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Golazo Merchants: The mad genius, Paolo Di Canio

Paolo Di Canio may just be the man responsible for the greatest goal the Premier League has ever seen.

His wondrous effort against Wimbledon remains one of the most memorable moments of the division’s existence, a piece of sheer genius of which still astounds more than two decades later.

That execution of exquisite technique and timing was the highlight of a Premier League career that saw Di Canio adored by the clubs he represented, a fiery forward with the ability to turn games around almost singlehandedly.

This is the story of one of the game’s great mavericks and a true Golazo Merchant.

 

 

Di Canio was born in a working-class suburb of Rome, a city whose footballing passion borders on an obsession, the youngster’s affections turned towards the blue half of the Italian capital and Lazio.

Lazio proved to be where the tempestuous talent began his footballing journey, signing for his boyhood side as a teenager in 1985 before breaking into the first team, securing iconic status with a winning goal in the Derby della Capitale against AS Roma.

Despite a modest goal return the youngster’s talents soon attracted interest and Juventus secured his signing soon after, winning a UEFA Cup winners’ medal during his time in Turin, but failing to truly establish himself with the Bianconeri during a golden age for Serie A.

He moved on to Napoli but spent just a single season with the club, scoring a stunning goal against AC Milan, the side who would be next to gamble on Di Canio’s services.

Success followed with a league winners’ medal during two seasons at the San Siro, but just as he had with former Juventus manager Giovanni Trapattoni, the hot-headed forward fell out with Milan boss Fabio Capello over his lack of opportunities.

His struggle for status on home soil led to an unlikely new challenge and a move to Celtic, a side in need of inspiration after eight years without a league title in Scotland.

Di Canio’s impact was instant as the Celtic faithful warmed to the maverick talents of their new arrival, the forward starring in a cosmopolitan attack that contained names such as Pierre van Hooijdonk and Andreas Thom.

He scored 15 goals in 37 appearances across all competitions to be named as the division’s finest footballer, winning the SPFA Player of the Year award.

Glorious goals were mixed with moments of controversy however, a recurring theme throughout his career.

Di Canio’s combination of insatiable work ethic and extroverted passion made him a darling of the Celtic support, though his Glaswegian love affair lasted only a single season as the forward engineered his own exit.

Demanding a new contract or a move, Di Canio left for Sheffield Wednesday with both Van Hooijdonk and Jorge Cadete also pushing to depart, the trio memorably dubbed – somewhat unaffectionately – as ‘Three Amigos’ by Celtic chairman Fergus McCann.

The fee that took Di Canio to Hillsborough was a club-record £4.2m, though a figure that the new arrival paid back instantly with a string of star showings.

Di Canio’s all-action style fitted the Premier League like a glove, as he scored 14 league goals during his maiden campaign to be named as the Owls’ Player of the Season in 1997/98.

Amongst his best efforts was this solo strike against Bolton in November, picking the ball up on the left-hand side before jinking inside in familiar style.

The opposition defenders are hesitant to challenge the twinkle-toed Italian as he dances into the penalty area, before lashing a finish high into the roof of the net to send Wednesday on their way to a thumping 5-0 win.

Di Canio’s goals helped keep the club narrowly clear of the relegation places, including netting this thumping effort in victory over a Newcastle side who had finished as runners-up in each of the past two campaigns.

The twin talents of Benito Carbone and Di Canio briefly flickered for the Owls, and this effort was rubber-stamped in Italian class as the latter sweeps home Carbone’s low cross to open the scoring within the very first minute.

The 2-1 win was the first in four fixtures for Wednesday and moved Ron Atkinson’s side up to 12th, after spending much of the early season in the Premier League’s relegation places.

Di Canio’s haul of goals also included strikes both home and away to Everton, a late season effort at Goodison Park showcasing the best of a unique talent.

It was a moment of magic from the Italian which lit up an April afternoon on Merseyside, putting the result beyond all doubt on the counter-attack as Everton pushed for an equaliser at 2-1 down.

Picking up a clearance just inside the Toffees’ half, Di Canio cuts inside beyond Dave Watson, before knocking the ball past Michael Ball and demonstrating his agility by ghosting round the opposite side of the defender.

