Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Meeting Adversity With Personality And Style

No one, he knew, was going to pay much attention and, still less, do anything about it, but Gianfranco Zola said it anyway. He said it would be very nice if they got rid of the January transfer window. Then you could judge how well a manager worked with his players, how he could develop a team from the optimism of late summer to the realities of the spring. He wasn't railing against how money wields such influence in football. No, Zola was simply saying that if the game has never been so transparently a rich man's world there is still no reason why, without even attempting to close fundamentally the huge divide which, say, separates, the recently colonised Manchester City and his own club, we might still be able to restrict the plutocrats to one spending spree per year.

Zola, of course, is from Sardinia, a place which is well versed in the iniquities of life. This is why quite a number of Sardinians still arm themselves to the teeth when they go about their daily business. Indeed, it was to the picturesque Mediterranean island that he returned over the weekend; content to spend a few precious hours with his young family while the footballing power-brokers embarked on the final frenzied hours of transfer business.

As it happens West Ham concluded their transfer business for the January transfer window without landing either of their deadline day targets. The club confirmed last night that efforts to sign a replacement for the outgoing Julien Faubert had failed despite a day of negotiations in East London. United had been talking to at least two players - Panathinaikos' Bryce Moon and Dinamo Bucharest's Radiu Homei - but failed to reach a satisfactory conclusion in either case, meaning that Savio and Radoslav Kovac are the only two new faces to be added to the squad.

In addition, the club announced the signing of Herita Ilunga on a permanent deal after it was decided to exercise the 'right to buy' option at a cost of around £1.5million. The Congolese full-back was a post-deadline day capture last September, arriving from Toulouse as a replacement for George McCartney who joined Sunderland for £6million. Since moving to East London Ilunga has been a virtual ever-present in Gianfranco Zola's first team, drawing plaudits from supporters impressed by his attacking forays and battling qualities. The 26-year-old defender is understood to have signed a three-and-a-half year contract with the Hammers.

Scott Duxbury, talking on the official site confirmed that the club's transfer window business had now been finalised, saying: "We had been looking at a couple of the manager's targets but a deal could not be concluded. Rather than rush anything through, and with the manager happy with his squad, we felt it best to wait until the summer when we can take stock of the squad and spend our money wisely."

It is reported Premier League clubs spent an estimated 175million this month, according to analysis by the business advisory firm Deloitte, appearing to fly in the face of the worldwide recession with an increase of £25million on last year. Dan Jones, partner in the sports business group at Deloitte, said: "The record level of gross spending has largely been driven by transfers between Premier League clubs [about £105m], in particular fuelled by the activity of Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur."

In 2008 the figure was £150m; in 2007, £60m; in 2006, £70m; in 2005, £50m; in 2004, £50m; and in 2003, £35m. The top reported transfer spenders in January 2009 were Manchester City (over £50m – the highest level of spending by any club in a January transfer window) and Tottenham Hotspur (about £45m). There have been six transfers reported with values of at least £10million in January 2009 – seven if the Arshavin deal goes through. Before the January 2009 transfer window, there had been only six moves for reported values of £10million or more since the mid-season window was introduced in January 2003.

Premier League clubs' transfer spending in the January window has again far exceeded that in other European leagues, with the 20 Premier League clubs committing more than the aggregate disclosed amounts spent by all top division clubs in the other "big five" European Leagues in France, Germany, Italy and Spain. When the Deloitte Football Money League is published later this month, it will confirm the position of several Premier League clubs among the "Top 20" highest revenue generators in the world.

Reflecting on the overall financial position of Premier League clubs, Paul Rawnsley, director in the sports business group at Deloitte said: "The level of transfer spending is far in excess of spending by clubs in other European leagues. With the majority of their revenue streams already secured for the current season, while clubs are not recession-proof, they are relatively recession-resistant. Looking forward, while the clubs will not be complacent, the latest transfer activity re-emphasises the financial strength and global appeal of the Premier League competition."

The top six reported player moves total about £90million and account for over half of the total January spending. As it works, said Zola, the January window permits the rich clubs to top up their resources, correct mistakes, and wipe out at least some of the effects of injury. It also means that his West Ham United lose a player as talented as Craig Bellamy at a pivotal point in a remarkable recovery to eighth place in the Premier League after being locked in the jaws of relegation. Zola was forced to scout for an emergency replacement, eventually securing the largely unheralded Savio Nsereko from the less than salubrious environs of Italy's Serie B. As good as Savio may eventually become, he is also considerably younger and less experienced, and invariably represents a considerable risk (in every sense) when compared to the proven Premier League performer whose shirt he must fill.

