Friday, 13 February 2009

Easy-Peasy Street

Even for the nicest bloke in football, it must have been hard for Gianfranco Zola not to scream at his interrogators, writes Ian Chadband in this morning's Telegraph. If he was asked just once for his thoughts on the Chelsea situation, he must have been asked a dozen times. "Look, [Chelsea] is a club that I wish they do very well and I think Clarkey feels the same, but I would like to talk about West Ham," the United manager pleaded not unreasonably. Sorry, no chance, Franco.

So he obliged the press obduracy as he always does. With charm, patience and a smile, telling them how he wished his old employers the very best in their current maelstrom. Still, the more he then started enthusing about his grand project in east London, having only been appointed in mid-September to a first managerial role, the more the favourite player in Chelsea's history gave his audience reason to wonder why the hell he would ever want to go west again after the latest happenings in the Stamford Bridge madhouse.

It was summed up in one lovely phrase, observes Chadband, which he can only have picked up in a former life from Dennis Wise. Was he enjoying his time at West Ham? "For me, it's easy-peasy," he grinned. Easy-peasy because he could wake up every morning feeling his job was secure and his players were all batting for him. Easy-peasy because the West Ham hierarchy "like my ideas and have let me do my job the way I want". Easy-peasy because he could go to the Chadwell Heath training ground, confident he was going back to "one of the best environments and happiest dressing rooms" he had experienced in sport.

Zola, of course, has slowly turned things around following a difficult period before Christmas, with the Irons currently sitting eighth in the Premier League and preparing for an FA Cup fifth-round tie against Middlesbrough this weekend. The former Chelsea man, though, is aware things could have been very different. He has already seen five Premiership changes so far this season and looked on shaky ground when West Ham went on a disastrous run, winning just one game in 12. His mind wanders back to those first couple of months at Upton Park when the results weren't coming. "A manager cannot do a job that easily in football. You need to plan, you need to be allowed special time just to change your players and the shape of the team. For me, it took a long time and, maybe if I'd been at another club, after two months I'd have been sacked," he mused.

Another club like, er, Chelsea. Luiz Felipe Scolari coached Brazil to victory the 2002 World Cup and yet was given only 36 games before being sacked by Roman Abramovich.

Of course, Zola couldn't possibly say that. He refused to be drawn on just what he thought had gone wrong at Stamford Bridge under the Brazilian, with reports of dressing-room unrest. "It is very difficult for me to get into the opinions," said the Hammers manager. "Chelsea are a winning side and want to stay on that side most of the time. It is not easy because things are so competitive, but the club has got its own way of running things and if they believe it's not right, they can change."

The affable Sardinian enjoyed a hugely successful spell with Chelsea, and is still revered by the club's supporters – with a banner unfurled at the game against Hull calling for his messianic return. "Its very pleasant and means they have a lot of faith and trust in me," said the 42-year-old. "The only thing I can express is that Steve [Clarke] wants to say, [we] wish them to do very well." Zola is not about to throw darts in the direction of his old worshippers with a potential scenario this summer where West Ham's financial problems have taken another turn for the worse and Chelsea are looking for an old heroic saviour after a failed stopgap Guus Hiddink experiment, one who's just completed a hugely impressive first season in the Premier League with another old Bridge favourite Steve Clarke.

So could he give an assurance that he would be still at West Ham next year, he was asked. Naturally, he couldn't – and why should he in this fickle business? asks Chadband. "No, I'm here and that's the important thing. That's all I can say about that," Zola said. "I'm enjoying myself and my job here isn't finished. My duty now is to improve this team so it gets better. So far I haven't given this club enough; this is just the beginning. I am very happy with what I am doing here. We have a project and we are still starting. I don't like planning long-term. I always like to stick to the present. I don't know what the future holds. If you asked me seven months ago if I would be a manager I would have said no. There is a long way to go and I have got a lot to learn and a lot to give to the club." He is easy to believe, especially when he talks about repaying faith and loyalty "absolutely" to the club whose gamble on him has resulted in returning flair at the Boleyn and a recent run of just one defeat in nine matches.

