It’s been 20 years since Paolo Di Canio walked past a statuesque Fabian Barthez to help West Ham clear Manchester United of the FA Cup in the fourth round.
Stunned ability Old Trafford watched in horror as the Italian slipped behind United’s backline to retrieve Frederic Kanoute’s perfectly weighted ball, before calmly stroking the ball past Barthez with the outside of his foot.
His finish was as cool as it gets, his celebration was iconic, and his West Ham legend was already assured. But things could have been very different for Di Canio just a year later, had the fiery striker chosen to get Sir Alex Ferguson to accept the offer to join Manchester United.
The Red Devils needed striking reinforcements after they sold Andy Cole to Blackburn and put up for sale fellow treble-winning Dwight Yorke.
But instead of jumping, Di Canio remained loyal to Hammers manager Harry Redknapp, who had taken a kick out of him years earlier when no one else would – due to Di Canio’s infamous altercation with the referee Paul Alcock, whom he had pushed to the ground. after being kicked out of Sheffield on Wednesday. This incident resulted in a heavy ban of 11 matches for the Italian.
The decision to deny Sir Alex Ferguson’s appeal therefore cost Di Canio the chance to play for the best team in the country by far. Nonetheless, he felt he could not give up on West Ham after these gave him the opportunity to pursue his career at the highest level, becoming, in his own words, “family”.
“I thought it was a joke. I thought it was my friend from Italy, ”Di Canio reminded Sky Sports in April 2020.“ My stomach got a bit confused because it makes you think you underestimated yourself, that you are bigger than you thought.
“Man Utd is calling you, try to persuade you to move because they want you.” For a few minutes you feel big and strong. It was strange for me to say no to Sir Alex. I said “thank you, 1000 times thank you, but I can’t. West Ham is the family that warmed me up at the worst time of my life, I’m the skipper, I can’t.
“He said to me: ‘Paolo, respect for that, I like people who think this way. You are the man I thought you were.
Sir Alex Ferguson eventually had to settle for Diego Forlan, but the Uruguayan failed to become the perfect partner the Scotsman so desperately wanted to find for head talisman Ruud van Nistelrooy. Missing out on Di Canio was something he still ruined years later, when he told GQ magazine how much he thinks the Italian could have made an impact.
“Di Canio would have been able to become a very great player at Manchester United,” Ferguson remarked (quotes from the Telegraph). “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 does… we quickly make heroes here. Di Canio could have been in this category.
He eventually ended his England career at Charlton Athletic, after West Ham was unable to renew his contract after their relegation in 2003. And although he never graced Old Trafford turf as a player, Manchester United will never forget the day Paolo Di Canio came to FA Cup City.
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