Zola takes flight after hinting he will not come back

West Ham United 0 Stoke City 1
Click to follow
The Independent Football

Gianfranco Zola yesterday retreated to Sardinia to nurse his wounds and consider his future. Back at West Ham there are doubts as to whether their manager will return.

Zola's trip home was pre-planned, West Ham do not play again until Sunday and the players are not back in training until tomorrow. However, in the wake of Saturday's home defeat by Stoke, their sixth straight loss, it has taken on new significance.

Zola will use the break to decide whether to continue leading Hammers' fight against relegation or whether to step aside. The feeling is he will do the latter. Zola left Upton Park on Saturday night talking openly of quitting. He wondered if he "was the problem", and said he would do what he felt was best for the club. "I have to see if I can sort it out. That's the bottom line," he added.

The decision will be his. The crowd are not demanding a sacking, the players support him, and so, for now, do the co-owners, David Gold and David Sullivan. While Sullivan is understood to have always doubted Zola's managerial acumen he has been persuaded by Gold to give him a chance and Zola was assured of their backing after the match. The owners were surprised when Zola subsequently told the media he may resign.

The financial aspects are not a major issue. Zola is on close to £2m a year, Steve Clarke, the club's assistant coach, on more than £1m. The pair signed new contracts less than a year ago which run to 2013.

In theory sacking them could cost nearly £10m but even if fired Zola, a rich man, would not demand full payment, and not just because that could preclude him working again for three years.

A novice when he took over in September 2008, Zola admits to making mistakes. One may have been the odd decision to adopt a more direct style on Saturday with two big men against opponents whose back four are all centre-halves. Even his goalkeeper, Rob Green, who was otherwise supportive of Zola, said: "Maybe we should play a bit more football around the final third which would make a difference."

Maybe it was not Zola's decision, besides demanding team changes (there were five) Sullivan had talked of putting the club's ball-playing tradition aside in pursuit of a victory. Is Zola strong enough to stand up to Sullivan? It was Clarke who told the co-owner to leave when he tried to attend a meeting between players and management last week. Perhaps a partnership of Clarke as manager and Zola as coach would have been the best combination, but it is a bit late for that.

What West Ham need is organisation and confidence – easier to talk about than to instill. A fresh face may help, but it would need to be an experienced one. Following Zola's comments on Saturday the owners have drawn up a short-list of possible replacements but are yet to sound anyone out.

For an example of what can be achieved on a tight budget though discipline, effort, smart tactics and sheer bloody-mindedness West Ham need look no further than Saturday's opposition.

Stoke were short of form themselves, but they are organised, resolute and in Ricardo Fuller possess a player always capable of producing the unexpected. In this fixture last season that was a slap to the face of his then- captain Andy Griffin, for which he got a red card. This season a food bug meant he spent the first 66 minutes on the bench, but when he joined the fray he dribbled his way to a goal Lionel Messi would savour.

West Ham had nothing remotely similar, though Carlton Cole offered threat and Scott Parker industry. However, with Hull showing signs of life, that may not be enough. Home matches against Sunderland, Wigan and Manchester City offer hope, but their last three were against Bolton, Wolverhampton and Stoke, and they were all lost.

"They need a game where they are not playing well but they win, that will bring the confidence back," said Tony Pulis. Sparing a thought for his counterpart the Stoke manager added: "As a manager this is when you need a bit of loving, tender care. It is a very lonely job. You take it home with you."

West Ham United (4-4-2): Green; Faubert, Da Costa, Upson, Spector; Dyer (Diamanti, h-t), Parker, Noble (Ilan, 75), Behrami; Mido (McCarthy, 83), Cole. Substitutes not used: Kurucz (gk ), Gabbidon, Kovac, Daprela.

Stoke City (4-4-2): Sorensen; Huth, Ab Faye (Wilkinson, 25), Higginbotham, Collins; Lawrence, Delap, Whelan, Etherington (Fuller, 66); Sidibe, Kitson (Tuncay, 47). Substitutes not used: Begovic (gk), Pugh, Am Faye, Moult.

Referee: A Marriner (West Midlands).

Booked: Stoke Whelan, Delap.

Man of the match: Fuller.

Attendance: 34,564