Plenty more Mr Nice Guy as Zen-like Zola calls for calm
The club may be sold and going down would be a disaster but Hammers boss refuses to change style
Nice guys do not always finish last. Seeing Paul Hart and Gianfranco Zola propping up the Premier League for the past month, however, has not been any better an advertisement for the breed than the sacking of another of their number, Gareth Southgate, by Middlesbrough while sitting fourth in the Championship.
Losing Premier League status was not catastrophic in itself for Middlesbrough, one of the country's better-run clubs. For Portsmouth and West Ham, both in dire financial straits, relegation would have far more severe consequences by tightening the vicious circle of player sales and worse results. The East Londoners have been here before: relegated in 1989, 1992 and 2003 with the narrowest of Carlos Tevez-inspired escapes three seasons ago. For Zola, sitting at the wrong end of the table staring upwards is something of a novelty, endured only once before as a player at Napoli.
On the eve of a derby against free-scoring Arsenal, he insisted the change of circumstance will not change him as a manager or a person. Ideally, what he would like, apart from a first win since the opening day of the season – the Hammers have lost five and drawn two since then – is "a little bit more tranquility" off the field. With Iceland's recession and banking crisis apparently every bit as bad as Britain's, rumours persist about the club being sold yet again, the plot thickening now that two old West Ham fans in David Sullivan and David Gold have left Birmingham City and are missing football.
The uncertainty would nevertheless be a poor excuse at this stage for the team's plight and Zola has no serious intention of making it one. "We dealt very well last season with the problems and the reason was because we focused on the pitch and worked on the pitch and made things easier for everybody. That's what I believe in. If you do football on the pitch, make things happen there, then everything comes easier."
Change of style? "I'd rather change jobs," he said. The players, naturally enough, prefer the relaxed approach. Who would not? James Tomkins, the young centre-half settling in alongside Matthew Upson after James Collins went to Aston Villa, says: "I think he's brilliant with the lads. He's such a calm man, he's a lovely man and a nice fella, and I think he's really confident in the way that we play.
"He tells us all the time, 'results are not going our way but it's going to change round for us'. He gives us that confidence that we need instead of saying we're struggling. He builds you up and [assistant manager] Steve [Clarke] does as well. It's important you've got characters like that around."
Not quite a case of two good cops, it seems: "I've seen [Zola] lose his temper," Tomkins adds. "He's still got that side in him. If he doesn't think we're doing well enough he'll tell us. I can't remember what game it was but it was after a first half in which he didn't think we'd done so well. He thought we could do a lot better and that's what he told us. It's constructive, more than just raising the voice. He's good in what he says."
What he says as a rookie manager suffering unfamiliar struggle is: "I want to see this job through. I don't give up. I know as a manager I will get better if I work on this situation. The frustrations I can deal with. Last year we got through it and I feel we can do the same again."
It was a strange first eight months in management after Alan Curbishley had walked out last September with West Ham lying fifth in the table. By Christmas they had briefly slumped to 17th and questions were being asked about Zola, who appeared to have answered them with a comfortable top-10 finish.
He was handicapped in having to sell players such as Craig Bellamy, but new signings in attack have been weak; Bellamy, on Boxing Day, was the last man to score more than once in a game. Carlton Cole, never prolific himself, continues to have insufficient support.
Zola admires his opposite number today, Arsène Wenger, for his steadfastness as much as the quality of football that his teams play: "He's been through difficult moments but never changes his attitude."
So the little Sardinian is not for turning. "There is no doubt you become a better manager when you have to face these things," says Zola. "It is a challenge for me. I am being put in situations that I have never faced in my life and situations that I might not like but it is a test and, trust me, the determination is there. I am determined to change things."
Finishing top of the nice guys' table will not be sufficient.
BOLTON WANDERERS v EVERTON (1.30pm)
Having pulled round after a poor start, a weakened Everton have lost their way again with home draws against Stoke and Wolves, then their heaviest-ever defeat in Europe, 5-0 at Benfica. Bolton, hanging in there as usual, are the sort of team to take advantage.
LIVERPOOL v MANCHESTER UTD (Sky Sports 1, 2pm)
Amid all the pessimism, this is the day when Liverpool and Rafa Benitez could turn it all round. But listen out for how enthusiastically (or not) the Liverpool manager's name is chanted, especially if he makes another unpopular substitution or two.
MANCHESTER CITY v FULHAM (3pm)
Fulham visit one of the few away grounds where they have a decent record, but with the regular handicap of having played in the Europa League three days earlier. After an unusually quiet week at Eastlands, City will be raring to steal some headlines again.
WEST HAM UTD v ARSENAL (Sky Sports 1, 4.15pm)
A rare defeat at Upton Park, and Alan Pardew's over-enthusiastic celebration, was one of those occasions that caused Arsène Wenger to lose his cool. For the Arsenal manager, who turned 60 last week, a repeat would be as undignified as a West Ham win would be unexpected.
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