Maverick worth the risk

 

Daniel Taylor on how Paolo Di Canio, despite his fragile temperament and self-destructive tendencies, may well prove as inspirational a signing by Alex Ferguson as Eric Contona was in 1992.

The comparisons are inevitable. First and foremost, Paolo Di Canio is not being seen as a replacement for Andy Cole. Nor should he be touted as Teddy Sheringham's successor. To examine the reasons why Manchester United are coveting West Ham's captain, it is necessary to go further back than that. Whisper it quietly, but Alex Ferguson believes he is close to signing the next best thing to Eric Cantona.

Di Canio's preferred choice of reading may be Benito Mussolini biographies rather than French literature, but the similarities with United's Gallic hero go beyond losing the plot every once in a while or a penchant for playing wooden parts in wooden movies.

Cantona has been elevated to such superhuman status at Old Trafford that it might seem premature to start comparing Di Canio, another aspiring thespian, with someone recently voted above George Best as being the best United player of all time.

Yet there is little doubt Ferguson sees Di Canio's impending £3.5 million sterling defection to Old Trafford as providing a similar catalyst to that of Cantona's £1.2 million arrival from Leeds United three months into the 1992-93 season.

It is chiselled into the club's annals how Cantona's talismanic presence helped United re-establish themselves as England's premier club and lay the foundations for Ferguson to fumigate Old Trafford of the stench of obvious under-achievement. Now, if Di Canio opts to sever his ties with the East End his role will be to supply the flash of inspiration, a la Cantona, to transform an erratic side into realistic contenders for the European Cup.

Some may contest Di Canio, with a history of self-destructive tendencies and not a single cap for Italy, does not merit such a move. It is certainly true that, away from Upton Park in particular, some of his performances for West Ham this season have been poor.

Yet it is also beyond doubt that this talented yet temperamental 33-year-old, from the toughest streets of Rome's Quarticciolo district, is the sort of person who will thrive in the claustrophobic environment of Old Trafford.

"As a big player, imagine being a footballer at the end of your career and there is a big club like Manchester United that want you," said his agent Matteo Roggi. "I think almost every player would like to play for one of these teams once in his life and Paolo would love this opportunity."

If the opening four months of Ferguson's parting season has been a period for experimentation, the most overwhelming conclusion must be that there is no one in United's squad as naturally inclined to play just behind Ruud van Nistelrooy in attack as Di Canio. Paul Scholes has blossomed in recent weeks, but only after reverting back to his preferred midfield role, while the notion that Dwight Yorke might be the ideal foil has been undermined by all the stories of his extra-curricular activities.

Ferguson is keen to switch back to deploying Van Nistelrooy as a lone striker when they resume Champions League duties next month and Di Canio will be free to supply the Dutchman's ammunition, providing he signs before the European deadline of January 31st.

The most pertinent question then would be which two of Scholes, Juan Sebastian Veron, Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Nicky Butt and Roy Keane will have to be left out of midfield. Ferguson has many qualities, but making six go into four is out of even his reach.

Di Canio's infamous shove on the referee Paul Alcock in September 1998 - "I could have pushed my eight-year-old daughter Ludovica that way and she wouldn't have fallen over," he later said - is the evidence United would be getting more than just another footballer.

He remembers one newspaper describing him as "being without a friend or supporter in English football", yet it just needs a few minutes in the chairman's office at Upton Park to see how revered he has become since signing from Sheffield Wednesday for £1.7 million.

There are trophies from days gone by, Trevor Brooking's first England shirt, pictures of Bobby Moore at his pomp and, hanging from the wall, a framed photograph of Di Canio's 1999-2000 goal of the season against Wimbledon. He is the only player from the modern era to feature in what has become a shrine to the club.

Harry Redknapp describes him as one of the best signings he ever made, and the statistics would support that theory. West Ham obtained an average of 1.26 points in the league games he played last season, compared to 0.43 in those he missed. With him on the pitch, they averaged 1.3 goals. When he was absent it was 0.71.

Lest it be forgotten he also scored the winner in an FA Cup tie at Old Trafford, keeping his nerve while Fabien Barthez did his impression of someone hailing a cab on Champs D'Elysee. A finish, indeed, that Cantona would have been proud of.