Di Canio swaggers into town for a revamped series of The Big Valley

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The Independent Football

It could be a B movie about a sinister foreign scientist: The Di Canio Experiment. Or perhaps a domestic drama: "Down-to-earth south London household takes in moody Italian genius, with unpredictable results".

Sitcom? Thriller? Or even a soap opera if the genius in question reprises his most recent role, at the football club closest to Albert Square? Nobody knows. The script is not yet written, and will only begin to unfold this afternoon, when Charlton Athletic play their first Premiership game of the season, at home to Manchester City.

Furthermore it is not even clear whether the hero will be heading the Cast In Order Of Appearance, settling for a late cameo, or waiting for a grand entrance in next weekend's instalment (location: Wolverhampton).

What is clear is that, until now, Charlton have not gone in for stars - even 35- year-old ones such as Paolo Di Canio, recently of West Ham. The one real precedent was not a happy one. In October 1982, football was stunned when Charlton, halfway down the old Second Division, announced the signing of Allan Simonsen, a former European Footballer of the Year, from Barcelona. As with most goings-on in the shadowy reign of the chairman Mark Hulyer, the precise financial details were never made clear, though a fee of £324,000 was quoted.

The little Dane scored nine goals in 16 games, but the rest of the team never quite seemed on the same wavelength, the club's finances grew ever more precarious and on 27 February 1983, Rothmans Football Yearbook recorded: "Charlton reluctantly announce that the Allan Simonsen signing was a costly mistake." The lesson was not lost on one of their next recruits, a blond midfielder from Aston Villa called Alan Curbishley.

For 20 years that sort of experiment was never repeated. Big names on big wages were simply not Charlton's way. In the side that first reached the Premiership, in 1998, the most influential players were the leading scorer, Clive Mendonca from Grimsby Town, the captain, Mark Kinsella from Colchester United, and Richard Rufus from the club's rightly vaunted youth section. When eventually taking up the fashion for foreign signings, Curbishley insisted on players well versed in the British game, such as Claus Jensen and Mark Fish from Bolton and Jonatan Johansson from Rangers. But the club's ideal acquisition always seemed to be a Jason Euell; young, English, versatile, with capacity for improvement and therefore sell-on value.

Only in extremis has Curbishley briefly changed that policy: with the icy waters of relegation closing in during that first season, he sought some buoyancy with a portly John Barnes, and two years ago, during a sudden injury crisis, the equally well-travelled Portuguese defender Jorge Costa was loaned from Porto. Solid characters in every sense, both mucked in, passed on valuable experience to the younger players and allowed supporters a little reflected glory.

This summer's signings seemed to be following a more familiar pattern. Ipswich Town's Matt Holland and Hermann Hreidarsson, although both 29, are multi-skilled, reliable professionals long admired by Charlton; Julian Gray, 23, whose compensation fee from Crystal Palace is still being haggled over, is another Euell in a much-needed wide position. But the way the side had fallen away to 12th place at end of last season and shaped up in pre-season games convinced Curbishley that what was required was "something a little bit different".

That recurring phrase from his many interviews last week (one signing and Charlton are suddenly media darlings) sums up well enough what Di Canio brings to the (League) table. Perspiration has never been in short supply at The Valley or the club's Eltham training ground - "Curbishley's players were some of the most dedicated professionals I've ever encountered," Barnes observed. "They trained like they played, with one hundred per cent commitment." Inspiration is what has been lacking, and what Di Canio, with his beautiful touch, brilliant feet and sublime vision, has been hired to offer.

In addition, Curbishley, unlike some of the Italian's previous managers, welcomes his input and has his respect. What he will not want are any temperamental outbursts to the newspapers, any flouncing around when taken off the pitch or left on the bench, and any of the minor ailments that have mysteriously affected his new signing in the past when a long journey up north is imminent.

There is a trade-off. In a marked departure from The Charlton Way, Di Canio will not be expected to track back and harry opponents in the manner that has been the team's trademark over the past five years. "The others will do that for him," promised Curbishley, who mixes pride at his club's achievements with determination to avoid any complacency. Hence last week's unexpectedly bold flourish.

"While we mustn't forget where we came from, we've got to remember to keep looking to see where we can go next," the manager has said. Episode One of a new series begins shortly. Unpredictable as the leading man may be, a Hammer horror seems one of the less likely outcomes.

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