Zola eyes bright future at Upton Park
Gianfranco Zola is doing his best to dispel the myth that good guys cannot succeed in the harsh world of Premier League management.
It is hard to find anyone who has a bad word to say about the little Italian, whose cheeky smile and boyish enthusiasm for the sport he mastered as a player looks set to continue into what may soon be hailed as a successful coaching career.
A top-half finish in his first season as West Ham boss represented a fine achievement and he has already pocketed his first win of the new campaign after a hard-fought victory at Wolves last weekend, yet this is a tale that few would have predicted 12 months ago.
Given his status as a Chelsea legend and West Ham supporters' long-standing aversion to all things associated with Stamford Bridge Blue, Zola was a surprise candidate to take over as Hammers boss following the departure of Alan Curbishley last September.
It meant he had less time than he might have expected to win over his doubters and he did that by introducing a brand of attractive football the Upton Park regulars claimed they had not seen during Curbishley's turbulent stint as manager. Quite simply, West Ham fans demand passing football and Zola has given them just that.
His long-term plan is clearly defined. Turn West Ham into the new home for the world's brightest young football talents and build a squad to replace the potentially magical team that has passed through the club over the last decade.
Joe Cole, Rio Ferdinand, Jermain Defoe, Michael Carrick and Frank Lampard have all emerged through the West Ham ranks in recent years before achieving success elsewhere, so the plan being carried out by Zola and trusted assistant Steve Clarke was merely to continue in the long-standing traditions of the club.
However, the duo could not have anticipated a global economic crisis that has hit West Ham harder than most sporting institutions. With the Icelandic backers of the club, the very men who had promised to finance Zola's vision, running into severe cash flow problems, the manager admits his patience with the project he has started in such promising fashion may need to be extended beyond his original timescale.
"The idea when I came here was that this would be a club to discover fresh, young talent and build it into a great team," begins the 43-year-old who quit his job within the Italian Under-21 set-up to take over at Upton Park. "Obviously, a lot of things have happened off the field since we spoke about this project and we will have to wait to see if the rules are still the same. At this moment, I believe they are.
"This was never about spending £20m to sign the best players in the world as that will never be possible for West Ham. The reason I'm here is because I like the project. I'm not here to make lots of money or to try and become the manager of Chelsea, Manchester United or Real Madrid. I just want to work on a project that appeals to me.
"I will be the first one to hold up my hands and say I made a mistake to come West Ham and I'm not good enough to do the job if it does not work out. At the moment, I won't think so negatively as my aim is to finish the job we have only just started."
Rumour has it that West Ham are under financial pressure to sell star defender Matthew Upson before the transfer window closes at the end of the month, but Zola has to put such worrying rumours to one side as he prepares for Sunday's ESPN televised game against old foes Tottenham.
Having done a fine job of ignoring the boardroom unrest at Upton Park so far, Zola now has to push the club on to the next level and his summer captures of Swiss youngster Fabio Daprela and Chilean midfielder Luis Jimenez suggested he is still being given funds, albeit at modest levels, to carry out the original scheme.
Whether Zola has the raw materials to finish in the top half of the Premier League this term remains to be seen, but there will be those who believe his next logical step will be a defection back to the club where his heart may always lie should he continue to defy logic and push the Hammers forward with little or no money behind him.
Such was the love affair Zola enjoyed with Chelsea that many suspect he is destined to take the managerial hot-seat at Stamford Bridge at some stage in his career, yet the Blues icon insists that chapter of his football career has been closed.
"West Ham took a gamble when they gave me the chance to become their manager and I will stay here as long as the conditions remain the same and they still want me," he said. "The West Ham people have been so nice to me and I owe them something in return.
"Obviously, I will always have a special place in my heart for Chelsea. The reception I had from the fans at Stamford Bridge when I went back as West Ham manager last season was amazing and it would be good if others supporters could look at that and realise booing old players is not so productive.
"Maybe the West Ham fans will continue to boo Frank Lampard as they tend to do, but I think it is time to stop all of this. If someone takes a different career path, you have to accept it and I hope everyone does this with Frank and me from now on.
"I enjoy the challenge I have at West Ham. I have already lasted a little longer in the job than some people expected and hope to be here for much longer. We do not have the financial power of our rivals, but it is interesting to test ourselves against them on the pitch with this disadvantage. The exciting thing is we have proved we can compete."
As Zola returns to the Upton Park touchline on Sunday for a game against a Tottenham side West Ham fans have long loathed with a passion, it is hard to imagine this placid, polite man being anything less than a gentleman before, during and after a game.
Touchline scuffles with managers or dressing room dust-ups with his players are never likely to be the way for flyweight Franco, but he claims to have a sterner side hidden within. "I was successful as a player because I followed my own path and I will never tell experienced professionals that they need to be like me," he adds. "I always tried to have control of my emotions and wanted to make sure I was always a good professional, but not everyone is born like me.
"I have an angry side to my personality, but it's better that the public do not see it. My attitude has always been that getting angry is not a good plan because you lose control. You have to remain focused on the job and this will not be possible if you are running around screaming at people."
The days of football managers at top clubs needing to succeed in a bid to put food on the table for their families are long gone, so it may be that the modern breed of coaches will bring the same calm and composed logic that Zola has with them into the job. When you are a millionaire, before you start a new job, sporting ambition can be placed firmly ahead of personal fortunes.
Time will tell whether Zola's promising start as a Premier League manager can flourish into something more productive, but you can be assured that the Italian will do it all with his trademark smile permanently etched on his face.