair Play award and lifelong admiration from Evertonians, although his remarkable sportsmanship was not immediately appreciated at his own club.

"At first when I went back to the dressing room they said to me 'Oh Paolo why did you do that?' Then Harry Redknapp [the West Ham manager at the time] went on television and said he was a little bit surprised by what I did. "But If I win a game I want to win 11 against 11. At this moment the keeper wasn't in the goal. He went down screaming in pain and I felt that I couldn't regard myself as a professional person if I took that chance to score a goal."

The wonderful gesture stunned the home crowd who rose to cheer Di Canio off the pitch at the end. "Every time I went back to Everton there was a good reception for me," he said. "You don't expect that on an opposition ground. Whenever I went to take a corner the fans used to stand up and applaud. It was an incredible situation for me to be in that kind of atmosphere. When you leave a club with memories like that you are happy."

What about the villain part of his Jekyll and Hyde character? That stigma was attached to him in September 1988 when, playing for Sheffield Wednesday against Arsenal, he pushed Paul Alcock, the referee, to the ground after being sent off. "I spent four months out after that incident," reflected Di Canio. "It was not a good time for me as a professional or a person. "After that punishment [an 11-match suspension] had elapsed I chose to stay in England to show the supporters that I was not a bad person. Just somebody who had made a mistake. "I have always said that inside any human being there is small part of the devil and a small part of a saint. This comes out when you are under pressure. I'm not a devil and I'm not a saint - I'm somewhere in between."