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Collison sings the praises of popular idol Zola

To be playing in the Premier League with one of your idols as the manager might faze many young men, as might the current rumours that a new owner could immediately sack him. Jack Collison has taken it in his stride, just as he has most things while establishing himself in the West Ham and Wales midfield this past year.

Not that it wasn't a little intimidating at first for a boyhood Chelsea supporter when Gianfranco Zola was appointed and he donned his boots for the first day's training. "I was a little bit star-struck at the beginning, to be honest," the softly spoken Collison admitted. "A lot of my family are Chelsea supporters so I got to see them play and he was just an absolute magician. It's an honour and a pleasure to work with him and I really feel he's improving me as an individual.

"The first day in training here he scored an absolutely ridiculous goal and everyone just stood there and clapped. It's great for us to have someone like that who you really look up to because you're willing to work really hard for him as you don't want to let him down."

West Ham may rarely have been guilty of that this season – Zola is almost touching in his compliments – but for the second year running they spent Christmas in the bottom four and now have much work to do to repeat anything like the rise that saw them finish ninth last May. The consolation, as Collison says, is that after a difficult trip to Aston Villa today, there are a number of winnable games on a crowded list of five matches in 16 days.

"It's been very interesting this season, there's a lot of teams down there," he said. "If we can put a little run of wins together we can push right up the table. We feel we've got a good set of players and the right people in charge, and we're working hard at it."

With so much still to be resolved about the sale of the club, Zola has admitted that it is not possible to buy reinforcements at present. The sight of Carlton Cole working on the training ground on Friday has lifted spirits – he has been missing, and missed, since the 5-3 win over Burnley two months ago – but now Guillermo Franco is injured too and one of the young boys that West Ham specialise in producing must do a man's job at Villa Park.

Collison is used to doing that, having been taken to the FA Cup final with Alan Pardew's squad aged 15 and then accepted new family responsibilities when his father was killed travelling by motorcycle to watch him play at Tottenham last season.

With Calum Davenport needing surgery after being stabbed in August – he was later charged with assault – and Dean Ashton forced to retire, it has been a traumatic 18 months for the club even without all the financial woe.

Collison suffered a dislocated kneecap last spring, and further knee trouble earlier this season, but in the light of what happened to Ashton he says: "I feel very blessed to be fit and playing football every day." Especially in the company of an idol.