Having successfully filled the boots of Diego Maradona, Gianfranco Zola was never likely to be fazed by replacing Alan Curbishley. Last night, on his unveiling as West Ham United's fifth manager in seven years, the former Chelsea hero said all the right things. Whether he will follow words with deeds remains, however, to be seen.
Zola is a gamble, make no mistake. The annals are chock-full of great players who were mediocre managers, from Billy Wright and Bobby Charlton to John Barnes and Bryan Robson. West Ham's own fabled triumvirate, Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters, were hardly great successes in the dug-out.
Zola, who first came to prominence when replacing Maradona at Napoli, is aware of his inexperience, but said: "I trust my knowledge of the game. I have been in football 20 years so I know what I am talking about." Nevertheless, he added: "I will give something to this club. Whether it will be enough or not I don't know." It was a rare cautious note as Zola demonstrated he had lost none of the charm which won him so many friends at Stamford Bridge and may persuade Hammers fans to overlook his previous allegiance.
The little Sardinian addressed the issue by declaring that he would never turn his back on "seven wonderful years with Chelsea" before stressing: "Now I have a new job and I hope my time here is as successful. That is my target." Asked if he saw this post as a stepping stone to managing Chelsea he replied: "What the future holds is something I don't know. What is important is the present. That is this club which has faith in me."
Zola, who has signed a three-year deal estimated at £1.5m per annum, spoke of wishing to take West Ham into the Champions League, and of a philosophy of "offensive football" which is "enjoyable" for players and supporters.
He was less clear on how he would do this. Though he insisted he was not "too nice" to be a manager he added, "a footballer needs to trust what you are doing, to see everything you are doing is for their benefit. That is what I am going to try to do. Once the players realise that, I am sure it will not be necessary to tell them off. But if it is, I will do."
In reality, Steve Clarke, who is expected to secure his release from Chelsea today, may be the "bad cop" in the operation. The fitness coach, Antonio Pintus, who worked with Zola at Chelsea, has already come aboard. To defray the impression of a Blues takeover Kevin Keen, the caretaker manager and former Hammers player who will oversee tomorrow's match at West Bromwich Albion (Zola said he would watch from the stands), can expect to be retained.
Zola said this was "a great opportunity" he "couldn't say no" to. He was not gilding the lily. The only Serie A clubs likely to offer such a rookie the reins are unstable ones with self-promoting chairmen. To take command of a team fifth in the Premier League, after two indifferent seasons as assistant to the Italian Under-21s, is an opportunity indeed.
This might suggest why Zola is prepared to accept a job specification that the former Azzurri coach Roberto Donadoni rejected when he said he was "not the right fit for the type of programme they had in mind". The impression given by Curbishley is that the "programme" involved the technical director, Gianluca Nani, overseeing transfers. Zola said an emphatic "Me!" when asked who would be in charge of buying and selling, but then added, "We will do it together."
It may work. As Nani appears to have hand-picked Zola the pair should be able to co-exist. Zola also spoke like a coach, talking of developing players, rather than of results like a manager. Like all the others, however, it is by results that he will be judged, charm notwithstanding.Reuse content