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Stylish Zola arrives at Upton Park

Steve Wilson | 14:56 UK time, Thursday, 11 September 2008

West Ham fans may take some time to warm to a man who is held in such high regard by their bitter rivals at Chelsea; but if Gianfranco Zola the manager is half as good as Zola the player they are in for a treat.

At 5 feet 6 he is tiny in stature but his huge talent gives him presence, surely more than enough to ensure that those in West Ham's dressing room pay attention.

I was lucky enough to be commentating on the Italian's first game for Chelsea, a soggy afternoon at Blackburn's Ewood Park. Zola shone like a firefly in the gloom, his darting movements impossible to predict.

I remember going to Chelsea's training ground, then a couple of muddy fields near Heathrow, to do some interviews for Capital Radio. Zola was practising free-kicks, his technique learnt from Diego Maradona on Napoli's training ground years before. With a young goalkeeper on each post, and a wall in position in front of the ball, again and again he left the keepers motionless and those watching speechless. Genius at work.

November 1996 was when Zola arrived at Stamford Bridge to become the lynchpin of the emergent club.

Zola (right) makes his Chelsea debut at Blackburn

In the mid-nineties Stamford Bridge was a very different place to the steel and glass edifice it is now. Starved of success, an average Chelsea crowd at the start of the Premier League era in 1992/93 was less than 19,000. The Bridge itself was a mess, hopelessly ill-equipped in the post-Hillsborough world of English football. The low oval terrace of the Shed may have a forbidding place but it was also crumbling. And then there was the old West Stand, featuring long blue-painted haemorrhoid-inducing concrete slabs laughably described as seating.

On the pitch, a series of big money signings faded under the weight of expectation. These were the days of Mark Stein, Paul Furlong and Robert Fleck.

The beginning of the transformation might be traced to the decision of Chairman Ken Bates and Managing Director Colin Hutchison to appoint Glenn Hoddle as manager.

Hoddle had a name on the continent and therefore pulling power; soon Chelsea did too.

In 1994 they reached their first major final in over 20 years losing to Manchester United at Wembley in the FA Cup, but crucially qualifying for the Cup Winners Cup the following season.

They made the semi-finals of that competition and within a month had signed perhaps the biggest name going, Ruud Gullit.

Even though Hoddle left to take over the England job from Terry Venables, the ball was now well and truly rolling. With Gullit as the new manager, Chelsea could attract Gianluca Vialli, and then Zola who became surely one of the best ever imports to our game.

Eventually, of course, the ball rolled all the way to Moscow and to the attention of Roman Abramovich.

Each name had its part to play in the Chelsea story, and each deserves the gratitude of today's Chelsea fans; but none commands affection quite like Zola.

Off the pitch he struck me as modest, calm and quietly spoken. A man of his word too; he promised his home town team Cagliari that he would finish his career with them and he did - despite the fact that Roman Abramovich's first act as Chelsea owner was to offer him huge incentives to return.

His lack of experience makes him a bold appointment but, as he moves back to England, Zola will not be short of well-wishers. West Ham fans understand the value of football played with style, few have ever played the game with more style than their new manager.


  • Comment number 1.

    Will be interesting to say the least not sure how i feel....nervous i think!

  • Comment number 2.

    Inspired move by the board. Now lets see the youngsters shine.

  • Comment number 3.

    A fantastic signing by Chelsea at a time when we were seeing quality continental players grace the EPL - the Hammers have made a very, very bold choice with Zola who has no managerial experience but contributed as a coach as he neared retirement.

    Could this be a case of appeasing some of the fans? - I don't think so. Fresh managerial blood can be risky but exciting.

    Former players with no managerial experience on their first appointment have proven to be pretty successful ( Mark Hughes, Wales appointment, Jurgen Klinsman, German appointment, Roy Keane, Sunderland ) to name but a few.

    How will the case be for Zola not knowing who is going to be sold or brought in to the Hammers ?

  • Comment number 4.

    "5 feet 6" Who are you calling tiny?

  • Comment number 5.

