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Back me or sack me, says Zola

West Ham manager issues thinly veiled challenge to Sullivan after strong criticism

Gianfranco Zola, also known as the nicest man in football, was still smiling but there was steel in the Italian's riposte to David Sullivan as he effectively challenged the West Ham co-owner to sack him.

The Italian's position has been under intense scrutiny since Tuesday's 3-1 defeat at home to Wolverhampton Wanderers, which was their fifth straight loss and leaves them one place above the Premier League relegation zone.

Many West Ham fans barracked the players during and after the game and one supporter was involved in a bad-tempered slanging match with Carlton Cole, the England forward, minutes after the final whistle.

Zola was not exempt from criticism either and Sullivan emphasised that two days later with an "open letter" to supporters on the club's website that branded that night's showing "shambolic" and "appalling".

Sullivan's business partner at Upton Park, David Gold, has since made it clear that Zola will not necessarily be fired should West Ham succumb again at home to Stoke City this afternoon, but the Italian certainly feels his position has been substantially undermined. So much so in fact that he invited the new owners to dispense with his services if they really did not have sufficient faith in his abilities.

"I have been thinking about this situation and have been saying: What the hell is going on here?" he said. "It is a football game – Jesus Christ. This is what I think about. I question myself: 'am I doing everything that I can?' And I have to say 'yes'. I am doing it with passion. I am doing it with honesty.

"So why should I be kicking myself or banging my head against the wall? I love the game and I have a fair approach to it. Sometimes things don't work. Maybe the job I am doing is not good. But I do it with honesty. If it is not good then they should just tell me. I have no problem with that."

Sullivan had previously suggested Zola was like Ossie Ardiles in that he had been a highly accomplished player but was too pleasant a personality to succeed in the hard world of management. In other words, he was just too nice.

The Italian's trademark grin was still present as he addressed the media at the club's Chadwell Heath training ground yesterday but there was a vein of menace running through his humour. "Obviously words can sometimes be painful," he said. "The owner is entitled to have his opinion and express it, because he is the owner. However, when you use those words, you have to be very careful how you use them because sometimes they can be painful and cause more damage than you can imagine. I was very disappointed and he knows that."

Zola appears to tolerate Gold, who is a regular visitor to the home dressing room, but seems to view Sullivan as a nuisance. He was not going to admit as much however. "Mr Gold comes all the time, it's not a problem for me," he said. "He comes in to my office and talks to me. Sometimes when the players are out he wanders around.

"But don't misinterpret me. I'm not saying this is one good guy and the other isn't. I respect Mr Sullivan and Mr Gold. In this case Mr Sullivan has made some quotes and I'm replying to those with all respect to his position."

Had Sullivan's words been designed to provoke a response against Stoke today or were they really intended to make Zola so uncomfortable he would eventually resign? "That is a good question – I don't know," Zola admitted. "Obviously I understand Mr Sullivan is very much concerned about the situation. We are not in a very good position but I am concerned as much as him. And I have faith in the players.

"I do not think the players are not passionate, against Wolves they were trying to sort the situation out more like an individual," Zola added. "That is my mistake – we have worked on that, and hopefully they will fight like a team. We have to win as a team, which is the most important thing. Everybody wants to give 200 per cent, but that has to be given in the right way.

"While I can believe I can do something good for this club, I am not going to walk away."