James Lawton: Wonderful world of Zola chilled by ill wind blowing through open window

Zola's attempt to throw a brick through the transfer window would not be to Sir Alex Ferguson's particular benefit
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The Independent Football

No one, he knew, was going to pay much attention and, still less, do anything about it, but Gianfranco Zola said it anyway. He said it would be very nice if they got rid of the January transfer window. Then you could judge how well a manager worked with his players, how he could develop a team from the optimism of late summer to the realities of the spring.

He wasn't railing against how money wields such influence in football. Zola is from Sardinia, a place which is well versed in the iniquities of life. This is why quite a number of Sardinians still arm themselves to the teeth when they go about their daily business.

No, Zola was simply saying that if the game has never been so transparently a rich man's world there is still no reason why, without even attempting to close fundamentally the huge divide which, say, separates, the recently colonised Manchester City and his own club, we might still be able to restrict the plutocrats to one spending spree per year. As it works, said Zola, the January window permits the rich clubs to top up their resources, correct mistakes, and wipe out at least some of the effects of injury. It means that his West Ham United lose a player as talented as Craig Bellamy at a pivotal point in a remarkable recovery to eighth place in the Premier League after being locked in the jaws of relegation.

This, Zola further contends, builds in still more imbalance between those with generous resources, as West Ham had, relatively speaking, before the Icelandic economy descended to the value of not much more than a packet of fish fingers, and those who are obliged to live within their own self-generated means. "No one will listen," said Zola with a shrug, "and no one will do anything about it, but it is still true. The January transfer window is only for the rich. For those who are not rich it is just another handicap."

It is not an original view, of course, and if Steve Bruce of Wigan, who is about to lose Wilson Palacios, his most influential player, says it again, he will surely be told it is time he rejoined the real world. Ditto Sam Allardyce, who was saying yesterday that anything he receives for Blackburn's superior striker Roque Santa Cruz will scarcely begin to compensate for the loss of a player who could well represent the difference between safety and the abyss of relegation.

You can just hear the groans of all those worldly characters who keep telling us that money has always been at the root of the highest football success – even, presumably, when Jock Stein raised a team exclusively from the environs of Glasgow and whipped the hind legs off Internazionale in the 1967 European Cup final or when Alf Ramsey led Ipswich Town to the First Division title a few years earlier. But then money realists are not the kind of people who have ever held much sway in the thinking of Gianfranco Zola, who while at Napoli used to stay behind after training to do ball work with Diego Maradona.

Certainly, he was impervious to advice that he should renege on a verbal promise made to Cagliari of his native island when Chelsea came back for him in the wake of Roman Abramovich's Chelsea takeover in 2003. If Zola had any strong sense that for a while at least Stamford Bridge would be awash with roubles, he ignored it, stayed as good as his word and led Cagliari to Serie A. His last game for the club was marked by two goals against Juventus, a splendid farewell which prompted a season's retirement for his No 10 jersey.

Zola's attempt to throw a brick through the transfer window would not be to Sir Alex Ferguson's particular benefit but this is scarcely likely to reduce the United manager's affection for the diminutive big man who he once described as a clever "little so-and-so". Ferguson adores Zola, rates him one of the best pros he has ever encountered and, arguably, the most honest.

"I love Gianfranco," Fergie once said in a moment of post-prandial expansion. "I've never seen him do or attempt to do anything dishonest on the field – he plays with all his heart and tremendous honesty and if everybody in the game was like him it would be a truly wonderful place."

No one has been known to be in a rush to reproduce that last part of Ferguson's praise in connection with Bellamy, and certainly not his former Newcastle manager, Graeme Souness. Bellamy, who apparently packed his bags and stormed out of Upton Park last Friday in a dark mood brought on by West Ham's refusal to let him move to White Hart Lane, escaped public criticism from Zola. Before a national television audience, the West Ham boss said merely that Bellamy was a fine, valuable player. His eyes may have hinted at a less favourable wider assessment but what they seemed to represent mostly was sadness – regret, perhaps, at the transitory nature of so many football lives, among whom the Manchester City-bound Bellamy is more notable than most.

It is certainly not hard to imagine, based on his track record, Zola's reaction to the kind of bid that is said to have cast one of the world's great players, Kaka, into such turmoil. Yesterday, we were told, Kaka was receiving the input of his father on City's reported mega offer to pay him £250,000 a week, advice that may or may not have been influenced by Kaka Snr's role as principal agent and thus a potential beneficiary, by an estimated £9m, of a deal which would take the 26-year-old virtuoso so many rungs down the ladder of European football.

Thus far, though, Zola, as a prudent Sardinian, has not poked his nose in other people's business. He has said merely that it is regrettable that for a month a team like his own, one which in difficult circumstances has found a rhythm and a self-belief that seemed so remote so recently, should be picked over like the shelf of a super sale.

It wouldn't happen, he was saying so quietly he might have been speaking to himself, in a sport which understood the real meaning of competition. It wouldn't happen in a world that men like Gianfranco Zola deserved to inhabit.

Timing just right for Marland's entrance to ECB pantomime

He left it late but Lord Marland's challenge to Giles Clarke for the chairmanship of the England and Wales Cricket Board might just prove as sweetly timed as the campaign which he organised on behalf of London mayor Boris Johnson.

If Ken Livingstone was seen to be carrying too much critical baggage, Clarke's vulnerability could hardly have been more witheringly exposed in the last few weeks.

Former ECB chairman Lord MacLaurin described Clarke's adventure with the Test-hating Texan billionaire Sir Allen Stanford as both a "pantomime" and "obscene". It was also vulgar and mind-numbingly short-sighted, reducing a game of manners and tradition to all the inherent dignity of a winner of a particularly garish game show.

But then Lord Marland is right to pitch his campaign at the heart of the England team's appalling malaise since the Ashes glory of 2005. Politics being politics, the prospective chairman yesterday appeared loath to distribute much blame around the dressing room, and seemed specially reluctant in the direction of the deposed, but still popular, captain Kevin Pietersen. However, his onslaught on the handling of the whole dismal affair by the ECB is well enough judged.

Responsibility, and accountability, should of course always begin at the top, at least anywhere outside the Palace of Westminster. It means in theory, at least, Lord Marland's chances of winning are excellent. If the voters have any real sense of the current image of the English game, indeed we could be talking landslide. The trouble is it is a mountainous if. Indeed, Lord Marland's best chance has to be that this time around the imminence of the Ashes may just concentrate a few English minds.

'It's not always about money...'

Before accepting the excellent advice offered by his new team-mate, Kaka should perhaps make one request of David Beckham, who said this week, "It's not always about money. It's about playing for the best team, playing with the best players in the world and winning trophies and being successful."

Please, Becks, Kaka should say, maybe you could just talk me through your $30m Los Angeles Galaxy deal.