This, Zola further contends, builds in still more imbalance between those with generous resources, as West Ham briefly once had, relatively speaking, before the Icelandic economy descended to the value of not much more than a packet of fish fingers, and those who are obliged to live within their own self-generated means, as the club are forced to do now. "No one will listen," said Zola with a shrug, "and no one will do anything about it, but it is still true. The January transfer window is only for the rich. For those who are not rich it is just another handicap."

It is not an original view, of course; you can just hear the groans of all those worldly characters who keep telling us that money has always been at the root of the highest football success – even, presumably, when Jock Stein raised a team exclusively from the environs of Glasgow and whipped the hind legs off Internazionale in the 1967 European Cup final or when Alf Ramsey led Ipswich Town to the First Division title a few years earlier. But then money realists are not the kind of people who have ever held much sway in the thinking of Gianfranco Zola, who while at Napoli used to stay behind after training to do ball work with Diego Maradona.

Certainly, he was impervious to advice that he should renege on a verbal promise made to Cagliari of his native island when Chelsea came back for him in the wake of Roman Abramovich's Chelsea takeover in 2003. If Zola had any strong sense that for a while at least Stamford Bridge would be awash with roubles, he ignored it, stayed as good as his word and led Cagliari to Serie A. His last game for the club was marked by two goals against Juventus, a splendid farewell which prompted a season's retirement for his No 10 jersey.

Czech Republic international Radoslav Kovac admits that it was largely Gianfranco Zola's presence at West Ham that played a big part in persuading him to come to the club. Kovac has joined the Hammers on loan until the end season from Spartak Moscow but revealed there were other offers on the table when he decided to link up with Zola's side. "There was interest from other big clubs but when West Ham showed their interest, it felt like the right move for me and a chance to come and play in the Premier League," he said. "Of course I know a lot about the manager and also the player he was. It is a fantastic opportunity for me to come and play under him and I am very excited about this."

Zola's attempt to throw a brick through the transfer window would not be to Sir Alex Ferguson's particular benefit but this is scarcely likely to reduce the United manager's affection for the diminutive big man who he once described as a clever "little so-and-so". Ferguson adores Zola, rates him one of the best pros he has ever encountered and, arguably, the most honest. "I love Gianfranco," Fergie once said in a moment of post-prandial expansion. "I've never seen him do or attempt to do anything dishonest on the field – he plays with all his heart and tremendous honesty and if everybody in the game was like him it would be a truly wonderful place."

No one has been known to be in a rush to reproduce that last part of Ferguson's praise in connection with Bellamy, and certainly not his former Newcastle manager, Graeme Souness. Bellamy, whose acrimonious transfer to Manchester City was preceded by the player apparently packing his bags and storming out of Upton Park in a dark mood brought on by West Ham's refusal to let him move to White Hart Lane, escaped public criticism from Zola. Before a national television audience, the West Ham boss said merely that Bellamy was a fine, valuable player. His eyes may have hinted at a less favourable wider assessment but what they seemed to represent mostly was sadness – regret, perhaps, at the transitory nature of so many football lives, among whom Bellamy is more notable than most.

Thus far, though, Zola, as a prudent Sardinian, has not poked his nose in other people's business. He has merely voiced that it is regrettable that for a month a team like his own, one which in difficult circumstances has found a rhythm and a self-belief that seemed so remote so recently, should be picked over like the shelf of a super sale. It wouldn't happen, he was saying so quietly he might have been speaking to himself, in a sport which understood the real meaning of competition.

Instead Zola says only that he is "proud" that his West Ham side have survived the transfer window with "personality and style". Although Bellamy went to Manchester City, the anticipated fire sale of top players did not happen as five fringe players were loaned out or sold. "It hasn't been simple and all the stories in the newspapers did affect the players," Zola said. "But every morning I wake up with the idea that we are stronger than our problems. I am proud to have come through so much confusion, and we have done so with personality and style. Things are falling into place, but the credit goes to the players who have always worked hard even when we weren't getting any points."

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