    One of the best overseas players ever to grace the premiership, and a model professional too.
    The hammers players couldnt get a better role model than Zola. Did anyone ever see him dive, complain, scream in a ref's face or even make a bad tackle?

  • Comment number 6.

    What a wonderful personality to have back in the Prem, quite possibly the best role-model ever to have played in the premiership? Did he ever put a foot wrong? Best of luck Franco!

  • Comment number 7.

    Zola has been engaged, regardless of the fact that he has no experience of managing a club side at any level and doesn't even have the necessary licence.
    Has it come to the stage where British managers are considered so useless that a foreigner, any foreigner, has to be better?
    There have been at least as many foreign failures as successes in the Premiership. In fact Wenger and Mourinho stand out as the only true successes, I certainly can't see that Benitez has achieved more than he should have, taking into account all the resources he has had. If you compare the situation Benitez inherited at Liverpool, with what 'arry took over at Portsmouth, it makes one wonder if Chelsea and Man U. would have had such an easy ride if 'arry had been managing Liverpool.
    I've now lost all interest in West Ham. They no longer bear any resemblance to the club I've followed for forty years.
    How can foreign owners and a foreign manager possibly relate to someone from the East End?
    They can't and I doubt that they'd even want to. All they want is our money and unfortunately there are too many mugs prepared to give it to them.
    I'm looking forward to the day when all Premier League clubs are owned and managed by foreigners with a fully foreign playing staff, none of whom, like Berbatov, owes any allegiance to the club they serve.
    They can then play the 39th game abroad, together with the other 38 for all I care.
    I know that most of you will think that I'm a traitor and will continue to follow West Ham regardless of who owns them, who manages them or who plays for them, even if the players can't understand a word of what you're chanting.
    Trigger from Only Fools And Horses claims that he's had his road sweeper's broom for 20 years. "It's had 17 new heads and 14 new handles" but it's still the same broom. At least his broom looks the same, "your" team regularly changes its strip so that you have to spend more money to keep up to date.

  • Comment number 8.


    A thought provoking and heartfelt entry which a lot of people would sympathise with.

    Barely any club at Premier League level truly relates to it's locality anymore, but it has become a global league and a global appeal is imperative to survive financially.

    In general the standard of football is better because of it, though the experience of fans at a game far removed and, you could argue, far inferior to the "old days".

    I speaking to Graham Taylor when he was manager of Aston Villa. He said that if he found a gem of a player at a lower league club for a bargain fee the fans would only complain bitterly that he wasn't signing big names for millions from Serie A, whether they were value for money or not.

    Some may say that this situation has made the Premier League a paradise for mercenary players. They may be right, but I do not believe that Gianfranco Zola deserves to be tarred with that brush.

  • Comment number 9.

    I'm loving the 'cab driver' comments above. Even though I don't agree, it seems endemic and unrelenting. Money talks in football on both the personnel and cooperate levels. Lest us remember however that British backers set the ball rolling in this commercial age (Blackburn and Ken Bates).

    As a chelsea follower I'm delighted that Zola is back in the premiership. Where I also detract from the above comments is that players like John Terry owe much of their development to Zola. Imagine Beckham and Scholes without the influence of Cantona for example. It's a delicate argument but in moderation (we can only pray) foreign influences from legends and true sportsmen are only positive x x

  • Comment number 10.

    I am delighted to see Zola back in the prem. He is the reason I started supporting Chelse. I saw him play for them and haven't looked back since.

  • Comment number 11.

    Trevor4491. I'm sure you saw "Gone with the Wind" at some time or another. Do you recall Brett's comment as he tipped his hat to Scarlett at the door. "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn", which I suspect is about most WH fans reaction to your posting.

  • Comment number 12.

    I cant wait for his first game against Newcastle. Its such a risky appointment by West Ham to overlook quality coaches such as Billic, Donnadoni and Laudrup for a manager that has only been a success in his playing career. But what a player he was. I feel that this could either prove to be a massive mistake and the Hammers are going to be lookin for a new manager come the start of the new year or it will prove to be a stroke of genius as it was when he first came to Chelsea. But the West Ham fans must remember that if they want him to succeed then they must give him time. They dont have the best squad in the division and id say that as long as he leads them to safety then that should be success for this season.

