The departure of John Collins from Celtic for the 1996/97 season was bad. He had been a hero for many Hoops fan and people wondered who could even replace him?
The response came in what I can only explain as a Tasmanian Devil erased from AC Milan Signor Paolo Di Canio.
The first I’d heard about his impending move to G40 3RE was a little snippet from the Sunday Mail transfer rumours column. This was a guy who’d just won the Scudetto with AC Milan after all.
When writing this piece I had been thinking how best to structure it and I thought it best when we look back at three of Paolo’s most memorable fixtures. They truly do encompass everything that made him the maverick that would leave the fans begging for more but regrettably, we’d only have that one time to cherish. So let us enjoy this piece of nostalgia together.
DC as I liked to call him well and truly arrived on the scene at Rugby Park on 24 August 1996. Most Celtic fans of a particular vintage will remember this fixture nicely for the unveiling of the much loved bumblebee kit.
It was safe to say summer was over, the weather was dreadful, tipping down it before kick-off. Di Canio would start the game on the seat and Killie went in at half-time one nil up courtesy of Mark Reilly. DC was brought on as a sub for Brian McLaughlin in the 57th minute and he would make an immediate effect, levelling the scores at a single piece in the 61st minute with a deft flick with the outside of the right peg.
It was a pulsating thirty odd minute cameo in the Roman and I for one was captivated.
My next fixture could illustrate the self-destructive facet to Di Canio that could leave a lot of fans arguing over whether he was actually worth the aggro.
To me, it did believe he was getting a pantomime villain and you could not help but think his card has been marked with the refereeing fraternity.
The match took place on the 30 November in Celtic Park versus Hearts completing two apiece. This was a game that I walked in the direction of Barr’s car park in the full time whistle asking myself if only.
Burns set up the team in a 4-4-2 formation and with Van Hooijdonk absent, Di Canio formed the attacking partnership with red hot Jorge Cadete.
An inadequate area was a feature of the game. Another fiery Italian Pasquale Bruno was lucky to remain on the park following a callous battle on Cadete midway through the first half, getting a yellow card. The on tune Colin Cameron drew first blood in the 30th minute against the run of play.
Looking back on this first half performance, Di Canio showed glimmers of his brilliance but he had been simmering underneath.
Hearts again took the lead with a recent acquisition from Dundee Neil McCann adding his name to the score sheet at the 64th minute. As the game entered the final fifteen minutes Di Canio drew in a needless struggle from Neil Pointon. Pointon, who was already on a yellow card avoided receiving his marching orders. Would DC receive the identical kind of clemency?
Di Canio stepped up to take the penalty peacefully sending Hearts’keeper Rousset the wrong way. The Roman red mist descended as Di Canio got into a scuffle in the goalmouth, excited as he was to get the game resumed. Di Canio began remonstrating with the Hearts players on his way back to the halfway line before squaring around Stevie Fulton. Already on a yellow card, referee Dougal did not hesitate to dole out a second yellow and the prospect of clinching the 3 points and the chance to go top of the league.
My third and last memory is a really special one for me since it was the first time I had seen the famous Glasgow Celtic defeats our arch-rivals. Doing this under the Parkhead lights made it even more memorable.
Di Canio would play a role in both goals that night in early March 1997. The first punch landed at the tenth minute. A corner kick from Di Canio was fulfilled by fans favorite Malky MacKay with a near-post header.
Cadete was brought down in the box by Swedish import Joachim Bjorklund, over to you DC, since he coolly put away the resulting spot-kick. Di Canio was replaced at halftime by Thom as much for his own protection as anyone else. No matter his job was done.
What a spectacular player Di Canio was, only a pity about his black political views but that is another story.