Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Growing Through Adversity

Gianfranco Zola believes that he has gained several years’ worth of experience managing West Ham United, although he has been in the post only since September 2008. Within days of taking charge, West Ham’s owner, Björgólfur Gudmundsson, suffered the financial problems that led to his bankruptcy and the eventual sale of half the club last week. After finishing ninth last term, Zola’s job now is to secure survival. "It has been difficult," he said, speaking for the first time since David Sullivan and David Gold gained control of the club. "It has been worth five years of experience in any other job. It’s a challenge and I accept it."

The Sardinian admits the completion of the protracted takeover of West Ham United came as "a massive relief", and that the onus is now on him to steer the club away from the threat of relegation if he is to retain his position at Upton Park. The new owners have so far been unequivocal in their public support of Zola, despite suggestions that they had considered recruiting Mark Hughes. They have since spoken with the Italian on a daily basis as West Ham seek to reinforce their squad, with the Blackburn Rovers striker Benni McCarthy and Manchester City's Benjani Mwaruwari among several names constantly mentioned in dispatches.

While strengthening the forward ranks was considered a priority, just as significant has been confirmation that none of West Ham's key players will need to be sold. "Every window we've had to sell someone because of the financial problems, so to know everyone is staying is massive," said Zola, who had feared losing the likes of Scott Parker and Matthew Upson had the takeover not been completed. "To lose players would have had big implications for us, not only because of the loss itself but because of the message you're sending out to the other players. We're trying to build something here, so this will serve to refocus everybody.

"The new owners already achieved the main things that were needed: to bring stability and keep all the players we have. As for my own future, it wasn't necessary to talk to them about that. I know that, in my position, I have to produce results. The new owners are going to be very demanding on the team and on me, but I like that. It's a challenge and I accept it. It's been good that they said they have faith in me and my staff. That's a very good start. Now it's down to me to make sure that first show of trust stays strong."

West Ham have won only once in eight games in all competitions but tomorrow's game at Portsmouth, four points adrift at the bottom of the table, marks the start of a run of fixtures Zola described as "an opportunity" to hoist the team away from the cut-off, with Birmingham City's visit the toughest on paper of the Londoners' next six league fixtures. Victory at Portsmouth, who are still scrapping for their existence, will not come easy, though. "We played them some time ago and it was tough. I’m expecting it to be even tougher this time, but my team are prepared," said Zola.

The manager recognises the significance of prospering in this period, and thereby maintaining the feel-good factor generated by the change in ownership, with demotion to the Championship unthinkable. Yet, already, the benefits of the regime change are being felt. "It's important that you have an owner to whom you can report, whether in good or bad situations," said Zola, with the implications of life under the previous ownership very clear. "The fact that there is an owner behind us, and looking after us all, is a massive thing. The players are all feeling positive about that, too. The trouble we had was certainly affecting our performances – the players were feeling the uncertainty around the club – though I'll put my hands up and say I've also made some mistakes.

Zola received a sack-load of good-will messages from fans when he was first.appointed. None of his friends or colleagues had warned him of the pitfalls. "Actually they told me good things," said Zola. "When they come out from the hospital, those people...". But nice guys do not always finish last, as Zola continues to prove. "Maybe, if I could go back, I'd have done some things differently. But it's been a difficult situation. I came here last season and, after a week, all the [financial] trouble started. We thought we'd come through that, then there were more problems. I tried to stay focused on my work on the pitch but, for me, it's a massive relief now. I've been here one-and-a-half years, but that time is maybe worth five years of experience in any other [managerial] job. I am stronger for it, absolutely. The fighting spirit is there. I don't like to give up on things or step back from difficulties. My main qualities are on the pitch and I want to use them on the pitch. If I can get everything else sorted, I can focus on that and I can put across my 20 years in football. I'm still alive and still fighting like a crazy man. I have less hair now than when I came here but, for this team, I will do anything."

