While we seem to be steering into choppy and unchartered waters with poor finances, questionable PR decisions and variable form. Down the A420 things are similarly, and as always, more spectacularly in flux. Demanding to be centre of attention, once again, is Paolo Di Canio. If he does leave, perhaps he should be remembered fondly in Oxford as well as in Swindon.
It’s not been a great week; Ian Lenegan admitted that discussions hadn’t started on new contracts, we’re set to have a £450,000 defecit this year, Bridle are to end their sponsorship, the whole Luke McCormick thing, and then, fittingly, the defeat to Southend after dominating.
Down the A420 things haven’t been great either; the club have sold their prize asset, they’re set to have a new owner with less than sparkling credentials. If there is a tonne of money in that deal, then why sell your best player? And now, Paolo Di Canio is imploding.
It feels like we’re at the end of something. A golden period for the Oxford Swindon rivalry. At our end, it’s not necessarily Ian Lenagan or Chris Wilder’s fault. The economy continues to bumble along and the government’s austerity measures are digging in. Companies that have been steered through the recession are beginning to feel the pain. The middle classes are feeling the bite. It’s not quite that they’re starving to death, there’s still enough money to buy quinoa, but for the casual football fan the decision whether to go to games; based on the weather, the need to get that rubbish down to the tip and the price; is becoming a little less compelling by the week.
The period started at Wembley in 2010. If we’re talking about moments, perhaps it was when Isaiah Rankin skewed his shot wide at 2-1 when he should have tied the game up and broken our spirit. For them, it’s that little bobble in front of Charlie Austin as he bore down on goal in Swindon’s play-off final against Millwall. At that point, we were on a collision course.
The immovable object finally hit the irresistible force a year later, and everything that followed pivoted around two people. For us, it was James Constable, and I’ve done plenty on him and will, no doubt, do plenty more in the future. For them, it was Paolo. And, I have to confess something, I think he’s great.
Di Canio lifted the rivalry up from the norm; he’s the lightening rod for more intense media attention. And, he’s a fascist; how brilliant is that? A real, proper, ideologically evil nut job. He lit the bonfire by bidding for James Constable on two occasions. Constable resisted like Luke Skywalker repelling Darth Vader. It was a titanic struggle. When we beat them, first at the County Ground, and then at the Kassam with 10 men we defeated evil. It was perfect. The rivalry burned long and bright; they were more successful in the main, but we won the head to heads. The argument as to who was better was gloriously unresolvable.
But Di Canio is more than just a pantomime villain. Not only do I think he’s proved himself as a manager, but I like the way he runs his club. I saw both of our home wins, and although our performances were heroic, they were an excellent team playing attractive football. You can easily, and reasonably, argue that the success was fuelled by money they didn’t have, but Di Canio; although fortunate to have been given the funds, used them well. The ability to turn raw funding into a successful squad is not a just job is a skill that is often overlooked.
There’s more; he was hyperbolic – Constable being a Swindon fan; having an on-pitch punch-up with Leon Clarke, substituting his goalkeeper after 21 minutes, declaring that there should be a plaque put up in tribute to their win over Wigan, and claiming our rivalry was one of the most intense he knew. When he started he was a guest at the Swindon half marathon, taking a wrong turn during his ceremonial run, he ran the whole thing. More recently, he was helping clear their pitch when it snowed; buying all those who helped pizza as thanks. Fans love people with commitment, and here was someone whose commitment was almost maniacal.
Di Canio’s uncompromising ideology was always going to be his downfall. When he arrived, most predicted that it was collapse in high farce, although I don’t think I was alone in thinking that it would probably happen in a matter of weeks, not years. The lower leagues are characterised by boom and bust, and Di Canio is similarly volatile. Eventually two would combust. That moment seems to have come.
We move on into a new era. Not necessarily better, not necessarily worse, just different. Of the two clubs, I suspect our future is fractionally more secure. We’ve demonstrated classic English conservatism throughout. For all Ian Lenagan’s failings; he steers a very steady course for the club, too steady for some. I doubt, however, that our future is going to see a meteoric rise up the divisions. They are faced with clawing back the excesses of the last few years with an owner who has been ploughing his millions into, um, Banbury United; currently lying 12th in the Evo Stik Southern Premier Division.
The way that Di Canio is carving out his exit, as the passionate leader being ousted by the very people he saved, he will no doubt always be remembered for putting together a great team and going on a great adventure. As an Oxford fan, I’d like to thank him too.