Di Canio’s wing man ready to fly solo

By Craig Turnbull

Fabrizio Piccareta might not yet be a household name in Scottish football but he can certainly claim to have mingled with some esteemed personalities and characters in the game.

Hearts boss Robbie Neilson, Partick Thistle’s Alan Archibald and Dundee’s Paul Hartley are just some of the former players and managers he has come across whilst the Italian coach is working to get his pro licence badge at the SFA’s renowned training course at Largs.

However, there is probably one name that stands out from the rest in Piccareta’s footballing journey: Paolo Di Canio.

The former West Ham, Lazio and Celtic striker was technically brilliant which was only matched by his fierce competitiveness, tenacity and explosive personality on the park.

His desire to win was rarely beaten and Piccareta saw up close the lengths Di Canio would go to ensure victory.

Now at Serie A side Sampdoria as an academy coach, the 51-year-old recalls a moment whilst being the assistant to Di Canio at Swindon that for him defined the Italian.

“It was the middle of winter in 2013 and Swindon were in League One, sitting third and in the hunt for promotion to the Championship,” he said.

Di Canio's wing man ready to fly solo PLZ Soccer

“Our pitch was completely covered in snow and we were told our match against Shrewsbury was off on Friday,” he said.

“Paolo was mad. He wanted the game on so Paolo, myself, the goalkeeping coach and the fitness coach took shovels and the four of us started clearing the big pitch on our own.

“Other staff members started to join in. Word soon spread and by 9pm we had 300 fans clearing the pitch and at midnight it was cleared.

“To show his gratitude he bought Pizza for every single person who helped.

“It was a statement to his players: if you want something that much you can get it. We ended up winning 2-0.”

But the Italian duo’s paths crossed well before then at the national Italian coaching centre ‘Coverciano’ and he felt an immediate bond with the former attacker, sharing a philosophy in how they felt football should be played.

A few years later, Di Canio took Piccareta to Swindon in 2011 but no coaching manual could prepare him for a job with the former attacker.

“Paolo always said: ‘just like in war sometimes you have to leave those behind on the battlefield whose behaviour didn’t meet your expectations.’

“To be his assistant was a tough job because his standards are very, very high. He expects the same from his players as he does his staff.

“But if you can match his standard you can improve a lot both as a player and a coach.

“For example, Matt Ritchie is a Scotland international and is one of the best performers in the Premier League but he was a League Two player when he was with us at Swindon.

“He managed to follow Paolo’s instructions, his ideas and be more professional with his efforts and now he has become what he is.

“There were moments where Paolo was very strict and very tough to maintain the discipline.

Di Canio's wing man ready to fly solo PLZ Soccer

Former Chelsea boss Andre Villas-Boas did his coaching badges at Largs next to World Cup winner Marcello Lippi

“At the end of the first season at Swindon we needed a point to win the league and a few players went out for a party and a few drinks before the game against Aldershot.

“He knew about this story and in the crucial game he left those players at home to show that you always have to be professional regardless of whether you’re on the verge of winning the league or not.

“Everything he did was for the benefit of the team.

“That’s Paolo, you have to match his standards otherwise you’re out.”

Piccareta continued to be Di Canio’s assistant when he left Swindon to join Premier League side Sunderland, but his beliefs and views on the game were also shaped by World Cup-winning manager Marcello Lippi, who coached him at his first club as a young player at Sampdoria in the early 1980s.

“I spent two years with him I was a young player and the captain of the youth team at Sampdoria,” he said.

“It was over 30 years ago so I can’t remember how he trained us.

“But what I do remember was his ability to make players feel part of something important.

“He made us feel like a real team. We always wanted to fight for each other.

“This is something that you could see when he became a manager at the top level. He could get the most out of his players. We wanted to play for him.

“Paolo taught me how important it is to be focused on your target and always put the team first before the individual.

“I think if you can mix discipline with respect and of course tactical nous you can get the most out of your team.”

After all the experience he’s gained from different coaches and managers down the years, Picaretta believes he’s ready to step into the manager’s shoes and hopes to make an impact in Scotland.

“Whatever you decide to do in life you have to have ambition to succeed at the highest level,” he said.

“If I go back to when I started out as a coach with young players I said to myself I want to do the best I can.

“I don’t know how high I will rise but I’ll do my best.

“After 10 years I was in the dugout at Sunderland in the Premier League so with hard work, commitment and a bit of luck you can achieve your aims.

“Now my aim is to put my mark on Scottish football I don’t know where or which position but for sure I will do it.”

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