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Gianfranco Zola: How Do You Say “Lucky” In Italian?


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.

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  1. Rosalia

    April 22, 2009 at 10:08 am

    Hi. Write down the advice of him who loves you, though you like it not at present.
    I am from Luxembourg and now teach English, give please true I wrote the following sentence: “Lowest price on generic thyroid medication – synthroid, dexone, dostinex, levothroid, levoxyl, meticorten synthroid.”

    Best regards :(, Rosalia.

  2. John S

    February 22, 2009 at 3:40 pm

    Zola has got what it takes. Bruce has & Keegan did too. Adams, Keane, Ince, Southgate don’t . Ricky Sbragia’s just proved Keane didn’t. He’s took a squad that he inherited, pruned it and now they’re getting good results because he served his apprentiship coaching players for a long time under good managers and learned what a manager is.

  3. John S

    February 22, 2009 at 3:33 pm

    Why do ex players with no managerial experience suddenly get to be manager? In any profession it would be suicidal for the company. Why should football be any different? If Paul Ince had been the finest Toilet Roll packer Andrex had ever employed, would they make him manager of Andrex when he retired? There’s no shortcut to being a good football manager. Nigel Clough is a good example. He’ll do well. Pencil him in for the Man U job when Sir Alex (7 years with no success and 1 game away from the sack) retires. Put your shirt on Southgate to go next.

  4. Patrick

    February 22, 2009 at 8:40 am

    What is the point of this story?

    I just don’t get what good players Zola had to off load… Etterington? Bowyer? Mullins? All where fringe squad players whose best years are behind them. As for Bellers, I think if you look at his career, he gets itchy feet and wants to move. was trouble in the dressing room. was sold for a tiddy profit for a 30 year old player. not bad. and all the key players stayed.

    You realize that since Zola has taken charge, West Ham has 4 players playing for England.

    as for the comparison to Ince and Keane -its just odd. Mantra sets out all the points.

    Curbs may well have claimed that he walked over Anton and Ringo being sold to Sunderlaand, but the real rift was that Nani was brought in… Curbs saw him as doing his job, and was always very touchy about it when asked. Nani has done wonders, bringing Berami in on the cheap has enabled Zola to play his game. Savio looks like he could be the next PL star… thinks look brighter then they have in years.

    What Zola has done is bring back real West Ham attacking football. Bringing on a 3rd striker and going for it while drawing big clubs. Touch passing, excitement, and most importantly re fueled the support.

    I wouldn’t call Zola lucky. He trains with the team, in fact some say he could still crack the 11. He gets what these guys go through. He respects them. And he is getting results. I would call Zola, a breathe of fresh air in the league. and I look forward to matches now.

    BTW Manta Excellent reply.

  5. Scott Bennett

    February 21, 2009 at 8:29 pm

    You’ve lost me, Naveen. I’m not sure where complimenting a guy for making good in a terrible situation, and pointing out that the terrible situation offers him a legitimate chance to reach his potential is considered “whining”.

  6. Mantra

    February 21, 2009 at 6:44 am

    A diverting read. The author is quite right to say that West Ham’s points tally in recent games might have been higher. Still, in one of the most competitive mid-table environments for quite a few seasons, West Ham are secure in eighth place and realistic challengers for a Europa Cup slot. If comparisons must be made however, remember that – unlike Keane and Ince – Zola had never managed a club side at any level. He received a baptism of fire in the toughest league on the planet and came through it superbly.

    More troubling are the comments about transfer activity. Zola was appointed on the understanding that no funds were available before sales were made. The club made a net profit on the players they off-loaded – again a desire voiced by the new manager at an early stage – and have not only brought in a solid defensive midfielder in Kovac but a promising young trequartista, Nsereko.

    More saliently, the funds realised from the sale of Bellamy and other wages savings have been re-deployed to secure contracts for the defensive kernel of the team. It’s a mystery to me that the club’s transfer success is here being measured solely in terms of buying star players. It’s the same flawed logic that said that West Ham would inevitably be holding a firesale of the best players in January.

    The club hired Zola partly to improve the likes of Tomkins and Collison, academy product who may well win honours with the team and if eventually sold on, reap massive transfer fees for the club. The aim is not to buy success from elsewhere but to manufacture it at home by nurturing potential.

    Furthermore, the notion that Zola has not had time to establish an effect scouting network rather ignores the contribution of Gianluca Nani. Nani knew the highly-rated Nsereko as a schoolboy, no doubt helping secure a coveted signing but he is also responsible for the undoubted coup of sellling George McCartney to Roy Keane for £6m and replacing him with Herita Ilunga for a quarter of the cost. Ilunga has been a revelation at left back, scoring in each of the last two rounds of the FA Cup.

    One is left to speculate how West Ham’s recent scouting record could be improved. By competing with Manchester City for “galacticos”? Perhaps the example being set by a club of limited means is one to be watched and admired, perhaps even emulated. In my view, this is a modern approach which augurs well for a club weathering extraordinary external pressures – and beating the doubters.

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