Chelsea fans view on us
Let’s be honest. We were all a little sceptical when West Ham appointed Gianfranco Zola as their new manager in September, 2008.
I know he was a genius as a player; no question about that. And, by common consent, one of the ‘nicest men in football’. But a manager, in the cut-throat, live and die by results world of the Premier League? As a West Ham follower might have said, ‘You’re having a laugh.’ And, after all, the man who was once voted Chelsea’s best ever player, had only ever been assistant manager to Italy’s Under 21 side. What sort of experience was that to bring to a club under financial pressure and struggling for results?
Except, so far, it’s working. Really working. Those West Ham fans who were dubious about someone with such an obvious allegiance to the moneybags of Chelsea across London have been won over. Strangely, perhaps, Zola was helped by the fact that, also from Chelsea, the club appointed Steve Clarke as his assistant. Clarke, combative, shrewd and synonymous with Chelsea for many successful years, was looked upon as a real coup by the West Ham supporters. They were genuinely delighted to have captured someone with such an illustrious track record.
And the two seem to have been accepted almost straight away. Clearly determined, professional, honest and hardworking, Zola and Clarke have succeeded in getting West Ham playing the kind of football the fans want to see. In the days of Ted Fenton, Ron Greenwood and John Lyall everyone knew that West Ham played football the ‘proper way’, and many successful managers – Malcolm Allison, Noel Cantwell, Harry Redknapp, John Bond, et al – developed through the West Ham ‘academy’.
The Academy, of course, has continued to develop some of England’s brightest players. Joe Cole, Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand, Michael Carrick and Glen Johnson are all members of the England squad – and all started their careers at West Ham. Current players such as Mark Noble and the audaciously promising Jack Collison already are playing way beyond their years.
Zola, unbelievably only West Ham’s twelfth manager in 108 years of history, is also just the second non-English appointment; and he already has managed the team for more games than the other, Scotsman Lou Macari. He’s also impressed the notoriously hard to please aficionados by the way in which he and his coaching staff have improved the players they have – and with the financial situation, at the moment, seeming no nearer resolution, that’s important. Carlton Cole was talked about glowingly a few years ago when he was a youngster at Chelsea; Clarke and Zola’s belief in him coupled with their coaching abilities have helped show people just why that was. Matthew Uposn was a defender who always looked good but made careless errors; he now looks well worth his England place. Robert Green has every right to consider himself a justifiable contender to eventually replace David James in the international number one jersey.
Neutral football supporters would love to see Gianfranco Zola and West Ham continue to thrive. Let’s hope they don’t have to sell off all their best young players, the likes of Dean Ashton can stay fit for a season, and that the Icelandic owners can find someone who will bring financial stability.
Then we can hear the Bubbles anthem resoundingly echoing around the Boleyn Ground and see Gianfranco Zola’s claret and blue army perhaps fighting for a place in Europe – their form in the second half of last season certainly suggested it’s a realistic ambition.