PAOLO Di Canio describes Sir Alex Ferguson as a “football god”, “the Unique One” and an “unreachable icon”. It will not stop him trying, though.
Out of loyalty to West Ham United, the Italian never played under the Scot, who announced his retirement from football this week.
But one very short, grainy clip of Scottish television was enough to teach him what he needed to know about the relentless mentality that drove Ferguson to an astonishing 49 major honours.
Sunderland’s players had better watch out. Very few remain from Roy Keane’s demanding time in the manager’s office but in the excitable Di Canio they have someone equally intent on matching Ferguson’s almost comic perfectionism.
“There is one moment that can tell you why he won everything. On May 11, 1983 he won the European Cup Winner’s Cup (with Aberdeen) and then 10 days later he won the Scottish Cup against Rangers 1-0,” he says displaying an astonishing (and accurate) memory for detail.
“Someone asked him after the game how he felt and he had a dark, angry face and he said it was a rubbish performance. He said they had to have a different mentality.
“This is the kind of man who can become a top manager, and this is why he won what he won. Two cups in ten days and he was angry with his players.”
That should give you some idea of how Sunderland’s players must have been treated after five games under Di Canio’s control which have lurched from a sublime 3-0 win at Newcastle United to a ridiculous 6-1 hammering at Aston Villa.
Di Canio is happy to give Ferguson a mystical status which makes it sound as though the Manchester United manager never so much as drew a game, yet he is disappointed at never having taken him on from the opposite dugout.
“Now one of the regrets of my career will be that my enemy in the dug-out will not be The Professor, The Football God,” he says with his usual flamboyant turn of phrase.
“That would be great for me so I am very sad that will not happen.
“He is a model and an icon to reach which is not possible because 15 years for me are enough and then bye. I am 65 now, then I will be 80,” jokes the 44-year-old.
“It is not possible to reach his level but in terms of style and what he achieved he was right time, right place and he made the generation change at the right time.
“He is still modern because he studies the new generation and their mentality. He can treat (David) Beckham like he could treat some young player 20 years before.
“So there is a fantastic brain that works so well, so it is obvious it is there but we cannot try to imitate others. He is the Unique One.
“Let him stay relaxed now because what he has done will remain forever in this sport and even in 50 years people will be talking about this unique man.”
Hearing Di Canio talk in such demanding terms will no doubt go down well with a weary Sunderland public, but they can perhaps also take heart from the loyalty which resisted more than one attempt by Ferguson to lure him to Old Trafford.
“I know in his book he said he has three big regrets,” he recalls. “One is he didn’t sign Paolo Di Canio.
“Maybe he was mad or drunk that night. I was in Italy and a friend told me and I said he was probably drinking!
“He called me two Christmas Days in a row and I thought it was my friend. I said ‘**** off,’ he said ‘No, Paolo this is Alex’.
“I said, ‘Alex who? Is this you?’
“It was incredible for me to think about, especially as I was 31 and he wanted me to play behind the strikers because (Teddy) Sheringham was nearly 40 and ready to quit. I thought, ‘This is mad that he wants me’. I thought it was a joke but I said, ‘I can’t trade (positions).’
“It was so strange I didn’t understand the first few words. I thought it was my friend from Italy messing about. But it was a fantastic moment and gave me more energy because he was an important manager and you think you are a top footballer, I didn’t have high esteem
“We didn’t negotiate anything. I said, ‘Thank you forever, but I can’t because of West Ham. I can’t trade my people. I was the captain. It was an incredible moment and we left in a good, good moment.
“I don’t have regrets because it was a life decision to be loyal and respect the West Ham family.
“I came from a bad moment at Sheffield Wednesday (leaving after picking up an 11-match ban for shoving referee Paul Alcock) and straight away they gave me a fantastic feeling. The reception was amazing.
“I could not move there even if I insulted him.”