  • Comment number 13.

    Risky maybe - but Billic said he wanted to run a club and country, Laudrup took another option and Donnadoni stepped out - he was, of course, replaced by the Italian FA. As the English premier league consistently proves, every managerial appointment is risky. Zola at West Ham? – fantastic. I remember walking down Wakefield Street and under the flats to the back of Upton Park to watch the likes of Billy Jennings, Geoff Pike and Pat Holland – great days. It is a different world now. Cups of tea around the corner from the ground with coaches are gone – but somehow West Ham manages to retain the family atmosphere. Having spent many fine hours at Chadwell Heath I can testify to that. I abhor long term supporters like trevor4491 (is there really 4490 trevors ahead of you or was Brooking your hero?) who wax lyrical. Zola is now – sharp, experienced and clearly a leader both as a player and a man. What a delight to have a coach that my ‘US based – Hammer fan triplets’ can look up to. The pressure, or risk, for me is upon the club to ensure such a gem is allowed to work magic and maintain the tradition of excellence at the original ‘academy’ of soccer.

  • Comment number 14.

    An article fawning over the development of Chelsea Football Club. Pathetic. Zola is a West Ham man now.

  • Comment number 15.

    great post trevor4491.

  • Comment number 16.

    Nice blog.

    Best wishes to Gianfranco Zola in his new and challenging mission.

    Dr. Cajetan Coelho

  • Comment number 17.

    I agree in most part with Trevor 4491 comments. I am surprised he has not been called 'racist' in this day and age. I am in my forties and have grown-up with West Ham. I stopped attending football matches in the early nineties. Reason? the game or 'industry' was changing in a way in which I no longer trusted or enjoyed. I have no problem with that and passing over the baton to 'johnny come lately's' who ring into phone-in's on a Saturday eveing spouting tactical expertise based on ohhh..two years of watching football. Or the moronic 'we should sack the manager' callers. 'Why caller?' 'Well we just should' aahhhh...such intellect.

    I like Indianahammer comments. I too have my many happy memories of another era. I liked the 70's and 80's because we had a team you could relate too, genuine players (not spolit actors) a ground with character which was not souless like all the others etc etc.

    Good luck to those of you now enveloped with today's fast-food style of club football in England. I appreciate that its the only way you know. I only hope you enjoy today's football as much as I enjoye did in another era.

  • Comment number 18.

    Surely the problem with football is money not foreign ownership/managers/players.

    When trevor4491 says that a foreign manager can't relate to someone from the East End he obviously isn't including everyone from the East End which has seen the significant immigration of people from overseas over the last 150 years.

    Using that logic did he not cheer on Paolo Di Canio or Frank McAvennie as he did Moores, Peters or Brooking? All of the above were fantastic players that improved and inspired the club.

    It's stupidly high wages that is killing the game which as macca60999 points out was largely started by Walker and Bates at Blackburn and Chelsea.

    Not all foriegn players/managers /owners are bad for the game just as not all british ones are good.

    I'm thinking that Zola will be one of the good additions to the game just as he was as a player. And if he fails but introduces entertaining, attacking football (the West Ham way) then I and most West Ham fans will be happy.

  • Comment number 19.

    The one thing that I think was missing from the article with regards Chelsea was the question - Why if the average attendance 15/16 years ago 19,000 are there suddenly 40,000+ Chelski fans claiming that they have been going to "the Bridge" for twenty odd years?

  • Comment number 20.

    We can all wax lyrical about how good the old days were when we had 11 Englishmen as a team, and an english manager, with English owners, but that is not how things are nowadays. With the influx of foreign money, foreign owners, and foreign players, football has moved on from the good old days.

    If you want to complain about West Ham losing it's identity, look at the players we have bought in the last couple of years;
    Lucas Neill - your not telling me he's a typical West Ham player. His passing is shocking, he's frequently caught out of position, and his attempts at defending would leave Bobby Moore turning in his grave.
    Nigel Quashie - tries hard, but thats all. where's the West Ham pedigree there?
    Boa-Morte - I'd have Brooking back in a shot.

