You know that something out of the ordinary is happening when the normally reserved ladies and gentlemen of the East Stand Upper begin to sing. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that we don’t care. Our reticence to follow the enthusiastic lead of the Bobby Moore Lower in claiming to be a big boy who comes from near Moscow, or suggesting that Wayne Rooney is (a) stout and (b) has a preference for older women, has more to do with age than apathy.
But we do know when we are witnessing a genius at work and are more than happy to lend our collective voice to the hymn of praise that echoes around the ground with increasing regularity these days. We realise that Dimitri Payet is Super Slav’s man, and we agree that he is better than Zidane. However, what has yet to be determined is whether or not he is on a par with the last true superstar who put a song in the heart of all of us in claret and blue.
That man, of course, was Paolo Di Canio. So, in the immortal words of my old music teacher, let us compare and contrast. If Payet is Bilic’s protÃ©gÃ©, PDC was very much Harry Redknapp’s man. Say what you like about H, he was prepared to take a punt on players who were somewhat out of the ordinary. On the minus side of the equation we had Marco Boogers, Joey Beauchamp and Florin ‘Two Bob’ Raducioiu.
On the positive side there were the likes of Marc-Vivien Foe, Trevor Sinclair and Eyal Berkovic. And there was certainly no bigger plus than Di Canio. Quite simply, he is one of the best players we’ve ever had. Anyone who has ever seen his astonishing goal against Wimbledon when he defi ed gravity to volley home Sinclair’s cross will know instantly what I’m talking about. Goal of the season? Th at was the goal of a lifetime.
There are so many Di Canio memories: the fantastic moment of sportsmanship that won him the Fifa fair play award when, rather than head home into an empty net, he caught the cross and demanded that play be stopped until the prostrate Everton keeper was restored to full health; the time he wrestled Frank Lampard Jnr for the ball when we were awarded a penalty in the amazing comeback game against Bradford City in which we turned a 2—4 defi cit into a 5—4 victory; the way he had pleaded with Redknapp to substitute him only minutes before in the same game. Had there ever been any doubt the man is a West Ham legend it would have been dispelled by the reception he received when he turned out (for both sides!) in Mark Noble’s testimonial last month.
The only twinge of regret that anyone can have about that fabulous day was that Payet couldn’t be there as well, having gone and got himself picked for France after years in the international wilderness. Seeing those two on the same pitch really would have been something to tell the grandchildren about. It is no secret that Di Canio came with some pretty heavy baggage. But while the Italian maestro specialised in falling out with referees — not least Paul Alcock, who did fall over after that infamous push — Payet has had public disagreements with team-mates.
While playing for Saint-Ã‰tienne in 2010 he was berated on the pitch by his captain for not getting stuck in. So Dimi lamped him. Rather than being thanked for showing the extra aggression required, his manager promptly substituted him and the club president imposed a heavy fine. Ain’t no pleasing some people! It’s hard to believe now, but football hasn’t always come easy to Payet.
When he returned home to the Indian Ocean island of Reunion as a 16-year-old after failing to make the grade at Le Havre in the French second division it seemed his career was over before it had begun. Two years later, after starring in his local league, he was given the opportunity to return to France with Nantes — and nearly turned it down.
‘I didn’t even want to hear talk about me ever going back to France,’ he told the Daily Mail. ‘I was traumatised by the experience and the decision by Le Havre not to keep me. I felt I hadn’t been seen in my best light. So when a second chance came along I argued about it with my dad and my uncle. They convinced me I should try my luck again, and they were right. But I didn’t want to go.’
Hardened both physically and mentally by his experience of playing as a boy against men on Reunion, he went from strength to strength — first earning himself a transfer to Saint-Ã‰tienne and then on to Lille, where he played with Joe Cole, before ending up in Marseille. By the time he joined West Ham at the beginning of this season it looked like his time as an international player had come and gone, but his performances in claret and blue clearly did not go unnoticed and French manager Didier Deschamps recalled him for friendlies against the Netherlands — hailing him as man of the match — and then Russia, in which he scored a trademark free kick from so far out he and the keeper were actually in a different arrondissements.
It was that surprise call-up which kept him out of Nobes’ testimonial. One man who did play, albeit briefly, was the mighty Julian Dicks — someone who knows both Payet and PDC well. And has no doubt who is the better player. He told the Daily Star: ‘There are similarities. But Dimitri’s work rate is fantastic. He’s running back to defend in the 90th minute. It rubs off — you take your teammates with you.’
The statistics, such as they are, suggest that Payet is more influential than Di Canio. With the mercurial Italian in the side we won almost 40% of our games; without him that win rate dropped to 22%. Payet, of course, has yet to complete a full season, while PDC was at the club for four years. But when Dimi has played we’ve won more than 50% of our games. Without him, it’s a very different story.
In the seven games he missed as a result of an ankle injury we drew five, lost one and won one. That works at a win rate of just over 14% — far lower than when Di Canio was missing. However, numbers don’t tell the full story. Payet has brought a sense of joy back to Upton Park. His touch is exquisite; his passing is sublime and some of his goals have been breathtaking. Yet my everlasting memory will be of one of the rare free kicks that didn’t end up in the back of the net.
It was only prevented from doing so by Joe Hart’s astonishing save. Payet’s reaction? At half-time he waited by the tunnel with a broad smile for the Man City keeper and congratulated him as if he were a team-mate. That’s class.
One of the joys of sport is comparing the great players of different generations, knowing full well opposite opinions can never be proved right or wrong. PDC or Payet? You pays yer money and you takes yer choice, as my old Mum used to say. Di Canio was brilliant in his day, but too often he appeared to play for us, the supporters, and himself. Payet, on the other hand, plays for us and the team as a whole. That’s why I sing just a little bit louder when Dimitri is on the ball. I’m sure you understand.
Brian Williams is the author of Nearly Reach The Sky — A Farewell to Upton Park