It’s hard to imagine now, but Swindon Town were once a Premier League side. They were in the Premier League for just the one season, where they set an unwanted record, which still stands, for most goals conceded in a season, with a whopping 100. The following season, Swindon were relegated for the second successive season and the club spent most of the following decade yo-yoing between the second and third tiers of English football. The club eventually suffered the ignominy of becoming the first former Premier League side to end up in the bottom division of the English leagues.
It’s fair to say that it wasn’t much fun being a Swindon fan for most of past fifteen years or so. The club has been beset with financial problems, which has led to them going into administration twice and has had to fight off winding-up orders from HM Customs & Excise (the UK’s tax agency) over unpaid tax bills.
What may have made things worse for Swindon fans is that there have been several false dawns where it looked like the club was really going places, only for those hopes to be dashed. Managers Dennis Wise and Paul Sturrock all left for better offers after looking like being a success at Swindon. That seems to have happened again today, as Paolo Di Canio, who had led Swindon from the bottom division into League One, and looked to be in with a good chance of being promoted again, has resigned as Swindon manager.
In the summer of 2011, Swindon had just been relegated to League Two and were looking for a new manager. They made the headline-grabbing decision to give Paolo Di Canio his first management job.
For those unfamiliar with Di Canio, he was an immensely talented player, a ferocious competitor who always wore his heart on his sleeve, which always endeared him to fans, but also possessed an amazing ability to get himself into trouble. Di Canio made headlines, for both right and wrong reasons, wherever he went. Di Canio was capable of some truly bad behaviour, but was also capable of incredible acts of sportsmanship, such as when he eschewed the chance to score a certain goal against Everton, picking the ball up after Everton keeper Paul Gerrard was injured in the build-up.
Di Canio arrived in British football at Celtic, after a series of rows with managers at various clubs saw him becoming persona non grata in Italy. His time at Celtic was nearly cut short after he was kicked out of training in his first week, but he eventually settled in and became a fan favourite. After Tommy Burns was fired by Celtic, Di Canio, in a show of solidarity with Burns, wanted to leave, and was sold to Sheffield Wednesday.
Whilst at Wednesday, Di Canio served an 11 match ban for pushing over a referee. Shortly after that, he was sold to West Ham United, where he played the best football of his career. Di Canio seemed to love playing for West Ham, and the fans loved him back, with Di Canio still revered by West Ham fans to this day.
Di Canio ended his career back in Rome, with a spell at his first club, Lazio; where again he made headlines for the wrong reasons, after greeting some of Lazio’s right-wing fans with a fascist salute. Di Canio retired in 2008 following a spell at Serie C2 side Cisco Roma.
It took Di Canio less than a month to make headlines for all the wrong reasons as a manager. Swindon were losing a League Cup match at home to Southampton 1-3, and Di Canio was not impressed with his side, and he and his fitness coach decided that some extra training was in order. Striker Leon Clarke took umbrage with that decision and mouthed off. Di Canio hauled Clarke down the tunnel, where the two were seen to have a physical altercation. Clarke was sent out on loan shortly after and never player for Swindon again.
After a rocky start to his managerial career, Di Canio got Swindon winning matches, playing some great football along the way, and guided them to last season’s League Two title with an impressive 93 points.
Before this season started, Swindon were tipped to be in the mix for promotion back to the Championship. As it stands, Swindon are sixth in League One, but only three points behind the leaders and are on an 11-match unbeaten run. Di Canio’s performance as manager led to other clubs taking notice of his managerial abilities, and he was linked to several other clubs throughout this season as vacancies became available.
Despite things going quite well on the pitch, Di Canio made headlines once again, after hauling goalkeeper Wes Foderingham, who had recently gone over 1000 minutes without conceding, off after 20 minutes in a game against Preston, with Swindon 2-0 down. Di Canio then launched into a very public criticism of his keeper, and declared he wouldn’t play for Swindon again unless he apologised, which Foderingham did.
While this was going on, events off the pitch were occurring which were threatening to derail the progress Swindon were making on the pitch. Swindon were put under a transfer embargo after their summer transfer activities meant that they broke league rules on the amount of money spent on wages and fees.
It was announced in January, that no money would be available for transfers amid rumours that Swindon were in serious financial trouble. It was announced that Swindon had put their entire squad up for sale, and Di Canio offered the club some of his own money so Swindon could keep hold of some players they had in on loan.
Shortly after that, it was announced that Swindon’s owner had put the club up for sale, and in the meantime, Swindon were considering entering administration for the third time, as the club’s debts had spiralled out of control.
The day before transfer deadline day, it was announced that, subject to the approval of the Football League, a buyer had been found for Swindon, but that news was tempered with the announcement that Swindon’s best player, Matt Richie had been sold.
This sale, which was done behind Di Canio’s back, coupled with the fact that Di Canio’s attempts to bring some players in on loan were rejected by the Football League because the deal to buy the club hadn’t been ratified; left Di Canio pretty pissed off and on the verge of resigning.
Di Canio said "I am forced to consider my future as I don't know how I can continue to work in this environment.
"With the club selling one of our best players behind my back and continually making promises that are broken, I feel at this moment that my job is not just impossible but is untenable.
"Too many questions remain unanswered. The future is clouded with uncertainty. At this moment my future remains unclear."
Swindon’s financial plight that necessitated the sale of players meant that, due to illness and injury Di Canio could only name four substitutes instead of the allowed seven in a recent league match away at Colchester.
Di Canio actually resigned last Tuesday, but met the prospective new owners and came to an arrangement with Swindon that he would stay, at least for the rest of the season, as manager, but that was conditional on the sale of the club being finalised by 5pm today. That deadline passed, and Di Canio announced his resignation saying:
"As I had previously stated, there have been a number of broken promises made by the club over the time that I have been Manager of Swindon Town. Despite these problems, I have delivered everything and more that was asked of me, by achieving promotion last year as Champions and competing this season for promotion to the Championship and being just 3 points from top place a year earlier than expected.
"I did not resign immediately, nor publicise my resignation after I had formally confirmed it, as I did not want to jeopardise the negotiations for the sale of the club and I wanted to listen to what the proposed new owners plans were."
This only happened a few hours ago, but Swindon fans seem to be hugely disappointed by Di Canio’s departure. Some are bemused at the timing, with the Football League set to approve the takeover any day now and with Swindon playing fellow promotion chasing side Tranmere tomorrow night, but most understand that he is a man with principles and has acted upon them.
Di Canio leaves Swindon with a reputation of being an exciting, up-and-coming manager. There will be plenty of clubs who will be willing to take on some of the feistiness and the outspoken nature that Di Canio brings with him, to have him as their manager. There has been a lot of speculation about the future of Neil Warnock at Leeds United, so that may be a possible destination for him. He’s still revered at West Ham, and with several Hammers fans unhappy with Sam Allardyce, West Ham could be an option too.
His generous side was also evident. Last month, there was unusually heavy snowfall in the UK, and Swindon’s pitch was covered with snow, putting their game against Shrewsbury in doubt. The club appealed for volunteers to help clear the pitch and around 200 people showed up. Di Canio joined in too, and was so grateful for the volunteers who came down he bought them all pizza.