    If you want to complain about not getting an english manager, look at what we had to choose from;
    Allardyce - yes Bolton did play with the same style as West Ham's like.. well thats if you like long ball punts up to burly centre forwards and only score from set plays.
    'Arry - quite happy at Portsmouth. Why drive to West Ham when he can just take a leisurely drive down the coast, to a team which plays more like a West Ham team from the 80's than the one we have got today?

    Were there any other English managers interested? I don't think so, and if there were could they work under the new continental style of management structure we have. I doubt it.

    If you want to see a club thats lost it's identity, look at Arsenal. The team is basically made up of european players (French, spanish, french colonies, etc) with a foreign manager, but I don't hear their fans complaining. Top 4 and europe every year, and they don't mind.

    Football fans don't just live next door to the team they support, they live 100+ miles away in lots of cases (well if you're a Man Utd fan thats true, 'cos they all come from Surrey). Can you say anyone who supports a club but doesn't live there is not a true supporter? They may not be immersed in the culture but that doesn't make them any less passionate about the team they support. Supporting a team is a not just localised to areas close to the team, it's a national and international affair where anyone can support any team.

    And as for Zola - yes it's a gamble, but I'd far rather we have him than others. He was a world class player who only knew how to attack, something West Ham have lacked for a while. Donadoni would have been too defense minded, Collins was scottish so we would have complained about him not being english regardless of how good he is/isn't, and Bilic didn't want the job part-time. If we win 4-3 or lose 3-2, with good football, we're happy. We like style, flair, with a bit of grit and determination to back it up - not long ball or slowly-slowly football.

    Lets get real - football has changed. Lets embrace it, otherwise the weekends will only be made up of shopping, and DIY!

  • Comment number 21.


    Alf Garnett lives! :D

  • Comment number 22.

    In response to Macca60999 and Don 291, I can understand the comparisons to Blackburn under Jack Walker but that situation was unique. Unlike any of the foreign owners we're seeing in the game today, Walker was a lad from a working-class family in Blackburn who had been brought up watching the Rovers all his life. As he became rich he put his money back into his home town and his home town club. If we're talking about an age where football has lost touch with its roots, I think Jack Walker should be looked back upon as a true legend in the game. Never again will we see a club owner in tears as his team win the league. And never again will we see a club like Blackburn Rovers win the league.

    Anyway, back on topic, I think Zola will prove to be an excellent appointment for West Ham. The lack of experience won't affect him, as he is one of a handful of ex-players (Hughes, Keane etc) who won't have to earn the respect of fans or players, he commands it instantly because of what he's done in the game. Give him a season or so and I'm sure West Ham will be back playing the exiting football that we expect from them.

  • Comment number 23.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 24.

    I find it absolutely farcical that all the above comments reminiscing on the good old days can write off the current game! If you hadn't noticed over the past 20/30 years the world has been experiencing globalisation! The sport of football has not been ruined by the money or influx of immigrants; it has been developing and progressing along with the rest of the world. I'm not saying that the game is perfect; most players are greedy prima donnas and there is little to no physical contact involved. But the game is as it is and if you don't like it don't watch it, but billions of people do like it and are willing to pay to watch it.

    If you want to point the finger at anyone for discrediting the game then point it at the press. The media are the worlds Sheppard and we are their bleating sheep. What they say influences the public’s opinion. If Zola; one of the world's greatest ever sporting role models, has a run of bad games you can bet that they will encourage doubt in the minds of the public that he is an incapable manager, which, in turn will lead to him being forced out in, a no doubt, ill flavoured fashion. Any manager given enough time and money will succeed, they all have the necessary skills, otherwise they wouldn't have attracted the attention of the premiership, but it's whether they are given the chance. Alex Fergusson (who I wouldn't imagine could relate much too many Mancunians when he first arrived, trevor4491) is a prime example.