And anyway, the experience of Scolari, turfed out while lying fourth in the league, has evidently made him realise that the grass is not always greener. Could he imagine what it was like to be the Brazilian? "Yeah, but I'm not in Scolari's place. Chelsea is a place I care very much about and all I can do is wish them well. Hiddink I'm sorry for, Scolari as well," shrugged Zola. "He's gone to a team that wants and expects to do well – I suppose there's a price to pay."

Of course, it's too early to judge how fine a manager Zola will be. He's so accommodating, so pleasant to everyone, you do wonder if he might not have the necessary streak of arrogance and ruthlessness in him which drives the very best. His reputation as a great player, he could see again this week with Tony Adams's dismissal, is no protection. Yet perhaps his shining humility – they reckon he's still the best player on the training ground at Chadwell Heath but would never dream of showing up his charges – could be his strength, creating the concept that an anti-Mourinho could also become a special one. Imagine how refreshing that would be says Chadband.

'Franco' is simply a man players will not want to let down. He offers them responsibility and they are desperate not to disappoint. He is such an honest, genuine man that his players give their all for him. Yet Zola's former teammates will warn against being hoodwinked by the Italian's 'Mr Nice Guy' image. There is a view among Chelsea fans of Zola as the Knight of Stamford Bridge, a hero as pure as the driven snow. But the fact that he is one of the game's nice guys does not mean he is not a bloody-minded winner.

"On one occasion in our six years together at Chelsea", recalls Graeme Le Saux, "we were playing a training game under Claudio Ranieri – seven-a-side and next goal wins. Franco had the ball on the wing and ran it out of play. I stopped trying to tackle him, but he suddenly cut inside and unleashed a beautiful curling shot to win the game.

"It went out, Franco," I told him. "No, no, no," he said. "Was in." I looked to the manager for salvation, but he simply said: "Franco wouldn't lie." They saw him as so honest that the very idea he may have pulled a fast one never even entered their heads.

"One day I'll write a book and tell everyone what a cheat you are," I said to him afterwards.

"OK, you write your book," he replied. "And when I write my book I will say you look at me in the showers." That isolated incident aside, Franco is self-effacing, humble and incredibly hard working. The essence of Franco is that he never took his fantastic ability for granted.

At Chelsea, he paid his own money for a wooden defensive wall to practice his free-kicks because they didn't have one. He even took it home at the end of the day. When people see someone that talented working so hard to hone his craft, they want to practise even more to be as good as they can be. That is how he approaches management – leading by example. He was never satisfied with the physical side of the game or ever thought he had perfected something. That desire for constant improvement rubs off on people.

Joining West Ham was a decision Zola really thought through. Le Saux remembers he spoke to him on the Tuesday as Zola was preparing his Italy under-21 side to face Croatia. He was exhausted, not having slept for days thinking about whether he should take the post or not. That is not to suggest he didn't want the job. He just wanted to make sure whatever decision he took would be right for him, his family and for West Ham. He weighed up every eventuality and based his decision on that. "The only advice I gave him was that whatever decision he made would be the right one," says Le Saux. "I believe it's a great fit, but there are two factors that need to be right if he is to fulfil his potential. Firstly, he must make sure he can manage expectations. Any success he has will be relative – what do the club want? Secondly, the support structure around him has to be right. I can see why he wanted to bring in Steve Clarke from Chelsea, and understand why Steve wanted to go."

Clarke has been a great stabilising force at Stamford Bridge for almost 20 years but under another regime it was no surprise he questioned what his role was. Management now is not about one figure, but the backroom team. There is a view that Clarke's departure to join Zola last September has been a defining element in Chelsea's decline. "For me he is a big part of the job we're doing here," Zola said. With good people around him, you would bet on it being a great move for Franco, West Ham and for football.

Zola is one of those people who takes the tribalism out of sport thinks Le Saux. There is a lot of goodwill because people want to see him do well – and he needed that goodwill while he found his feet in those traumatic early months. So what's the attraction of a cut-throat business to this gentleman, ponders Chadband. "My main motivation is that when I was a player I always wanted to learn something new. So I went into managing because I had that same idea. But I know nowadays it's difficult. People want results straight away from day one. In football, it doesn't work that way. I don't think there's any manager in the world who can change a player or a team in a few weeks."

The implication was obvious; for Chelsea, it's not going to be that easy-peasy.

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