Forza Watford! A West Ham Fan On Why Zola Will Succeed With The Hornets

Not only does Gianfranco Zola remain loveable, he is now wiser and smarter after his struggles at Upton Park. A Hammer gives us the lowdown on the little magician...
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Forza Watford! A West Ham Fan On Why Zola Will Succeed With The Hornets

On September 11 2008, Gianfranco Zola was unveiled as the twelfth manager of West Ham United. A bold imaginative choice, he couldn’t have looked more like “the future” if an alien had burst out of his chest at the press-conference.

Twenty months later, like Benjamin Button in reverse, a confused, hollow-eyed, grey haired figure shambled out of Upton Park. One could only hope that, in his bewilderment, he was unable to take in the horror of what had happened; that, in his mind, he was back in Sardinia, a child once more, doing something rural to some grapes.

So, what went wrong? After all, Franco had been part of a small group of Italians who had not only “cut it” in the English game but had thrived – to the point where Vialli was wearing a monocle, calling everyone “chaps” and hunting Ruel Fox on horseback... while Di Canio blended in culturally by tattooing himself from head to foot. They’d graced our game by adapting to it, learning it and then teaching it back to us.

Zola’s impact at West Ham was immediate. In his first home game, we beat Newcastle United 3-1, keeping the ball well and playing an adventurous 4-3-3 formation that would have had him drowned if previous boss Alan Curbishley were Witchfinder General... which maybe he is. What is he up to? There were defensive collapses, for sure, but the 2008/9 campaign saw us finish ninth, playing good football.

When Icelandic bankers bought the club in 2006, we were overjoyed. After all, Iceland’s most famous residents were Bjork and money

However, storm clouds were gathering...

When Icelandic bankers bought the club in 2006, we were overjoyed. After all, Iceland’s most famous residents were Bjork and money. The future looked bright. Only a catastrophic global financial collapse could... (some text missing) we were f**ked, basically, and had to sell players to make ends meet. The club felt compelled to cash in on Matthew Etherington and Craig Bellamy – two players integral to Zola’s style of play. The latter, sold for £14m, was replaced by Savio; a German man-child who arrived deeply depressed, barely played, left and who, last year, went AWOL and was being sought by Interpol.

The Captaincy had been handed to Matthew Upson, whose towering absence in central defence was undershadowed only by his leadership. Matt had the Heart of a Lion Bar and his moth-like roar was often faintly detected by sophisticated equipment as he failed to motivate his team-mates. We’d had an excellent defender, of course, in James Collins, but had, of course, sold him. With a fatally creaky defence in front of him, Robert Green had arguably his worst season in the top flight, just in time to be called up for England.

Season 2009/10 saw us in the bottom three at Christmas and it was dawning on us that Zola was aces when things were on the up but as they began rapidly to go downhill, his little legs couldn’t reach the brake pedals.

Apparently, someone suggested Gianfranco stop taking part in training as it was demoralising the lads

As Yoda says, good footballers do not good managers make.  I asked Jack Collison who the best players were that he’d worked with at Upton Park. Perhaps not exactly spoilt for choice (although he could have had Bellamy, Diamanti, Ashton...) he opted for Zola, who, at that time, was no longer a player. Apparently, someone suggested Gianfranco stop taking part in training as it was demoralising the lads. Rohan Ricketts wrote, in this very organ, that, whilst demonstrating a free-kick, Glenn Hoddle told one player “If you can’t do this then I don’t know why you’re even playing football.”  Helpful, Glenn, but what if your players can’t do the things you can?

I’d argue that part of Roy Hodgson’s limited success at Euro 2012 is that, unlike Capello and Eriksson, Roy understands players who aren’t very good and adjusts his tactics accordingly. As West Ham’s season plunged deeper into the mire, Zola was like a rabbit caught in the headlights of a car driven by another rabbit. His trademark smile vanished and he took on the insensate, shell-shocked look of an audience member at “We Will Rock You.”

During this time, the club changed hands and Sullivan and Gold took control, the gloriously bonkers David Sullivan describing potential relegation in the kind of apocalyptic language that Southern Evangelists use to describe homosexuality and heaping pressure on the already floundering Zola. Franco’s inexperience and decency left him ill-equipped to front out his bosses either in the media or, one fears, behind the scenes. I don’t know much about this Pozzo guy and I’m sure he’s great but (cough) Flavio Briatore... I’m just saying.

The Hammers escaped relegation – narrowly, and for one more year - but Zola, who would doubtless have walked anyway, was fired. The Watford job will be his first after time away licking his wounds and, you know what? I think he’ll be great. After all, he spent twenty months on a learning curve so steep he needed crampons. He’s learnt lessons about working with a divided dressing room, players who are perhaps not the most gifted and about dealing with management. I’ve got a soft spot for both Gianfranco and the Hornets and I’d love to see them prosper next season. Forza Watford!

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