Gianfranco Zola – Football’s Mr Nice Guy
Ok I give up, I can’t find one.
I’ve tried to find a football fan that has a strong disliking for Gianfranco Zola and failed miserably – the guy is just too darn nice!
Even those who aren’t fond of Chelsea – the club he played for so successfully – can’t help but respect and admire not just his skills as a footballer but his attitude and professionalism both on and off the field. He is a true footballing gentleman.
He has, of course, made a return to the Premier League this season as manager of West Ham – and the league is much richer for his return.
You may think it is odd that, in the week of the Champions League semi-finals and ahead of a weekend packed full of titanic relegation and title battles, I have decided to talk about a side that currently lie seventh in the table.
But I think its worth going against the grain on this one as his achievements in what potentially could have been a troubled season at Upon Park deserves a mention.
His predecessor, Alan Curbishley, had left on transfer deadline day following arguments with the club’s board over transfer policy – in particular the enforced sales of Anton Ferdinand and George McCartney.
Now I am not sure of the exact ins and outs of the boardroom wrangles that tainted the dieing embers of Curbishley’s reign, perhaps Hammers fans can enlighten me?
But it did seem apparent that supporters weren’t exactly disappointed with his departure, given the direct style of football he was uncomfortably enforcing on the playing squad.
Another rather uneasy backdrop for Hammers fans was the ongoing financial problems. Firstly sponsor XL Airlines went bust which not only cost the club money but forced them to patch over the XL logo on the club shirts with the players’ squad number. Though that was a minor aesthetic inconvenience when you consider, following the collapse of the Icelandic economy, the very future of the club was put into question, with administration mooted if a buyer could not be found. Only this week the alleged debts of chairman Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson have been put at £300 million, with another Icelandic bank apparently ready to launch a takeover bid.
Added to that was the extended hangover from the Carlos Tevez affair and a costly out of court settlement which put a further drain on the clubs shrinking finances. Now whether the financial situation was exaggerated by the press I don’t know for sure, but it certainly wasn’t looking rosy.
So all in all it wasn’t the most settled of situations when Zola strolled into East London in early September. I have to admit at the time I had my doubts. He had no club managerial experience, with only a spell with the Italy Under-21 set-up to fall back on. Plus history has proved that great players don’t necessarily make great managers. It was a baptism of fire in one of the toughest leagues in the world and I wondered yet again – is he just too nice to be a manager?
Now I admit my initial thoughts and fears turned out to be naive – shouting and bawling isn’t always needed to get the best out of your players. It seems Zola’s thoughtful and measured approach, particularly with West Ham’s younger players, has borne fruit.
With not much money to work with (Bellamy was also sold off under Zola’s stewardship) the former Chelsea man has had to, in the main, work with what has got. Of the players who have come in Ilunga has become a fans favourite at fullback and January window signing Nsereko appears to have future potential (I haven’t seen too much of him though – again could Hammers fans enlighten me?)
Zola also brought back the style of football the fans craved – and what was so lacking under Curbishley. It may have taken a few weeks to get going – a run of one win in 12 plunged the Hammers towards the bottom – but slowly but surely Zola steered West Ham away from the relegation zone and turned them into an attractive, attacking, European chasing outfit.
As I said earlier I am not a West Ham fan so would be keen to hear Hammer’s fans views on their Boss’s performance this season, and perhaps the influence of assistant Steve Clarke?
So what for the future?
Well Europa League qualification or not it is yet to be seen how much money will be available in the summer to improve the squad, it appears the club aren’t out of the woods yet in terms of finances. However the progress this year of the likes of Jack Collison, Freddie Sears, Junior Stanislas and James Tomkins is testament not just to West Ham’s ever productive youth system but the man-management skills of Zola, and could save the club millions of pounds. Collision has already cited the tuition of the Italian as the main reason behind his progress this year, while Carlton Cole went from boo-boy to England international under his guidance.
Zola has gone about his business quietly and efficiently this season and I think he deserves some credit for what he has achieved in difficult circumstances. I have to confess I am a fan of Zola, both as a player and now as a manager and I think his presence in England is not only of benefit to West Ham but to the whole Premier League.