The Antagonist - Zola was doomed from the start

26 March 2010 06:53

If ever a manager's job hung on a single result, West Ham's fixture against Stoke City tomorrow is likely to be the defining moment in Gianfranco Zola's initial foray into club management.

Defeat would almost certainly mean a P45 would be winging his way by Monday morning (sooner if there was a Sunday delivery) and you sense that even a victory may not save him.

Normally, in these situations, the club chairman would give his beleaguered employee a massive vote of confidence just before the axe falls at the Boleyn Ground (no pun intended!). In this case, the portents are even more worrying for the diminutive Italian as his less than supportive chairman, David Sullivan, went on record earlier this week saying that he felt that Zola was too nice to handle the trauma of a relegation battle.

The way his team tamely succumbed to a pretty average Wolves team on Tuesday leads me to believe that Sullivan may have a point.

So, are 'niceness' and being a successful manager mutually exclusive?

There are certainly multifarious examples which appear to vindicate this hypothesis, many of which involve former superstars like Zola.

Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton, Nobby Stiles, Geoff Hurst and Jimmy Greaves were all superstars of the 1966 World Cup winning squad - and jolly nice chaps all - who ventured into management after glittering playing careers only to find that the grass on the other side of that particular fence was covered in poo.


In fact the only top English international players of that era who made a success of management was Big Jackie Charlton who had more than a bit of steel about him and certainly stood no nonsense from anyone and Alan Ball, the fiery, often controversial red head whose managerial experience was not without its blemishes, but whose career outlasted most of his contemporaries.

More recently, Gareth Southgate, who always came across as a bit of a soft touch, only survived as long as he did at Middleborough because of a chairman who took loyalty to the point of insanity. Once again, Southgate was the sort of bloke you would like as a mate but not, perhaps, as a captain on a sinking ship.

Bryan Robson was another who you felt was just not hard enough as a boss: another playing great who, despite a few successes never really cut it as the top man. He seemed a really nice guy who you would probably want to have a few beers with for but ruthlessness was just not in his locker.

Interestingly enough, if you look at the six managers who have survived longest in the Premier League, niceness is not the most obvious quality that springs to mind nor were they amongst the top players of their era.


Ferguson, Wenger, Moyes, Benitez, Pulis and McCarthy all had pretty unremarkable playing careers. What they all appear to have in common is pig-headedness and a nasty streak which, on occasions, rears its ugly head, manifesting itself as a kind of paranoia resulting in the creation of a 'them and us' attitude. This is an essential ingredient in combating adversity at either end of the table and is, unfortunately, a characteristic completely lacking in Zola.

Of course, the public persona a manager exudes does not always tell the whole story. Martin O'Neil and Roy Hodgson appear, on the face of it, to be pretty affable chaps who have established themselves as permanent fixtures in their respective clubs. You sense, however, that both managers, perhaps through their more cerebral, thoughtful approaches, have engendered deep respect from their players. Their inscrutability and less overt methods of achieving team unity mask the steel and toughness which lay beneath.

Like the other six, however, they have proven track records: in Hodgson's case a CV that makes you wonder why he never got a proper sniff at the England job.

Zola, on the other hand, had been assistant manager for Italy Under-21s for a couple of years and then chucked in at the deep end in the East End ; not a place with the most patient or understanding support as we witnessed on Tuesday night when the ground virtually emptied with nearly half an hour to go as Wolves went three up.

So, where next for Gianfranco if, and when, the inevitable happens? My advice would be pocket the redundancy money, go on a nice holiday and wait for Sky to call you up. You can then sit on a couch with the other management losers safe in the knowledge that your niceness will be fully appreciated.


Source: DSG

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