When last we left Swindon Town, the Robins were putting the finishing touches on a lamentable 2010/11 campaign that saw them relegated from League One and undergoing the process of disassembly. Beneficent chairperson Andrew Fitton chose to step down after having cleaned up Swindon’s financial flubs from the past but exhausted after a long and disappointing season which was to have seen the Robins challenge for Championship promotion rather than battling the drop. Subsquently, Fitton’s partner and interim chair Jeremy Wray swiftly sacked interim manager Paul Hart with only two matches remaining despite Town’s relegation already having been confirmed and a glance at the remaining names of the club’s officials were mostly followed by the tag (interim). While the Robins stirred from a seemingly eternal funk to record only their third victory of the calendar year on the final day, it mainly served as a highlight for youth coach Paul Bodin’s résumé.
If Wray was seeking to maintain interest in Swindon Town lest they be forgotten in League Two for the 2011/12 season, he has certainly now piqued the curiosity of the casual football fan by appointing Paolo Di Canio as the new manager. When Wray held the press conference announcing Di Canio’s arrival, he began by saying, “It’s nice to see our three regulars here, and welcome to the rest of you” as nearly seventy members of the national press were on hand in addition to the local set covering for the home papers. This will be the Italian’s first bite of the poisoned apple that is a managerial career after having obtained his UEFA coaching badges in 2010 and not been rung up by West Ham United following the dismissal of Avram Grant in a tunnel.
Laying aside some of the initial skepticism that this appointment was in part motivated from a public relations view, there has already been a deeper criticism levied at Swindon Town for bringing in Di Canio. Of course, we are talking about Di Canio’s professed appreciation of fascism and his repeated gestures of the stiff Roman Salute to the fans of Lazio during his final playing days in top flight football. Often, when labeling a charismatic character a fascist these days, it could be a slight exaggeration or a sensational way to collect eyeballs to one’s words, but in the case of Di Canio, it is the designation he prefers. For the man who has two tattoos–one for West Ham United and the other as a tribute to Benito Mussolini–he clarified the matter back in 2005 when facing FIFA charges over one of his Roman Salutes by stating, “I am a fascist, not a racist.”
Robins fans should be awfully glad he went ahead and cleared that up.
Now, it appears a goodly number of the Swindon Town fanbase have been energized by the prospect of Di Canio in charge, joining Mr. Wray in his giddy anticipation as to what next season might bring despite the Italian having no managerial record for reference. Likely, performances at Upton Park and with Charlton Athletic that helped the Hammers and Addicks reach their highest highs over the past decade contribute to this euphoria. Also, as a player his 2001 Fair Play Award for stopping play rather than score an easy goal so an injured Everton goalkeeper could receive medical attention indicates there is a sportsman under that “Dux” tattoo that could teach the Robins something more about the game than just getting results (even though “achieving results” is probably tattooed on his contract). Having been an attacking player, Di Canio could hopefully bring his playing experiences to bear in an instructional capacity to a stagnant offensive squad that saw Town score nearly thirty fewer goals than the previous campaign when the Robins were challenging for Championship promotion.
All are not incredibly enthused with Di Canio’s appointment, though, as the GMB Trade Union followed through on its previous threat to cut ties with the club if they hired him by announcing over the weekend it had indeed terminated its annual £4000 commitment including the individual sponsorhip of one of Swindon Town’s reserve players once his appointment was made official. Although this is not a princely sum of money for a club to lose in this day and age, the organization that has made the decision is considerably robust. The GMB is a large organization with reportedly over 600,000 union members nationwide who have likely already heard or will be receiving a newsletter soon about the decision to withdraw support from Swindon Town, and this could possibly add a few more ripples to the pool that was disturbed once this first pebble was dropped.
Anytime the Robins take to the pitch this fall in a union-heavy League Two town they should prepare for a certain amount of banter to be directed at their fascist gaffer and hopefully it will end only in verbal scrums between fans. Even at the County Ground, feelings of euphoria amongst Robins fans might soon fade if Di Canio’s charges stumble out the gate, as his public admiration of all things Mussolini have already forced some club supporters to choose between him and the union with a strict anti-fascist policy. Losing tends to bring out any and all criticisms one could level at a manager, and Wray could swiftly find himself in a fix if supporters begin blaming his appointed “Il Duce” for a poor run of form at home. In the extreme, those on the fringes of polite society might look to Di Canio’s visit on away days as an excuse to mobilise for pro-fascist, anti-union rallies that could turn Swindon Town match days into busy weekends for the local constable.
Granted, none of this seems to have occurred before while Di Canio was playing in England and Scotland, so why the fuss now? Back then he was only one member of a team who all took to the pitch in the same kit, so he could blend into the crowd a bit better as opposed to now being the manager who will show up with a piece in the match programme or the club website, give regular interviews to the press, and likely to be seen barking out instructions to eleven players knocking a ball about. Being the manager makes him the key figure for information in good times and bad; therefore he will be a much more prominent feature when Swindon Town is discussed this coming season. Also, the public release of his fascist leanings truly came about after he had departed Great Britain and returned home to finish out his career with childhood club Lazio. The stiff arm saluting was directed to the Curva Nord in Rome and likely wasn’t given to those in the Sir Trevor Brooking Stand at the Boleyn Ground. Thus, a comparative examination between reactions to Di Canio then might not be entirely illuminating for what the future holds this fall.
Whatever the future holds for Swindon Town as they attempt an immediate promotion back to League One, it should be worth following–particularly off the pitch.
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