Gianfranco Zola converts West Ham to his vision
Not for Gianfranco Zola. When he stands on the touchline, as West Ham United's manager, it is as if he is out there. "When I see our team playing well and the way I like, it's like I am on the pitch myself. Absolutely it is," he says. The way I like. It is Zola's way. There are a series of unshakeable tenets that underpin the philosophies of one of the most cherished players to have featured in the Premier League and who is now forging an unlikely – because of his earlier insistence that it was not for him – reputation as a manager of substance. Related ArticlesZola, manager of the seasonWest Ham turn on the styleZola and Clarke pen West Ham dealsPremier League team newsAlan Pardew favourite to replace sacked Jim Magilton at Ipswich TownWest Ham to be taken over by bank consortiumAnd yet Zola did everything he could, he says, to turn West Ham down when, one Sunday in early September, Scott Duxbury, the chief executive, came calling to meet the 42-year-old in Rome as he searched for Alan Curbishley's replacement. The job was to be given to another Italian, Roberto Donadoni. Until Duxbury met Zola. "I was completely surprised," Zola says, talking ahead of Saturday's meeting with his former club, the club who voted him their greatest player and who have tried to woo him back ever since, Chelsea. "I didn't know there was someone crazy enough to choose a manager like me," he adds. "But they trusted the way I wanted to play football." He was daunted. He was comfortable in his life. Back in Sardinia, a part-time coach working with the Italian under-21s, he was able to do the things he had always hankered to do – gaining a pilot's licence, playing the piano and travelling – but that were denied because of the monastic focus he had as a player. "When I was a player I was a workaholic and I needed to get away from that," he says. So life was good and he wanted to turn West Ham down, just as he had turned down others, some of whom had even tried to coax him out of retirement. "I tried to say no," Zola admits. "I tried to find every possible excuse. I didn't know whether I was good enough." It helped that, in his briefcase, Duxbury had a document which he had provisionally called "The Football Project". It was a blueprint he had drawn up for West Ham's future, a mandate to hire a young manager who wanted to coach and to be out on the training pitches, to develop young talent. It could have been written for Zola. "The idea of establishing my kind of football and my ideas was stronger than any doubts I had," he says. "If you play and train and make the team in the right way you can have success and make it enjoyable." Enjoyable? But this is Premier League football and West Ham were also in danger of freefall with a financial crisis looming and an unsettled squad. "I would like to see one team that is frantic and desperate for points playing against a team that is really enjoying its football and see who wins," Zola states. "For me, I have no doubts. Even in the Premier League. The principle is the same. "One of the problems in certain teams, big teams, is that they build up a team with 24 champions, 24 national team players and it's difficult for youngsters to come through. It's a natural process, not just in sport, to leave space for the youngsters to come through. It's a dynamic for a vital environment." And so the Football Project had its champion. Zola agreed a one-year rolling contract – now extended to a four-year deal – but insisted, before he signed, that Steve Clarke was lured from Chelsea to be his assistant. "The secret of the good results we have had is that we are a team, we are a team inside and on the pitch." His relationship with Duxbury, he says, is strong as it is with technical director Gianluca Nani and this has helped overcome the financial difficulties which have beset the club's owner, Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson. Not that things started so well. Zola admits he was "incredibly nervous" when he arrived. He looked bewildered. He had rehearsed what he would say to the players when he met them. The gist of it was clear: be true to yourself on and off the field. "I was under pressure," Zola says. "But it was a pressure I wanted." Maybe that's easy to say now. Not only did Zola inherit a team with a season already under way, but also he tried, radically, to change their style. It would be a passing game. "I believe the players were 'in between'," Zola says. "They liked the way I was coaching them but because we were not getting any results, they doubted it. Maybe they thought 'yes, it's nice, but is it working?' It was important to hold my position and impose my mentality." His first 13 games yielded just three victories. Then, in one of those moments of almost magical coincidence, it was at Stamford Bridge that Zola began to turn things round in mid-December. West Ham erned a draw, and should have won. Zola admits it was all a daze, the returning hero, greeted with adulation but leading a team with a history of bitter rivalry. Confused? He was. "For the first 10 minutes I could not think clearly," Zola admits. "There was a lot going on in my mind." Zola is happy to confirm that Roman Abramovich did indeed buy the club just a day too late in 2003 to stop him from leaving. "Roman Abramovich has been brilliant with me," Zola says. "He tried to get me to change my mind and it's a pity because I would have liked to have played under him but I had other plans unfortunately and I had already agreed." Agreed to return to Cagliari and to Serie B, but not yet signed a contract. Couldn't he have reneged? "I had given my word. I signed the day after. He tried very hard and then, after that, he asked me if I wanted to come back." Zola declined. Again and again. But there are, he says, no regrets. "I had such a wonderful time winning the FA Cup and the Cup-Winners' Cup and I wouldn't change those moments for anything. I shared those moments with fantastic players who are very good friends. When I meet them now it's like we never left each other. It goes beyond sport." That, too, is something he instils in his players. "Skills are very important but there are things that go beyond skills. The mentality, the approach, the way you play football." Now he faces Chelsea once again and, despite an injury crisis, there is a rallying cry. Attack. "Of course," Zola says. "I'm not going to play one game when I refuse to attack." It's the claret and blueprint. Zola's way.
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