Zola personally earmarked the pursuit of McCarthy and Benjani in dialogue with Gold and Sullivan, with the club's sporting director, Gianluca Nani, increasingly isolated at Upton Park. "The players that come in have to be my choice, but the new owners have been very co-operative," added Zola. "Strikers were a priority, and the owners know that. I trust them. We have kept in close contact and speaking every day, exchanging information. They're working to make the team stronger."

It is no secret West Ham are desperate to bolster their attacking options. Injuries to Carlton Cole, Guillermo Franco and Zavon Hines have stretched their forward line to breaking point and Zola was recently forced to give the 18-year-old striker Frank Nouble his Premier League debut at Aston Villa. At least, England striker Carlton Cole is back in the West Ham squad. He has been absent since injuring a hamstring in West Ham’s 5-3 win over Burnley on November 28, but trained with the squad on Monday and could be named as a substitute at Fratton Park. Zola said: "It’s very positive news. It’s a big lift for everybody having him back. It’s like a new signing, a massive thing for us. He’s an important player."

So what of actual new signings? West Ham have officially submitted a written offer for Benni McCarthy, according to the striker's club Blackburn Rovers. Gianfranco Zola's side have repeatedly been linked with the South African after his manager, Sam Allardyce, said he could leave during the current transfer window. McCarthy, whom the club believe is in Spain, missed training sessions on Monday and last Friday and is keen to quit Ewood Park after falling out with Allardyce over his fitness. The bust-up centred on McCarthy’s weight and the player was angry at being ordered by him to do extra sessions.

The Mail reports Allardyce feels he has little option but to agree a deal and the player's days at Blackburn appear to be numbered. The 32-year-old has struggled to find form this season, scoring only once in the Premier League and regularly finding himself left out by Allardyce. "We are very disappointed with Benni's non-appearance for training and will deal with it separately should he remain here after the transfer window has closed," said Allardyce. "We have said all along that we will listen to offers, but only agree to sell if both the commercial and football reasons satisfy Blackburn Rovers. That situation remains unchanged."

According to the Times, although McCarthy has edged closer to a move, it is possible the forward may not play when the teams meet at Upton Park on Saturday. It is thought Blackburn want £2.5 million for the forward, more than twice what West Ham are willing to offer as an initial sum, even though they are unhappy with the player's increasingly erratic behaviour. For his part, McCarthy remains desperate to play regular first-team football in the run up to the World Cup finals in his native South Africa. The Mail claims the striker is expected to sign a two-and-a-half year deal at Upton Park, with Rovers using the fee to fund a bid for Stoke City's James Beattie.

The same paper insists United are also closing in on a deal for Benjani but will probably be forced to wait until after Manchester City's Carling Cup semi-final second leg at Manchester United on Wednesday before completing any transfer. Benjani, 31, is thought to be high on the wish list of attacking reinforcements drawn up by the club but there remain significant hurdles to overcome. Firstly, the Zimbabwe international has impressed new boss Roberto Mancini in recent weeks during the prolonged absence of Emmanuel Adebayor. Secondly, the imminent departure of Robinho is forcing City to consider whether they can afford to let another striker go.

Elsewhere, the Hammers have decided not to offer a deal to Sergey Kornilneko, despite the Zenit St Petersburg striker impressing on a week-long trial. Sources close to the 26-year-old indicate that he was told West Ham were looking for more 'high-profile' strikers. In recent days, the club have been heavily linked with Monaco's Eidur Gudjohnsen, while talks are reportedly ongoing with Argentine forward Juan Carlos Menseguez. The 26-year-old, who plays for San Lorenzo, impressed during a loan spell at West Bromwich Albion last season. Lastly, Sky Sports are running a story about Mido but for the good of my own health (physical and mental) I'm ignoring it.


Elliott said...

I really like Zola and at times this season West Ham have played some very attractive first touch football - if Cole can stay fit, I think survival is a very likely prospect.

And the new site design/layout is breathtaking!

Anonymous said...

Very good post. Anticipating the next.


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