'Don't do the things I did as a player': Meet Paolo Di Canio, football manager

League Two Swindon sprang a surprise when they gambled on the maverick Italian, yet the greater shock, he tells Nick Szczepanik, is he will be big on discipline and respect for officials
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If Paolo Di Canio's new team can play a game anywhere near as good as the one their manager talks, then Swindon Town are in for a memorable season.

The Italian took over at the County Ground in May after Swindon's relegation to League Two, and his enthusiasm for his first taste of management is obvious as he sets a new world speed-talking record, his words full of passion, technical detail and wit.

Ask what he thinks of today's opponents, Crewe Alexandra, and you get an exhaustive tactical breakdown. Enquire about managers who have influenced him and back comes a long list, along with some accurate mimicry of Fabio Capello, the England manager and his coach at Milan. His Harry Redknapp isn't bad either, but now he has to move from impersonating a manager to being the real thing.

Listening to him, though, you understand that anyone expecting a novelty act will be disappointed. Di Canio is serious: he has made 12 new signings, brought in an all-Italian coaching staff, and introduced strenuous double training sessions that reflect his own dedication to fitness during his days with Lazio, Milan, Juventus, Celtic, Sheffield Wednesday, West Ham and Charlton Athletic. And any thoughts of building a team in his own flamboyant image are leavened with a healthy dose of realism.

"You can't judge your players by the way you played," he said. "That's not good. I'm a manager at League Two level and I have to understand the league and the players. If you think you can play possession football like Barcelona at this level, you can't.

"Obviously I've always said that I'll try to play attractive football for this league. I want to win, attack with five players, but also not concede a goal. Of course I'd like to beat [Swindon's rivals] Oxford 4-0, show our football and destroy them. But if it's not possible, [and it's] 1-0, ugly game, we'll say: 'OK, three points, we accept them and next game we'll try to play better'."

Di Canio is remembered for outrageous moments of skill, and will encourage his players to try the spectacular, but only when the time is right. "I'm never going to tell players not to try tricks, do their stuff, especially if they're talented, but do it in the area, where it should be. It does not mean anything to do a backflick in midfield. Even Messi doesn't do that. Do something incredible, special, but not where the risk is bigger of what can happen when you lose the ball for a stupid thing. I don't want to stop their talent, but if it's better to pass, pass."

Di Canio also had a stormy relationship with referees, either pushing them over, as in the case of Paul Alcock in a match for Wednesday against Arsenal in 1998 (for which he was banned for 11 matches), or beating the ground in frustration after yet another penalty claim had been turned down. But Di Canio the manager is a reformed character, or so he says.

"As a player, I was there, I received the kick, so I know I was fouled. As a manager, you can't do the same, because you can't see, 60, 70 yards from the box. I can't go crazy, I have to give a positive message to my players. I don't know what my reaction will be – maybe I'll do the same as them – but I think you'll be surprised, to see a new Paolo di Canio: cooler, more quiet, more focused, more concentrating on what's going on.

"If some players behave badly like I did as a player, I'll say: 'Don't do that just because I did it. You lose energy. Shouting "Ref!" even once, you lose time, maybe you don't recover your position.' If they look at YouTube and say, 'You did that,' I'll say: 'Yes, I've punished myself. And now I'll punish you'."

Discipline is part of the reason he names Capello as the manager who has influenced him most strongly. "Milan won everything, so if you're stupid, you think people like him are wrong, but not if you're intelligent like me. Once every, maybe, 200 sessions they didn't train so good, and he was there, saying to Baresi, 'Franco, you have to do better.' He even won the league with Roma, which is nearly impossible.

"Tactically, Marcello Lippi at Naples, Delio Rossi at Lazio was amazing. And [former Charlton manager] Alan Curbishley – he surprised me. People say not many British managers focus on tactics, but I don't understand why he hasn't got a club.

"Tommy Burns at Celtic, who is not any more with us, was fantastic to me. After 20 days I nearly left because I wasn't happy and he grabbed my throat and shook me as my older brother would. I felt I had to give everything for him, and thanks to him I learned what it meant to play here in Britain. Harry Redknapp – when I think of him I smile. We still keep in contact."

Di Canio is not the type of player usually seen as manager material, even by himself. "I couldn't imagine that I'd stay in football as a protagonist. But when I was nearly finished it felt natural. I completed three courses in Italy and in all of them I finished at the top. And that was at Coverciano [Italy's national coaching centre], where Arrigo Sacchi, Capello, Carlo Ancelotti, all the main managers, worked.

"I've switched off from being a player. I can't think of juggling a ball, I can't even play in five-a-sides with my brothers. I use all my energy helping the players. At the moment everything is good, the players enjoy training, they think: 'Mamma mia, I never felt strong like now.' We'll see if that changes when we lose the first game – far from now, I hope."

Crewe will be out to make that happen today in the first game of a season that Di Canio is looking forward to as much as when he played. "I think I'll feel exactly the same way as at the first pre-season friendly, the first training session. I had something in my stomach, but in a positive way, like when I was playing. But now I have to be more cool or when we're playing to go into the Premier League, I'll go mad."

Di Canio's Maddest Moments

1998: While at Sheffield Wednesday, Di Canio was suspended by the Football Association for 11 games and fined £10,000 for pushing referee Paul Alcock after being sent off against Arsenal.

2001: The Italian won Fifa's Fair Play award after opting to catch an inviting cross and stop play, rather than score into an open goal, having seen Everton goalkeeper Paul Gerrard down injured.

2005: After scoring in the Rome derby for Lazio, Di Canio celebrated by raising a straightened arm, instantly recognisable as the "Roman salute" used by Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.