When Gianfranco Zola was asked after West Ham's sixth successive defeat last Saturday whether he would still be in charge of the team at Everton this weekend, there was a longish pause before he replied: "I think so." So he will be, but the pause and the necessity to consider the matter during a three-day break back home in Sardinia illustrated how differently the "project" that Zola continues to refer to has panned out since he walked into Upton Park with such high hopes for his first management position 19 months ago.
A mere six weeks ago, the worst seemed over. In fact it was yet to come. Successive home wins over Birmingham and Hull without conceding a goal had lifted the team to 13th place, with an apparently comfortable run of winnable home games looming. Alas, the next one against Bolton was somehow lost, as were – unsurprisingly – meetings with Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal.
Then, catastrophically, home games against Wolves and Stoke were lost in the space of a week. Boos and jeers greeted the last two performances, many fans directing as much venom at the manager as at the players.
Zola and his assistant have always had the problem that as (essentially) Chelsea men, the Eastenders are not naturally well disposed to them. The manager's all-round decency and Steve Clarke's low profile were mitigating factors while things were going well but have not spared them recently in a run that has reached six successive defeats as they head to Everton today. It is the worst spell since Alan Pardew lost eight in a row in all competitions shortly before being sacked, a fate that Zola believes he will now avoid.
"The owners after the Stoke game gave me their support and that's enough for me," he said after training on Friday. "I'm gonna be working to prove them right." The axe, if it was going to fall, would presumably have done so by now? "I would think so." No falling on his sword either, and a repeated determination to stick to the principles of good football he was brought up with, and that West Ham always profess to believe in: "I won't change my philosophy or my style. It's the only reason I'm in football."
What he does admit to doing, presumably with Clarke's influence, is working rather more on tightening things up at the back, where a defence with English internationals in Robert Green and Matthew Upson has often looked embarrassingly loose. "We've been working a lot, last week and this week, on organisation. In the Stoke game there was an improvement and it was just decided by a piece of magic from [Ricardo] Fuller."
Inexperience and tactical naivety are two of the failings that have been levelled by supporters, most of whom seem to expect there will be a new manager by August. After a little Sardinian navel-gazing, however, Zola is convinced that he has the qualities to see the club to safety this season. "Before, as a player, I was on my own. Now I'm responsible for the players. What's keeping me happy is that I think I'm doing the right things. The run is dreadful, but I know I have the players and a brilliant staff behind me and we're all together."
Three years ago, West Ham were actually a point worse off at this stage and seemed certain to be accompanying Charlton and Watford into the Championship. An almost unimaginable run of four successive wins, culminating against the champions Manchester United on the final day, kept them up. One of the differences, of course, was a certain Carlos Tevez, scoring three goals in those last two games and now due at Upton Park with Manchester City, conceivably desperate for points, on the last afternoon of the season. But best not to look too far ahead, even on a day for miracles. Goodison on Easter Day is enough to concentrate on for now, with Zola – "I'm religious in my way" – saying a little prayer for salvation.