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David James puts the boot into Paolo Di Canio

Apr 7, 2013, 8:27 AM EDT

Sunderland's new coach Paolo Di Canio poses for photographs during a media conference at the football club's training academy Reuters

Today’s game between Chelsea and Sunderland at Stamford Bridge (10am ET) surely features two of the Premier League’s least popular managers in Rafael Benitez and Paolo Di Canio: two men castigated by their own fans before they’d so much as sat in a dug-out.

Before Di Canio became a wildly controversial manager, he was, well, a wildly controversial player. In David James’ Observer column today, the always-readable former England goalkeeper does not exactly leap to the defense of his former West Ham United team-mate.

The gist: in James’ opinion, Di Canio the player was an authoritarian, eccentric, unpopular, temperamental, cheat.

James goes on to temper his criticism, suggesting that Di Canio deserves the chance to put his past behind him, is “box office” and will get Sunderland playing attractive soccer. But there’s still some terrifically acerbic insider analysis of the Italian, who was a cult hero at Upton Park from 1999-2003.

Such as the intro to James’ piece:

We’ve got a chequered past, Paolo Di Canio and I. Nothing to do with fascism, he just had a habit of behaving a bit like a dictator. He was a flamboyant “character”, as they say, but he certainly was not very popular in the West Ham dressing room. When I think back to those days, I remember a loud and extrovert person who was – despite all he had to shout about – very much on his own. He never seemed to gel with the team.”

James, incidentally, is still playing, even though he’ll be 43 in August and is steadily sliding down the soccer ladder. It’s remarkable to reflect that he was England’s starting goalkeeper in the 2010 World Cup finals after Robert Green had ensured his place in United States legend after the first group match.

He moved on a lucrative deal to second-tier strugglers Bristol City after the tournament (a convenient commute from his home), then to third-level Bournemouth last September, parting with them last month after he lost his place in the line-up. Now he’s at IBV as a player-coach under his former Portsmouth team-mate, relegation specialist Hermann Hreidarsson. Playing on a tiny island off the south coast of Iceland, population around 4,000.

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