by James Bennett
They say football can be a fickle sport, but when ‘they’ (whoever they are) say that, they’re usually talking about fans or the media. Paolo Di Canio is defying this by being the most fickle football manager of all time.
For those unfamiliar with the lower leagues, Di Canio, a star of West Ham United, Lazio and fascism amongst others, became manager of Swindon Town last summer, the Robins having just been relegated to League Two. Over the summer he signed a stack of players, including a series of obscure foreign imports. Initially, it didn’t seem as if it would work, but in the second half of the season, they were in a class of their own and comfortably clinched the title. Di Canio received the plaudits.
However, something that has since been overlooked is the fact that over the course of the season, the club registered 48 different players. Forty-eight. There were more ins and outs than a hokey-cokey at a 6-year-old’s birthday party. Many of the foreign players failed to make an impact, and Di Canio publicly fell out with and sold striker Leon Clarke. And yet somehow it worked.
At the heart of the team was goalkeeper Wes Foderingham, who arrived on loan from Crystal Palace during the first half of the season, originally as cover, and impressed enough for Di Canio to sign him permanently in January. 21-year-old Foderingham has again begun this season as first choice keeper, while around him there have been yet more changes: 7 signings in June, followed by another 6 in the last 2 days of the transfer window, while 13 players were released on free transfers. Former captain Paul Caddis fell out with Di Canio and was loaned out to Birmingham City for the season.
In such a volatile situation, even an outstanding performer like Foderingham was at risk. Against Preston on Sunday, two goals conceded in the first 10 minutes infuriated the Italian so much that he replaced his goalkeeper 10 minutes later. Foderingham was understandably furious. After the match (which Swindon lost 4-1 – clearly a change of keeper made little difference), Di Canio branded him ‘one of the worst players I have ever seen’, a far cry from the praise he had given him just a few months previously. Wes was forced to publicly apologise to the team in order to avoid being dropped altogether.
Foderingham is clearly a talented keeper who may progress beyond League One in the near future, which raises the question: does Di Canio know what he’s doing? Has he merely won the League Two title by default, essentially via a massive trough of cash to spend on players and an extreme authoritative style of management? Or is it – the latter – the point? For now, Paolo can point to his record and get away with it.
The Championship is proving as competitive as ever: Blackpool top the Championship 9 points from 12. With Leicester edging Ian Holloway’s side 1-0 on Saturday, 14 teams have either 2 or 3 wins from the first 4 matches. It remains impossible to call who the main contenders are: Blackburn remain unbeaten under Steve Kean (first time anyone’s said that in a while); Nottingham Forest likewise under Sean O’Driscoll; Neil Warnock’s Leeds side looks difficult to beat; big spenders Cardiff remain one of the favourites too, after beating Wolves 3-1 after a hat-trick from Peter Whittingham.
Two of the sides that have surprisingly struggled so far are Bolton and Birmingham. Owen Coyle’s Trotters had been expected to launch an immediate campaign to return to the top flight after retaining most the talented players in the squad, but while they are unbeaten at the Reebok Stadium, they have lost both away games so far. Meanwhile, the Blues, under new manager Lee Clark, picked up their first win of the season this weekend over struggling Peterborough, who are the only side yet to win a match and remain rooted to the bottom with no points.
Two teams who weren’t expected to do especially well currently top League One with 10 points from 12 – Tranmere Rovers and Yeovil Town. It is a lot more spaced out than the Championship already, and some of the expected contenders are moving into position. Sheffield United currently lie 5th, MK Dons (after at last not having a man sent off this weekend) are 7th just ahead of Swindon, while Preston’s first win of the season moved them into 12th on Sunday.
Towards the bottom, there are some surprise faces. Coventry, having sacked Andy Thorn, fell to their first defeat of the season (see what I did there?), slipping to 18th. They sit just above AFC Bournemouth, who with their Russian backing and mad chairman Eddie Mitchell had thrown loads of money at players all summer and yet have no wins from their first 4 matches – the pressure will no doubt be mounting on Paul Groves already. Portsmouth’s makeshift side is also yet to win.
It’s not really surprising to see a Martin Allen side top of League Two. Gillingham are one of only two unbeaten sides in the division at the moment, taking 10 points from the first 12. They lost their 100% record this weekend, though, with a draw at home to Chesterfield, who sacked manager John Sheridan last week. The other unbeaten side is my team Torquay, although it has to be said that we have won just one of those four matches and currently sit 11th in the table.
Rotherham have hurled wads of cash at some of the best players in the lower leagues this summer with their move into the New York Stadium (in Rotherham – not New York). Their 4-0 win over Bradford was the sort of performance we had expected to see – clearly the squad is beginning to gel under Steve Evans. Fellow big spenders Fleetwood, Conference champions last year, also scored 4, as Aldershot were swept aside at Highbury (in Fleetwood – not London).
Meanwhile, towards the bottom, there was better news for AFC Wimbledon. Hammered 6-2 and 5-1 in the previous two matches, they at least only conceded 2 this time to Dagenham & Redbridge, as well as scoring 2 of their own, which should put a bit of confidence back into the Dons after the heavy defeats. It certainly could be worse – Bristol Rovers, fancied by many as promotion contenders, are currently 23rd, ahead only of perennial strugglers Barnet after a 3-0 defeat to Morecambe. The Pirates have played only 3 matches after last weekend’s match against Wycombe was abandoned – they led 3-1 at the time, which explains why they were particularly annoyed about it.
Next weekend, I get to see some actual real life football as Torquay host Plymouth in a Devon derby. The A379 Derby (probably).