December 2008 at Chadwell Heath, where West Ham United, stuck at the wrong end of the table after one win in 10 games, are preparing to play Chelsea. Gianfranco Zola, a manager for two months, says: "Give us a little bit of time, maybe one year, and then if it doesn't work, I'm gonna be the first to say 'I'm not good enough'. But we need a little bit of time." December 2009 at Chadwell Heath, where West Ham, stuck at the wrong end of the table after two wins in 16 games, are preparing to play Chelsea. Gianfranco Zola, a manager for 14 months, says: "I have to take the blame, nobody else."
West Ham fans are a more solid, supportive crowd than most. Of the 12 managers in the club's long history, few have been unpopular, not least because many have been local men who understand what is required. (Even Lou Macari, few people realise, was brought up in nearby Leytonstone). There is, however, a tipping point, and it could come in the next three weeks. Before the new year is 10 days old, the team will have played their three great London rivals – Chelsea, Spurs and Arsenal – plus Portsmouth and Wolves, the two sides currently stuck with them in the relegation zone. Any gloating derby defeats would hurt supporters' pride; failing to win the other two games, both at Upton Park, would have even more damaging repercussions.
Morale is low. The local newspaper, normally as loyal as its readership, is predicting a 3-0 home defeat this afternoon. Clean sheets are a thing of the distant past and Zola admits that the confidence of a youngish, though hardly baby-faced team, has been badly affected. He is still defending and shielding the squad, however, at his own expense, and what he is desperate to avoid is any further advance of negativity.
"The pressure is high but I'm ready to take it," he said. "I'm not worried. The only thing that worries me is that it affects the players and I don't want that. They're doing what they've been told and if other things don't work that's because of me. There are a few problems but we're not interested in them. People are thinking about those things rather than positive things – like Carlton [Cole] is not there or we have have so many young players on the bench. I think it's the moment to stop that. They have 11 men, we have 11 men and we play, then we see the result."
Cole's absence, though he may now return in the middle of next month, has been a less predictable blow than the sad confirmation that Dean Ashton will not play again. Without either of that pair, there is no physical presence in attack, which is reliant on a combination of youthful vigour (Zavon Hines, Junior Stanislas) and foreign guile (Guillermo Franco, Luis Jimenez, Alessandro Diamanti). The common denominator is lack of experience.
Buying some of that commodity in January could only be achieved, it seems, by shipping one or two players out (Jimenez's loan from Internazionale is about to expire).
Supporters are more concerned that the increasing daily diet of transfer speculation continues to include the club's more valuable players, like Scott Parker, Matthew Upson and Robert Green. If there have been any glimmers of hope recently, they are that Straumur, the parent company of the club's owners, have been given until September to settle with their creditors and that East Enders David Gold and David Sullivan are willing to invest at the right price – however far that may currently be from the Icelanders' valuation.
"We have no pressure at all to sell any players," Zola insists. "We have to stop worrying about things. Confidence level has to be increased. It comes from belief that what you're doing is the right thing to do." To that end, if heads continue to droop, he will even consider employing a sports psychologist, which he has not done before as player or manager: "I'm thinking of that. It might be one of the solutions. Kicking the butt was my psychology!"
If results do not change quickly, those down-to-earth supporters may come to prefer the latter approach.
Everton v Birmingham (3pm)
Five successive wins, no defeats in eight and Birmingham may reasonably expect to extend that run, with their fellow Blues suffering such a ghastly injury list. Test your football knowledge by checking the names of those Everton subs. Who?
West Ham v Chelsea (4pm, Sky Sports 1)
Chelsea supporters will cheer Gianfranco Zola, the man once voted their most popular player, then hope that his struggling team cannot expose recent defensive fallibility like Everton did last week. But West Ham don't have anyone like Louis Saha.
Wolves v Burnley (1.30pm Sky Sports 1)
Moment of truth for Mick McCarthy, whose cynical selection at Old Trafford in midweek was so widely applauded by his fellow managers. Less charitable souls might welcome Burnley providing a comeuppance in their own second big game in five days.
Steve TongueReuse content