From West Ham manager to tea boy
The stormy relationship between Gianfranco Zola and the owners of West Ham United is likely to end in a legal battle after the Italian was sacked as manager of the East London club yesterday.
The club would not elaborate on a statement on the official website that read: “West Ham United have terminated the contract of Gianfranco Zola.” However, The Times understands that the club’s position is that Zola breached his contract by publicly criticising David Sullivan, the co-owner, after he suggested in April that the club would listen to offers for all their players, apart from Scott Parker.
“If I was Mark Noble or Robert Green or Valon Behrami, I wouldn’t be very pleased to hear that,” Zola said. “I didn’t know. It is not pleasant. You don’t like it, but this is the way it goes.”
Zola, who has three years of a £1.9 million-a-year contract outstanding, was told of his dismissal when he met Karren Brady, the vice-chairman, at Upton Park yesterday morning. He has put his compensation claim in the hands of the League Managers Association ([LMA)] and hit out at Sullivan and David Gold, the co-owners, who did not attend yesterday’s meeting, in a statement on the LMA website.
“I am extremely disappointed to be leaving West Ham United,” Zola said. “Over recent weeks, I have been the subject of various adverse comments from within the club, which have been widely reported in the media. Despite what has been a very difficult period for me, I have thoroughly enjoyed my time at West Ham.”
Those “adverse comments” include an apology to supporters from Sullivan for a “shambolic” and “pathetic” performance against Wolverhampton Wanderers in March, and a later statement that “the current team and management know that what they have delivered was below expectations”. Zola was also unaware of a bid to sign Graham Dorrans, the West Bromwich Albion and Scotland midfield player.
The LMA made it clear that it considered that its client had not received the support of his employers. “Clear communication and a supportive framework at the top of a football club are essential for stability and delivering results,” Richard Bevan, the LMA chief executive, said. “Gianfranco has had to manage his team through a period of uncertainty at the club and has shown dedication, resilience and commitment to his players, staff and the fans.”
It is widely understood that Zola was not the manager of choice for Sullivan and Gold when they took over the club in January. Brady was reported to have been overheard shortly before Sullivan and Gold took over, telling a Premier League manager that Mark Hughes, the former Wales, Blackburn Rovers and Manchester City manager, would be the favourite of the new owners.
However, they proclaimed their loyalty in public. On February 10, Sullivan described Zola’s position as “100 per cent secure”. After the club ensured their Premier League status by beating Wigan Athletic on April 24, Gold said: “I would hope he stays. Now he knows he is part of West Ham, whereas before he was isolated. I would have thought that he deserves another crack. But he’s also a man who might feel that it’s time for him to take a sabbatical.”
That sabbatical began yesterday, whether Zola felt it was time or not. Although the club came uncomfort-ably close to a potentially disastrous relegation, finishing only one place above the bottom three, the decision to part company with him will not be popular among supporters or players, many of whom made a point of running to him to celebrate goals.
Avram Grant, the Portsmouth manager, who has taken a team of loan signings and free transfers to the FA Cup Final, was installed as the favourite to succeed Zola. Asked about the chances of his staying at Portsmouth recently, he stressed the need for a defined budget, but not necessarily a large one. That will appeal to West Ham, who revealed the extent of their debts soon after Sullivan and Gold took over.
Hughes and Slaven Bilic, the former West Ham defender, are also among the favourites, but any attempt to tempt Alex McLeish to follow Sullivan and Gold from Birmingham City would be fiercely resisted by the present regime at St Andrew’s. “They will take him away over my dead body,” Peter Pannu, the Birmingham vice-chairman, said. “Even if Chelsea came in for Alex, I don’t think I’d be too happy, never mind West Ham.”
Leading candidates to take over at Upton Park
Avram Grant The former Israel coach and Chelsea first-team coach has worked wonders with Portsmouth this season — as well as becoming a cult figure with the fans after taking the team to the FA Cup Final — despite having to sell players rather than buy. Odds: 1-3
Slaven Bilic The former West Ham defender made his name as Croatia coach, knocking England out of the Euro 2008 qualifiers. Might work on the cheap, but not a man to brook interference. 8-1
Mark Hughes An early target for Sullivan and Gold, but would not want to work on a restricted budget and highly unlikely to put up with pronouncements on team performances from the boardroom. 8-1
Gregorio Manzano Has taken Mallorca to fifth place in La Liga on a tight budget, which would appeal, but lacks experience outside Spain. 25-1
Odds by William Hill