He checks, momentarily, behind him for a further challenge, before dancing around goalkeeper Thomas Myhre and rolling the ball into the empty net.

A touch of individualistic class.

Di Canio often appeared on the verge of inward explosion, almost as if a volcanic eruption sat behind the glare of the Italian’s eyes.

His temper proved problematic on more than one occasion during a brief spell in Yorkshire, and it proved his downfall following a spectacular moment of madness which remains etched into Premier League history.

At the end of a rather uneventful first half between Sheffield Wednesday and Arsenal, the two sets of players became embroiled in an on-pitch scuffle, set in motion by Patrick Vieira’s push on Wim Jonk.

Di Canio emerges front and centre of the melee, his overzealous involvement – including kicking out and attempting to eye-gouge Martin Keown – resulting in Paul Alcock brandishing the red card and pointing towards the tunnel.

What followed was one of the most notorious pieces of ill-discipline English football has seen.

Di Canio pushes Alcock in the chest, not especially forcefully, but enough to send the referee flailing backwards in something akin to Bambi on ice.

The jelly-legged official’s comical collapse remains more than a little amusing, but the incident was bad.

Bad enough, in fact, to result in an 11-game suspension and bring a premature end to his career with the club.

Di Canio’s temperament meant there was little interest in his services from the Premier League’s best, though West Ham were prepared to gamble on his tempestuous talents.

Di Canio headed to East London in a £1.5m deal, with manager Harry Redknapp justifying the outlay by insisting the new arrival “can do things with the ball that people can only dream of”.

He was most certainly not mistaken.

The forward became an iconic figure at Upton Park over a four-season spell with the club, becoming an inspirational figurehead for a batch of exciting academy stars including Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand and Joe Cole.

Di Canio’s performances helped the Hammers to a record fifth-placed finish in the Premier League during the 1998/99 season, making headlines for his contributions on the pitch and moving away from his previous controversies.

The following campaign proved his best as he finished as the club’s leading scorer on 16 goals, including netting this delightful double to secure victory over Arsenal.

The first comes following a slaloming run past a succession of Gunners’ challenges, Di Canio’s dogged determination rewarded as he is presented a simple finish after keeping the attack alive.

His second, however, came from right out of the top drawer, sending former foe Martin Keown for a hot dog with a fabulous flick before firing past David Seaman and celebrating wildly.

It was later that season where we reach the zenith of Di Canio’s penchant for the spectacular, this goal against Wimbledon remaining one of the best the Premier League has ever witnessed.

The timing, technique and execution are all extraordinary, a goal that more than two decades later has yet to be replicated in such stunning style.

Di Canio’s exceptional effort has left a lasting legacy, the scissor-kick motion and his name now eternally linked.

That Wimbledon wonderstrike was not the only sensational volley the Hammers’ hero produced during a brilliant period with the capital club, his match-winning intervention at Chelsea during the 2002/03 season another unforgettable moment.

Much of West Ham’s core of home-grown prospects had been cherry-picked by England’s elite, and the Hammers made the trip across the capital to Stamford Bridge bottom of the division and without a win from their opening five fixtures of the season.

Rest assured, it was the mercurial Di Canio’s day in a thrilling London derby, scoring twice in a 3-2 win for the visiting side.

With the game poised at 1-1 early in the second half, Di Canio scored his first of the afternoon with a stunning strike from distance, teeing himself up with his right boot before lashing a left-footed volley beyond Carlo Cudicini.

Improvised genius from the Italian.

That season proved the final of Di Canio’s career with West Ham as the club were relegated to the second tier, his nine goals not enough to keep the side from losing their top-flight status.

He moved on to Charlton and spent a single season at The Valley before returning to Italy, closing out his career with spells at Lazio and Cisco Roma.

Colourful, controversial and captivating, Di Canio’s catalogue of classic goals ensures he retains a special place in the affinity of Premier League fans, a player capable of magnificent moments of an ilk few have produced before or since.

Pugnacious, passionate and often outrageous, Di Canio ranks amongst the Premier League’s greatest Golazo Merchants.

Read – Five of the best Serie A strikers of the 90s

Read Also – Remembering Johan Cruyff’s iconic Barcelona Dream Team

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