When he bought Chelsea five years ago, Roman Abramovich was 48 hours too late to stop Gianfranco Zola from leaving. The fear now is that the 42-year-old Italian may have arrived a little too early into football management in the Premier League. Tomorrow he goes back to Stamford Bridge with West Ham United.
The reception will be unprecedented, given his unrivalled status at Chelsea, but for Zola, who hit all the right notes yesterday in thanking the west London club's supporters but also hoping they would "respect the adventure" that he has embarked upon, it is an unnecessary distraction. He has, he said, "had my parades" and does not expect any special treatment. One victory in 10 games, three goals in nine matches and booed off after the last home fixture, against Tottenham Hotspur, with West Ham hovering just above the relegation places – these are trying times for someone in their first job.
The headlines are bad. And Zola, three months after replacing Alan Curbishley is under no illusions. "I have to do much better than I am doing," he said yesterday. "I'm not going to say I'm happy with what I have done so far because I know I have to improve it. I know the rules of my job, I know I have to produce something and make people satisfied. If I don't do that then it's obvious that I'm going to go. I've no complaints about that and I understand. But I can't think of that every day. I have to focus on what to do to avoid that."
Honest as a player, honest as a manager. Zola's candour may come back to haunt him and he may well join that long list of great players who fail to cut it as a manager. But, then again, he might not. Despite outward appearances and with the spectre of West Ham being sold – if owner Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson can find a "cash-rich" buyer – there is a sense of something more substantial being built at the club which vehemently argues that, with turnover set to hit £100m this year, it can survive without the Icelander's backing. Zola is an important part of its plans, too.
"Correct me if I'm wrong but [Sir Alex] Ferguson has had difficult times, times in which he has been losing games, but that didn't change his attitude or the way he works and he got it going and I admire him very much for that," Zola said. "He's been positive and stuck to his own mentality. Maybe we are not good enough but give us time before we are judged. We want to improve the players and the quality of the football.
"Playing football is one thing, managing is a different story and that's a process that takes a little bit of time. It certainly has not been easy. So many things have happened on the pitch and off it but I don't complain. It's my job to face situations like this. My ability is to find solutions even in difficult moments. I'm sure if I succeed in doing this it means I'm very good."
Time is not a commodity in great supply in the Premier League. It is hard to cut your teeth when relegation is a spectre and, whatever the positive noises at West Ham, it is a possibility that they have to face. It would be, whatever the rights and wrongs of the Carlos Tevez affair, a shame. Not least because of the principles – on and off the pitch – that Zola, voted Chelsea's best-ever player and referred to affectionately by the aforementioned Ferguson as "that clever little-so-and-so" – lives by.
West Ham did their homework. By paring Zola with Steve Clarke, who was lured from Chelsea, where he felt his role as assistant manager had become redundant under Luiz Felipe Scolari, they gave the Italian some of the coaching experience and defensive organisation that he feared he lacked. Zola now, also, works closely with technical director Gianluca Nani and chief executive Scott Duxbury. The trio have daily planning meetings and are already working at re-shaping the squad in the transfer window next month and next summer.
At the same time West Ham point to the re-vamping of their medical and technical facilities, and a more thorough scouting network has brought Valon Behrami and Herita Ilunga to the club through Nani's contacts. The fabled injury list, that was so crippling under Curbishley, is clearing up under a new regime and it means that Zola's plan to shrink the squad size can be implemented. It is a firesale of sorts, West Ham admit, but one that involves the culling of fringe players and not regular first-teamers.
"I've been given the assurance that our best players will stay," Zola said yesterday. "But with a squad of 25, say, I can't train properly. Maybe some will need to go. But they won't be our best players. If we sell some players we might have the money to get some other players." Indeed Zola has been told he can spend whatever money he generates although Gudmundsson will not be providing any further funds.
Zola also has an ambitious scheme to develop a shadow squad of promising, Under-21 players who can step up in the first team, and wants to create space for the likes of Freddie Sears, James Tomkins and Jack Collison.
In terms of recruitment, a striker is, understandably, a priority with a list of six names being drawn up. If the top target is landed, it could lead to the departure of Craig Bellamy – with one goal in 12 appearances – while West Ham will fend off bids for Matthew Upson, Scott Parker and Robert Green if they are received.
Morale is believed to be good. Zola is having an impressive influence on the players. Training is understood to be of a better quality with individuals being worked on. And yet the results are, as everyone at the club accepts, not good enough. A "jigsaw", as one source put it, has been created in which "all the pieces are fitting together. But we're in a results business and we know there will be pressure until they improve."
Zola knows it too. Despite his ambitions to play good football, and the kind of fantasy player he was, he is no dreamer. Free-flowing play has been shelved until points are picked up. Not that he has lost hope either. "You will still see my ugly smile," he said yesterday. "It won't go, don't worry about that."Reuse content