Paolo Di Canio And The Shove Seen Around The World

Referee was sent tumbling by fiery Italian
06:56, 26 Sep 2019

The sight of referee Paul Alcock tumbling backwards having been shoved by Paolo Di Canio is still as shocking today as it was over 20 years ago, as one of the most blatant displays of ill-discipline ever seen on an English football field was somewhat lost in the bizarre nature of what happened that September day back in 1998.

The Italian's actions that afternoon are as iconic in the Premier League era as Eric Cantona's chip against Sunderland, Robbie Fowler's quick-fire hat-trick against Arsenal and Kevin Keegan's post-match rant at Richard Keys and Andy Gray. Yet somehow the seriousness of his altercation with Alcock seems to have been overlooked down the years.

Di Canio has probably earned more of a reputation for what he did off the pitch rather than on it, and for every moment of brilliance, there would be a controversy or scandal which would once again throw his career into question.

Having played for 10 clubs – including AC Milan, Juventus, Celtic and West Ham - it's some achievement that most of Di Canio's more memorable moments don't actually involve his abilities with the ball despite him having won a UEFA Cup and the Serie A title, not to mention scoring the winner in a Rome derby when playing for Lazio.

He almost caused a civil war as manager of Swindon Town following a very public bust-up with his own striker Leon Clarke, while as Sunderland boss his actions led to pretty much the entire playing squad complaining to the club's owners about his style of management – claiming that he was: “brutal and vitriolic”.

If that wasn't enough, he also proudly sports a tattoo paying tribute to Benito Mussolini which resulted in further sanctions when he appeared on Italian television as a pundit with the inking clearly on display for all to see.

Yet none of these misdemeanours come anywhere close to the uproar caused on September 26th, 1998 when Sheffield Wednesday faced Arsenal in a Premier League game at Hillsborough.

As a pretty uneventful first half was coming to a close Di Canio became embroiled in an incident which would define his career as he became heavily involved in an altercation with a number of opposition players and then the referee.

When Arsenal's Patrick Viera was challenged by Wednesday's Ritchie Humphreys and Wim Jonk, the French international ended up on the floor after having his shirt pulled, leading him to push the Dutchman in retaliation as he sprung back to his feet.

Not one to stand by and see one of his teammates dispatched by the recent World Cup winner, Di Canio ran over to the melee which was now in full-flow and decided to dish out a little justice of his own as only he could.

Pushing his former Milan colleague in the back the Frenchman was then manhandled by Arsenal defender Martin Keown in a failed attempt to keep the peace who managed to elbow a now furious Di Canio full in the mouth, only adding to his anger.

It was at that stage that a now irate Di Canio landed a kick on Keown before attempting to eye-gouge the centre back while other scuffles broke out across the pitch, including a somewhat private battle between Emerson Thome and Ray Parlour with plenty of finger-wagging.

Despite being restrained by Wednesday’s Petter Rudi the damage had already been done and referee Alcock wasted no time in brandishing the red card while pointing the angry Italian in the direction of the changing rooms.

Consumed by red mist, Di Canio pushed the 44-year-old official in the chest, sending him stumbling backwards like something out of a music hall act as supporters and players alike looked on in a mix of bemusement and amusement at what they had just witnessed. “It looked silly at the time,” Alcock later explained. “I was off balance.”

To make matters worse, or more hilarious depending on how you look at it, the Italian then looked to take his frustrations out on Nigel Winterburn, who had come across to give Di Canio a piece of his mind only for the full-back to almost dive to the floor in anticipation of an attack that never came.

"I could push my eight-year-old daughter Ludovica that way and she wouldn't fall over,” Di Canio later wrote in his autobiography. “It certainly looked bizarre. My first reaction was that somebody must have been crouching behind him, like in one of those old slapstick comedies."

Wednesday teammate Andy Hinchcliffe later told Sky Sports that after the match Di Canio was still in the dressing room looking for support from his colleagues: "He was asking us: 'Do you think I'll be banned?' We were telling him, 'Paolo, nobody has ever done this in the history of the English game.'”

Several days later, following a hearing at Sheffield United’s Bramall Lane stadium, he was handed a £10,000 fine and an 11-match ban - three for the red card and eight for the push, with Di Canio feeling it was too harsh and many referees feeling the punishment didn’t go far enough.

The incident was the beginning of the end for the forward though, who later claimed he had been "totally abandoned"  by Sheffield Wednesday, before eventually joining West Ham in a cut-price £1.7m move which reunited him with Winterburn.

Alcock, who tragically died from cancer in January 2018, continued to referee in the top tier until 2000. He would later talk in detail about how the incident affected his life and career. “I ended up being the rogue in the whole thing,” he explained.

“I had TV crews outside my house when I got home that night, with my four-year-old son asking me to get the Queen to send them away. 

“There was so much written about it, but nobody ever spoke to me about it. I’ve Bill Clinton to thank really, because his affair with Monica Lewinsky took me off the front pages!”

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