Last year I did a piece called ‘Fantasy Football’ looking at a United player from the past that we could have used in the team at the time and concluded that Juan Seba Veron would have proved quite handy.
This past weekend Di Canio appeared on BBC Football Focus talking about how his love of West Ham meant he wouldn’t have left the East London outfit for United when we came knocking in 2002 but is that entirely true?
There was always somewhat of a special aura surrounding Paolo Di Canio. Whether he was felling referees, scoring spectacular goals or stopping play so stricken players could receive treatment he was always a bit magical. It’s part of the reason he became a cult hero at West Ham.
In 2002 United were seriously looking at signing the Italian, having seen Teddy Sheringham return to Spurs in the summer and sold Andy Cole in January to Blackburn bringing in striking options was on Sir Alex’s to do list. As well as Di Canio we were also looking at the then unknown Diego Forlan. United had hoped to freshen up their striking option before the Champions League deadline at the end of January and both Di Canio and Forlan seemed the ideal players to do so. As United worked on Forlan it was felt United would be able to reach a deal with West Ham despite them asking for a rather excessive £3m for the then 33 year old.
At the tail end of your career the chance to compete for the league as well as a chance to play in the Champions League would appeal to any player and Di Canio was no different as his agent claimed,
“Paolo loves West Ham, but imagine being a footballer at the end of your career and it is a big club like Manchester United that want you. The Champions League deadline is not until the end of January, so there is time to do something.”
At the time Ryan Giggs said of Di Canio, who many thought would join United,
“He’s a natural entertainer who also produces the goods.
“There’s no doubt that on his day he’s one of the best players in the Premier League to watch.”
It was thought that Di Canio’s signing would spell the end of Dwight Yorke’s tenure at Old Trafford, who despite playing an integral part in our treble just some years before had fallen out of favour with Sir Alex but a move to Middlesborough during January collapsed and United’s inability to shift Yorke along with West Ham playing hardball meant that the move for Di Canio didn’t go through.
United would have to make do with just Forlan who signed for £6.9m whilst Dwight Yorke finally moved on to join Blackburn in the summer.
Forlan would go on to be labelled a flop by the press after taking 27 games to score his first goal but United fans are more than pleased with his spell at United despite accepting he could have done better. His brace against Liverpool made him a fan favourite and his name is still sung at Old Trafford today.
Di Canio remained at West Ham and was integral to their team until a rather public spat with Glenn Roeder saw him drop out of the team and although he would get back into the team he couldn’t stop West Ham from being relegated in 2003. He would move on to Charlton, Lazio and finally retire at Cisco Roma.
Interestingly in a 2008 interview with GQ Magazine Sir Alex expressed the opinion that Di Canio could have gone on to become a great at Old Trafford,
“Di Canio would have been capable of becoming a truly great player at Manchester United.
“I mean, he was a great player. But when you have a player like Di Canio, who expresses himself as an individual, like [George] Best and Cantona did, and [Ryan] Giggs, [Wayne] Rooney, Ronaldo and [Dimitar] Berbatov do… we make heroes quickly here.
“Di Canio could have been in that category.”
Not signing Di Canio won’t be a massive regret for Sir Alex but a regret nonetheless. The Italian’s quality is unquestionable even at that stage in his career and he would have proved a quality temporary solution for the 2 years we had hoped to sign him for.
Even if he won’t admit it, Di Canio will too have regrets that the move didn’t materialise. Aged 33 being offered the chance at one more shot at the big time is just a dream to many players. The flair of Di Canio could have been the ideal foil to the predatory instincts of Ruud Van Nistelrooy but again like so many other scenarios it will be resigned to the ‘What If…’ pile.