His owner is trying to sell the club after the global economic recession virtually wiped out his fortune in Iceland. His club is embroiled in a massive lawsuit with a £25 million fine sitting over it’s head. His better players were sold off at an alarming rate, with no possibility of new players coming in. One player in particular staged a walkout the minute he heard there was a possibility of him leaving his club. He was told through the media that one of the biggest clubs in the world had very little interest in hiring him to manage their team. He’s comfortable for the moment, but the relegation zone is still only a rough patch away.
Clearly, Gianfranco Zola is the luckiest man in football.
The most obvious aspect of Zola’s good fortune is pretty straightforward. Since he dropped into a no-win situation, there’s relatively little pressure to succeed. With the tumultuous start to the season, subsequent departure of Alan Curbishley, and a fan base that doesn’t need a dictionary to familiarize themselves with the word “relegation,” nobody would have blamed Gianfranco Zola if keeping West Ham in the Premiership proved a bridge too far. As it stands, Zola’s record as manager is not spectacular, grabbing only 27 of a possible 63 points. When your more recent results include sneaking points off Liverpool Chelsea and Arsenal, and giving Manchester United a run for their money, however, supporters laud you for implementing a system that’s falling into place and players responding to your tactics. Reporters, supporters and pundits are even willing to overlook points dropped to other struggling clubs like West Brom, Spurs, Newcastle United and Portsmouth. Not many managers get that kind of praise based on a 43% points return.
But hey, we’ve come to praise Zola, not to bury him. His situation is a difficult one and he’s done well, taking points in 8 of the last 11 Premiership matches. But what’s more important than results for Zola is the security he’s been afforded in the West Ham hot seat.
Looking at other premiership managers of a similar age and experience, it’s clear that West Ham’s tough spot has helped Zola while others, namely Paul Ince, and Roy Keane, and have fallen.
Like Zola, Paul Ince had zero top flight experience. Unfortunately for the self-styled “Guv’nor,” he came in on the heels of his former Manchester United teammate, Mark Hughes, who kept Rovers punching above their weight during his tenure. Despite success at MK Dons, word leaked out that Ince’s training methods were, to put it mildly, unsophisticated. It appears that Incey relied a fair amount on his star power to get things done in the lower divisions, but when he tried those tactics on players who comfortably make more money than he did as a player, the bluster of self-promotion didn’t dazzle the troops into action.
Unlike the self-promoting Ince, whose attitude earned him a one-way ticket out of Manchester United, Zola is known throughout the game as the consummate gentleman whose respect for others earns him respect in return. This humility also allowed Zola to put ego aside and sign Steve Clarke, the former long-standing Chelsea number 2. Clarke’s training and tactical experience help cover up Zola’s shortcomings and allow him to focus his energies in areas of confidence.
Zola definitely has qualities that have contributed to his somewhat encouraging start, but it would be naïve to ignore the part his surroundings played in his positive publicity. There are still top flight managers who use regressive training methods (see: Megson, Gary) and an even longer list of Managers who are not on the top of any conceivable “nice guy” list (see: every manager who ever won the Premiership). Without a history expectation (See: Phil, Big) or even raised expectations, Zola has the wiggle room to make mistakes without having to look over his shoulder after every misstep. He can make mistakes and, because of the financial situation of both he club and owner, can live to err another day.
Roy Keane is a Zola contemporary who not only succeeded in keeping a club in the top flight, he managed to drag Sunderland from the foot of the table to win the Championship and promotion status that goes with it. His early start exceeded every expectation. Unfortunately, it also sealed his fate. Having only hung up his boots the year before, Keano had no experience managing players. As a man who expects nothing less than the best out of himself and anyone around him, stories in the wake of Keano’s departure from Sunderland indicate that the club needed a better buffer between taskmaster manager and players.
Even more significantly, however, Keane had a meager scouting network in place to help him suss out talent. In the Championship, it wasn’t a big problem. His three main sources of players, the Scottish Premier League, the Irish national setup, and Manchester United castoffs and loanees, were more than enough to succeed in England’s second tier. Unfortunately, you don’t see a lot of Scottish Premier League players making the jump to the English Premiership these days, and Keano wasted millions of pounds on players who were either not up to Premiership standard, like Russel Anderson and Anthony Stokes, or simply not worth the money, like Craig Gordon. Keano famously said he could tell that a player wasn’t up to standard after seeing him for five minutes on the training pitch. Sadly, he had already spent the cash to get them on that training pitch, and sales of footballers don’t come with a return policy.
Let’s be honest; there’s absolutely no reason to believe that Gianfranco Zola’s football Rolodex would be any more thorough than those of Keane’s or Ince’s, considering the three are contemporaries and the former Manchester United teammates have actually played the managerial game longer than the diminutive Chelsea icon. Therefore, lacking the proverbial pot or window, Zola never had to worry about exposing his limited scouting network to any scrutiny. Instead, he has time to try to build one up before spending any of West Ham’s minute transfer fund.
On the surface, managers like Ince and Keane appeared to be in vastly superior situations than Gianfranco Zola’s; quality players and an enthusiasm brought on by success at Ewood Park, and an administrative team that bought every player you asked for at the Stadium of Light. As it turns out, there’s a reverse to holding down a job where the business infrastructure allows you to get the job done; if the job doesn’t get done, there’s only one place to point the finger.
For some people, adversity is an excuse to fall apart. For others, it’s an opportunity to try without fear. While former Derby County manager Paul Jewell cracked jokes at his club’s and his own expense all the way to the precipice of footballing oblivion, a character like Gianfranco Zola obviously realised the tight situation at West Ham allowed him the advantage of beling allowed to grow into the job. He’s free to try new and different things, and since failure is expected, there’s no need to fret about the odd stumble and fall. Becasue he didn’t have a chance to do much of anything in the transfer market, Zola can take more time and build up a strong scouting network so he’s ready to move decisively when the opportunity finally presents itself. Due to the fact the club and the owner can’t afford to pay him not to do the manage the club, Zola realises that he enjoys a preverse form of job security and can eschew stop gap measures for long term stability and success. Instead of adopting a fatalistic stance, Zola realises that being in the wrong place at the wrong time has never been such a fortunate opportunity.