Paolo Di Canio was a bit of a mad bastard, but he was also a bloody brilliant footballer. And fifteen years ago this week he scored an utterly ridiculous goal for West Ham.
When you mention the name of a prolific Premier League goalscorer, with one or two exceptions, there’s normally one goal that immediately springs to mind.
For Alan Shearer, it’s the thumping volley against Everton. Wayne Rooney has his derby-winning bicycle kick. And, while Dennis Bergkamp scored some great goals for club and country, the Dutchman’s turn and finish against Newcastle United will forever be associated with his name.
Paolo Di Canio has one of those goals too – the scissor-kick volley for West Ham against Wimbledon which remains one of the best scored by any player in the English top flight.
I mean look at this. It’s great, isn’t it?
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But it’s not the one we’re here to talk about.
Because just as the breathtaking quality of Channel Orange shapes how we look at Frank Ocean’s follow-up Blonde, there’s another sensational Di Canio goal that we’d rate much more highly were it not for the goal that preceded it.
Fifteen years ago this week, Di Canio’s West Ham were, to use a technical term, an utter shitshow.
After finishing the previous season strongly under new manager Glenn Roeder, they never quite recovered from throwing away victory against a Thierry Henry-inspired Arsenal in the second week of the season.
Two points from six games saw early relegation talk shrugged off publicly, but concerns remained in private (remember the “too good to go down” narrative, anyone?), and these concerns were exacerbated when Frédi Kanouté limped off just minutes into game seven at Stamford Bridge.
Now Chelsea might not have been the devastating force they became a couple of years on, but they were unbeaten in the league and presented a huge challenge to their opponents even before the Malian’s injury.
But then Di Canio, without a goal to his name all season, produced some much-needed magic.
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Sure, there’s some luck involved in the chance coming about, but we can point to plenty of other world-class goals for which that is the case. Even Bergkamp’s brilliance relies on an unfussy referee letting his pull-back on Nikos Dabizas slide.
What’s important here is not that there was *some* luck, but that Di Canio achieved the best possible outcome after doing almost *everything* wrong.
Upon receiving Sébastien Schemmel’s throw-in, he instantly takes the low-percentage move of attempting to lift the ball over the approaching Chelsea defender.
Even if that move does come off, what’s the Italian’s endgame? If anything, he’s at risk of running straight into team-mate Trevor Sinclair, and if we know anything about late-era Paolo Di Canio it’s that he wouldn’t use that position to delegate and make a run into the box to receive a cross.
This is a man who, a couple of years earlier, hit the headlines for a penalty kick dispute with then-team-mate Frank Lampard that makes Neymar and Edinson Cavani look like the best of pals.
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So he gets that lucky break, suddenly presenting him with space inside and Steve Lomas wide open in the centre.
An easy square ball, right? Think again.
An ambitious – yet not out of the question – right-footed strike? That’s more in his wheelhouse, but the goal drought might make him decide against it.
You’re getting closer, sure, but why on earth would he try to score a good goal when there’s a great goal on the cards.
It’s the same logic that inspired goals like this one for Napoli, an effort which he could have stroked, curled or driven home on multiple occasions before going with the option that wasn’t just the hardest, but so hard that it didn’t even feature in the original set of options.
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Put simply, it is infinitely more difficult and more awkward for a player to score the goal Di Canio scored at Chelsea than a right-footed strike from the same position, even assuming the player is left footed – which Di Canio is not.
By opting to tee himself up, he allows defenders to close, putting unnecessary pressure on what is already a near impossible shot.
It’s like a baseball player positioning himself for a catch, only to stop with the ball in mid-air to take off his glove. Sure, it might look more pleasing if you pull it off, but what would possess you to even try?
Of course, Di Canio did try, and Carlo Cudicini never stood a chance.
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For a man whose career was peppered by a shove on a referee and a fair play award for catching a ball into the box to point at the opposing goalkeeper lying injured yards away, this probably doesn’t even register on Di Canio’s little book of subversions
And speaking of not making things easy for himself, he needed to score again in the same match to seal victory, and would not score another winning goal for the club until the reverse fixture at Upton Park in May.
Watching Di Canio pull off such a move goes some way to explaining some fans’ love of compatriot Alessandro Diamanti in his all-too-short spell with the club.
West Ham have never been a dominant presence in Premier League football, so taking a step back and padding stats with simple tap-in after simple tap-in isn’t an opportunity that’s ever likely to present itself.
Instead, by doing one brilliant thing for every five bad ones, as long as that brilliant thing really is brilliant, you allow your legend to grow in the minds of fans willing to cling to moments rather than trophies. And why wouldn’t you?
That season would prove to be Di Canio’s last at West Ham, with a falling-out with Roeder seeing him exiled for more than two months at the heart of the club’s relegation battle.
Many clubs’ fans might have turned on a player for going missing in such a situation, even if they felt he wasn’t necessarily the one to blame.
But not many groups of fans have faced that situation around a player whose second-best goal for the club was streets ahead of most players’ finest moment.
By Tom Victor
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