I remember where I was on September 26th 1998. The day Paolo Di Canio lost the plot, writes Vernon Grant.
As a Sheffield Wednesday supporter for the previous thirty years, I wanted to be at Hillsborough. I was, however, working my usual weekend shift at Sky Sports, preparing programmes I was producing over that weekend.
‘Soccer Saturday’ was on air at the time and was broadcast from our studio that was effectively part of the office. Everything happened in the open, so to speak. The production staff were in shot behind the likes of presenter Jeff Stelling and Rodney Marsh. Indeed it was Rodney, an idol of mine when I was a boy and a joy to work with, who had the job of watching the Sheffield Wednesday v Arsenal match from Hillsborough on his monitor and alerting Jeff to any highlights.
At the moment Di Canio pushed Paul Alcock to the floor, Rodney Marsh and I were watching the same pictures. Rodney reacted in an excited fashion and the camera immediately cut to his astonished and amused face.
I confess that my reaction could also be heard on air. Very unprofessional from someone who had worked in television since 1980. Friend and colleague Jeff Stelling gave me a “you should know better” look. Quite rightly.
I knew there and then that Wednesday would be in big trouble that season and that Paolo Di Canio would never again be seen in a Sheffield Wednesday shirt.
Owls manager Danny Wilson didn’t want him back at Sheffield 6. Di Canio didn’t want to return to an area of England he and fellow Italian player Benito Carbone had previously called “boring.”
Danny Wilson was not the first Wednesday manager to have trouble controlling Paolo Di Canio. Ron Atkinson has also regaled me with stories of how difficult Di Canio could be. 20 years ago today was not the first time Di Canio had exploded and been sent off.
Ultimately West Ham were the beneficiaries of the infamous Di Canio push. The Sheffield Wednesday board handled the situation so badly that, in the end, they had to sell the mercurial player to the Hammers for a transfer fee of only £1 million.
He went on to score some great goals at Upton Park while also giving manager Harry Redknapp headaches. West Ham fans loved the player for ever more.
Di Canio to West Ham was one of the bargain buys in the history of the Premier League.
In the weeks after Di Canio ran away from Sheffield to Italy, Sky Sports colleague Rob McCaffrey got on a plane to Italy to try and track him down. He found the footballer riding his scooter and tried to persuade Di Canio to record an exclusive interview about that infamous push. He refused. But Rob and Paolo will always have the below special on camera moment.