Only one man in charge at the Robins
“…Number 21 – Lionel Messi,” smirks new Swindon Town manager, Paolo Di Canio. A laugh is the response from the amassed fans who, it appears, had passed the Italian’s concentration test.
Talking to Wiltshire broadcasting legend Shaun Hodgetts on a stage in front of of several hundred proud chests, thankfully each covered by a newly purchased home shirt for the coming season, Di Canio took the opportunity to list the squad numbers for next term. Slipping this joke in, broke up the obligatory “Wehy!” which met each name and also underlined why Di Canio is a bit special.
On Saturday 23 July the County Ground doors opened to fans and while, on the face of it, this appeared to be a regular community event, which has been hosted annually in recent times, this year it represented the latest in a range of acts of contrition. The make up of the day included a series of measures taken by new chairman Jeremy Wray to repair the tattered threads of trust between the board, who rescued and transformed the club, and the long suffering fans, who saw more parallels to the mistake-laden regimes of the past, last term, than collectively comfortable with.
It’s often said that “football fans have short memories”, traditionally used pejoratively when patience in the manager seems disproportionately short and fails to factor in past achievements, however, the good feeling that flowed through SN1 on Saturday is proof that this particular cliché works at the other end of the spectrum too.
Jeremy Wray has done a superb job of running the club in an antithetic manor to his predecessor, Andrew Fitton, who resigned after taking responsibility for the decisions which resulted in Swindon’s relegation, the new chairman has taken a backseat. Wray, prominent in the press while Di Canio cleared up his affairs in Italy, has since wisely withdrawn from the limelight and quietly supported Paolo in his acquisitions (and trafficking of surplus personnel) for this long-term vision for the future of Swindon. Quickly and quietly he has turned his manager into the focal point, drawing a line under last season by pushing a character unblemished by the fallout, to the forefront.
Frankly, I don’t think the chairman could have stopped him from being on the frontline if he’d tried. Di Canio has been unwavering in his philosophy and policy that, regardless of ability, if players and prospective additions are not fully committed, they are not wanted at the club and this has been staunchly upheld. Proven league two striker Elliot Benyon, who only joined the club from Torquay in January, has been farmed out to Wycombe Wanderers on loan, presumably to free up wages despite the Chairboys’ inability to raise the cash to make the move permanent.
While on the pre-season tour of Italy, the Swindon Advertiser, who had a reporter embedded, ran the story that Argentine striker Hugo Bargas was flying out to the training camp to discuss joining, which would have represented a massive coup for any football league club outside of the Championship. Bargas asked for the meeting to be delayed by a week, this represented an insurmountable lack of desire to Di Canio, and despite having only one senior striker on his books at the time, he immediately ended his interest.
This ruthlessness at first was met with trepidation by many fans, who saw a threadbare strike force akin the start of each of the past three seasons and thought another panic buy a la Thomas Dossevi (who has found his level at Forest Green) was around the corner. Swindon then missed out on target man Adam Burchill and released another striking trialist, but as panic set in on the forums, Di Canio has been measured in his response and brought in Alan Connell, a high scorer from Lincoln and Algerian international Mehdi Kerrouche.
The sense of hope, which whirled around the Stratton Bank with the empty crisp packets on Saturday, is embodied in the man who is now Swindon Town manager and the corporate body at the club have been right to take a step back. While it was great for our chairman to be visible to fans, often appearing as a colour commentator for BBC Wiltshire on matchdays, I can’t help but feel it often undermined the manager and led to a confusing blur of the hierarchy. The star of the show on Saturday was Di Canio, he is being pushed out as Swindon’s poster boy (before any meaningful fixtures have taken place) and it’s working. But why wouldn’t it?
He’s clearly set out his philosophy, and provided evidence of its execution, even in the face of public criticism, the pre-season results could barely have been better to date – played three, won three, 20 goals scored without reply. Most apparent and pleasing though, is that he clearly just loves being here, he loves being a football manager and he doesn’t subscribe to the contemporary school of thought, which dictates that all managers (with the exception of Ian Holloway) should leave their personality, sense of humour and, in some cases, manners at the door when working, particularly when engaging with the press or fans.
It’s this, more than anything, which sets Di Canio adrift from the beige shells devoid of personable traits, which populate dugouts in this era, one step removed from an MP with a vague understanding of zonal marking. He is a breath of fresh air in a sea of “well, I think that the thing we have to do for this magnificent football club” style effluence.
He makes bold statements double as a rod for his own back, and could backfire hugely; after naming his squad numbers and introducing his coaching team he poured extra significance on the upcoming Oxford United game, but throwing out the rule book will increase his attractiveness to the Swindon fans and get opponents backs up, Mourinho style. Saying the ‘wrong thing’, wearing his heart on his sleeve and showing passion will only be seen as endearing by the Town fans, who screamed out for some passion, particularly under Paul Hart’s ill-advised stewardship, to borrow another cliché, it will create a siege mentality.
Di Canio has already achieved this with the players and he has now turned his attentions to the fans, the open day was a masterpiece in marketing, sales and re-branding. Those fans who had purchased the new home shirt were invited to take part in the ‘biggest team picture’ Di Canio came and joined them for the final shot. Following the ‘meet the manager’ segment, interrupted by chants of the manager’s name, members of the squad, we were told had been “asked by Di Canio” to meet the fans and sign autographs.
A six-a-side tournament was held in the morning and the triumphant team played a team of Swindon legends including Fraser Digby, Alan McLoughlin, Paul Bodin and, the man himself, Paolo on the County Ground pitch. It was all about Di Canio, and it will continue to be about Di Canio, we’re not likely to hear chants of “there’s only Jeremy Wray” and that’s the way it should be.
Perhaps my memory is a little longer than most fans and perhaps I’m overly cautious, but I can remember this much excitement roughly 12 months ago. That time, a week before playing Brighton, fans were in a froth over new recruits they hadn’t seen play and a manager who could do no wrong.