Remembering Paolo Di Canio’s bittersweet final goal at Upton Park
Hero worship can be inherently problematic. There must be countless Southampton supporters with conflicting emotions over Matt Le Tissier’s transformation into David Icke or Chelsea fans who think twice about rushing to defend John Terry. Part of growing up is realising our childhood heroes are as flawed as the rest of us.
For followers of West Ham United, nobody illustrates this better than Paolo Di Canio. We’ve all seen his Mussolini-sympathising views, his Nazi salutes at the Rome derby and (actually quite hilarious) emasculation of Paul Alcock. Not many of Essex’s finest could handle Di Canio’s stringent ‘No Sauce’ regime that his players at Sunderland endured. Nobody denies Danny Graham his tomato ketchup.
However, his emotional state replicated that of the club, and there was no better illustration of this than Paolo’s last goal at Upton Park in May 2003.
Desperately needing a goal to avoid relegation, Di Canio came off the bench to score the winner against local rivals Chelsea. It would be no surprise if the resulting noise registered as a minor earthquake. The fact that West Ham were relegated the following week does not detract from the raw joy of that moment.
First, more context is needed. Signed for £1.5million from Sheffield Wednesday in January 1999, Paolo quickly became the talisman of Harry Redknapp’s freewheeling entertainers. His 16 goals in 1999-2000 included the famous scissor kick effort against Wimbledon that won BBC’s Goal of the Season award. The Upton Park crowd was being swept off their feet.
But, like any relationship, there were tumultuous times too. Witness Paolo demanding to be substituted after failing to be awarded a penalty against Bradford. Witness the countless ‘no shows’ at various northern away grounds. Witness how close he came to joining Manchester United in 2002. Life is rarely perfect and Di Canio was the human embodiment of this.
Despite stiff competition, the 2002-03 season was one of the more turbulent West Ham campaigns in recent decades. Backed by Liverpool boss Gerard Houiller to challenge for Champions League qualification, the Hammers failed to win a home game until January and spent much of the season rooted to the bottom of the league.
Di Canio is one of the most influential players ever to wear the claret and blue, yet he spent most of the year with a face like a bulldog chewing a wasp.
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His two strikes at Chelsea in September secured an unlikely away win but the Italian spent much of his time bitterly opposing manager Glenn Roeder. Di Canio had been angered by Redknapp’s departure in 2001 and felt Roeder, a man so wooden you’d feel inclined to touch him for luck, was the wrong man to lead the club.
This dispute came to a head in February when Paolo publicly reacted badly to being substituted during a six-pointer at West Brom and was subsequently banished from the squad. His exile coincided with a talented Hammers squad remembering how to play football and belatedly attempt to avoid the drop.
Di Canio missed the entirety of March and April, during which the Hammers’ situation became more desperate. A fatal 1-0 defeat at relegation rivals Bolton significantly mitigated the team’s good run of form, leaving survival looking like an almost impossible task. More worryingly, manager Roeder collapsed after a victory over Middlesbrough and was diagnosed with suffering a minor stroke.
Farewell to Upton Park
Club legend Trevor Brooking took temporary charge and led West Ham to a 1-0 success at Manchester City. The final home game, against Champions League pushing Chelsea, became the dictionary definition of a must-win. To demonstrate the magnitude of the occasion, Brooking included Di Canio among his substitutes.
Upton Park was incredibly emotional on that overcast May afternoon and the home team began in frenzied style. The three-pronged attack of Les Ferdinand, Freddie Kanoute and Jermain Defoe had Chelsea on the rack early on and a collection of missed chances did nothing to calm the nerves of the West Ham faithful.
Brooking, synonymous with his fence-sitting punditry, was pacing the technical area furiously as Chelsea began to gain a foothold in the match. Their team was pre-Abramovich but still packed with talent such as Gianfranco Zola, Eidur Gudjohnsen and pantomime villain Frank Lampard and the home fans began to believe they had missed their opportunity. An exceptionally tense first half ended goalless.
The pattern of spurned West Ham chances and latent Chelsea class continued after the break. Kanoute headed one effort into the side netting, sparking waves of premature joy around the stadium. This snapshot of ecstasy would pale in comparison to the afternoon’s defining act.
Soon after, Brooking introduced Di Canio. Exchanging a heartfelt hug with his manager, the man who was half genius and half pain in the backside, re-entered competitive action with hopes resting squarely on his shoulders. As Gudjohnsen squandered Chelsea’s clearest chance of the afternoon, the stage was set for Paolo. Like all great showmen, he didn’t disappoint.
With 20 minutes remaining, Joe Cole fizzed an incisive pass out to Trevor Sinclair on the wing. Tricky Trev carried the ball to the by-line and arched a tempting cross into the penalty area that stretching defender William Gallas managed to merely cushion for an unmarked Di Canio.
What Paolo lacked in marbles, he more than compensated for in stones. Acting like the coolest man inside Upton Park, Di Canio proceeded to lash the ball past the despairing Carlo Cudicini.
On this day in 2003 West Ham beat Chelsea 1-0 at Upton Park in front of 35,042.
Paolo Di Canio had not played since February but came off the bench to score a dramatic winner.pic.twitter.com/Zfrs6NEFmu
— VINNYWHUFC (@vinnywhufc) May 3, 2020
Cue bedlam. Di Canio lost all semblance of composure, ripping off his shirt and falling to the floor, soon disappearing under a mob of delighted team-mates. In the stands, a season’s worth of disappointment, tension and dashed ambition was released with a guttural roar that shook the foundations of Upton Park. After being resigned to their fate for months, hope had made an overdue appearance on the horizon.
West Ham nervously held on for victory. At the game’s conclusion, Di Canio removed his shirt, kissed it, and tossed it into the throng in the Bobby Moore Stand at the end. This was a man who never missed an opportunity to play to the crowd, his crowd.
Tears streaming down his face, Di Canio was the enduring image of an afternoon soaked in emotion. Rarely has the mood of a match, the mood of an entire institution, rested in the actions of one individual.
Demonstrating how happiness is only temporary, West Ham were relegated the following week. Another Di Canio goal in the 2-2 draw at Birmingham was not enough to overhaul Sam Allardyce’s Bolton and the club were relegated with a record points tally.
The Telegraph estimated that 42 points gave a team a 98.4% chance of survival, meaning West Ham’s relegation was a one-in-50 occurrence. This statistical anomaly saw one of the most talented squads in the club’s history sold piece-by-piece, mostly to local rivals Chelsea and Tottenham. Paolo departed that summer for Charlton Athletic.
But none of this should detract from the sheer joy of Di Canio’s last act in front of his adoring Upton Park audience. As Tim Canterbury once said: “Life isn’t about endings is it? It’s a series of moments.” Paolo’s departing moment was perfect.
By Michael Lee