    I am a proud football fan and thoroughly enjoy watching the sport! I began watching at around the age of 5 or 6 and because my dad supported Chelsea, it seemed logical I would to. Didn't really choose to, just did and I have never doubted my support for my team. I was 7 when Zola arrived and was lucky to be able to enjoy watching Chelsea's transformation from mid table no hopers to champion’s league contenders. Yes I am accused of being a glory supporter and probably most of you reading this will think the very same but that doesn’t mean I'm going suddenly support stoke in the hope of gaining recognition for not supporting a top four team. Yes, there are many supporters that just follow the winners to avoid disappointment, but then Man UTD have built up their global fan base with those very fans.

    The reason I write this is because I am so annoyed that so many people attempt to tarnish the games reputation because there are a few things wrong. It brings joy to billions of people, provides an escape from the everyday life and is often (in my opinion) very entertaining. So if you wish to moan and constantly criticise carry on but you will not discourage me from watching, and I'm pretty sure I'm not alone.

    I can not wait to see how Zola gets on at West Ham and I can not wait for the day he makes his return to Chelsea.

  • Comment number 25.

    I'm very envious of WHU fans. Zola is held in high esteem by most players and fans alike; he should attract quality players to play under him.

    Unfortunately, I'm a Mag and we have Wise! Hated by all - except the odd Chelsea/Dons fan.

    I'd swap any day

  • Comment number 26.

    Good luck Franco.

    Hope you make West Ham a top 5 team in a few seasons and come back to manage Chelsea :)

  • Comment number 27.

    Good article, but one thing that continues to get on my nerves is refrence to Zola/ Henry/ Cantona etc as "one of the best foreigners" to grace the English game", when they should be referred to as "one of the best players to grace to English game". On pure talent and technical ability there hasn't been a better player than Henry on these shores!

  • Comment number 28.

    I have supported West Ham for 44 years. You need to have a good sense of humour and a thick skin to survive that long and still be going to the Boleyn on a Saturday afternoon. Nobody can accuse us of being glory hunters, unlike some clubs so called supporters not a million miles from Green Street.

    Personally I was sad to see Curbs go, he was one of us, but it came as no surprise. You cannot manage a club and not have control over who is bought and sold. At the end of the day the buck stops with the manager. If the team does not perform then he carries the can. If he cannot control player transfers then his position is untenable. That's why the role of Director of Football will continue to be contentious for the few remaining British managers.

    I don't like the way football is going in this country. I am not against foreign players and managers per se. I just think there are now too many here and this is stifling the opportunities for home grown talent. The FA needs to show some leadership and get the balance right. I have some sympathy with Platini's views on this subject.

    However, the biggest threat to the game as we know it is the influx of foreign money men buying their way into the English game. Don't tell me they care a hoot about our football history, its traditions and its supporters and local communities. There may be a glamour element for some of them, but mainly it is money that is their motivation. Not everyone is a Randy Lerner (Aston Villa).

    Hicks and Gillette holding Kopite scarves and talking of the Liverpool franchise while saddling a once very well run club with major debt just about sums it up and frankly makes me sick.

    More than a century of football community culture is being sold down the river to the highest bidder. I despair! Where is it all going to end?

    A poor bloody infantryman from the South Bank, Upton Park.

  • Comment number 29.

    Zola was voted fan favourite by the whole country as the best foreign player ever which is cool.

    Him and Bergkamp were special

  • Comment number 30.

    Good luck West Ham. You've got a great manager and person to run your club. From a liverpool fan.

  • Comment number 31.

    As caffreys_cof said win or lose stylelish, attacking football, with some passion and grit. I am a happy man

    the recent football at upton park is the worst i have seen for sometime

  • Comment number 32.

    I wish Franco the best of luck. He is a genius and a roll model in modern football. I pray he should prove it as a coach.

  • Comment number 33.

    Just to correct a couple of errors, big wages were NOT "largely started by Walker and Bates at Blackburn and Chelsea".

    There are two distinct issues here.

    Jack Walker put a lot of money into Blackburn to fund the purchase of players like Shearer (note: to pay transfer values, not wages).

    Bates and (more correctly) Colin Hutchinson were amongst the first to realise that the Bosman ruling meant you did not need to pay high transfer values because players became free agents towards the end of their contracts. You could therefore pay high(er) wages on the basis that you were saving on transfer fees.

    Best wishes to Franco Zola.


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