Well at least he’s smiling again
GIANFRANCO ZOLA’S trademark smile is back, his eyes are sparkling once more and his renowned love for football shines through again as brightly as ever.
But it has taken four long months for the real Zola to re-emerge.
A whole summer to transform himself back from the hollow-eyed, grim-faced, head-down, haunted figure he became last season as he battled to keep West Ham up.
It is a re-birth that will surely thrill every football fan – even those of the Claret and Blue persuasion and certainly those wearing the Royal Blue of Chelsea.
And how fitting the hugely popular Italian, 44, has chosen to return to London just in time for today’s derby clash between his two former clubs at Upton Park.
A clash only possible because Zola, against all the odds, managed to keep the Hammers in the Premier League. It took its toll though.
Zola said: “I could have started my management career with an easier situation.
“In my two years I had to handle situations that some managers don’t deal with during their whole careers.
“So many people have come up to me to say how they felt for me.
“They were saying my face just wasn’t the same. I’d stopped smiling, I looked tense, and seemed to have aged overnight.
“That’s not like me. I love to smile, to enjoy my life and enjoy my football.
“I played the game until I was 39 and I can honestly say that it never ever felt like a job to me, it was always a joy, a pleasure.
“But when the pressure was on I let it show. I also brought it home with me.
“You are supposed to leave your work behind at the office – but I didn’t do that.
“I found it hard to switch off and took it all home.
“Maybe the players sensed that I was nervous, that I was worried. Maybe they could smell it. So that’s a big lesson and I will never make the same mistake again.”
The way Zola’s tenure at Upton Park ended in May was in stark contrast to the way it began.
The Chelsea legend was appointed by West Ham’s former Icelandic chief Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson exactly two years ago.
Zola said: “Remember when I first took the job, the club was owned by one of the richest men in the world.
“We discussed what he wanted to achieve. He was a lovely man and he was football mad and totally in love with West Ham and with making them successful. We talked for hours… about how each year we would build the club.
“How we would add one or two more pieces every year and really turn West Ham into something special.
“It was an exciting idea and one I couldn’t resist.
“But, unbelievably, within two weeks of starting the global recession had hit, the owner was broke and the whole scenario changed. My first feeling was of sorrow for him because he was a lovely person and back then I didn’t realise the full impact of what had just happened.
“The truth is that the whole situation suddenly became the opposite – every year instead of adding one or two top players we had to sell one or two top players.
“And it was not about building a club, it became about saving a club.”
Zola led West Ham to ninth in the Premier League in his first full campaign. But things changed last term when a loss of form, injuries to key players and a poor start plunged the Hammers into a relegation scrap.
Zola said: “The first season was very good for us.
“The problems for the club pulled the players and the coaching staff together.
“We played some attractive football and just missed out on qualifying for Europe. The second year was not the same. We were all optimistic.
“Yes, we’d lost Craig Bellamy in the January transfer window. But we still thought we could improve.
“Then we lost our skipper Lucas Neill and there were bad injuries to Dean Ashton, Kieron Dyer, Luis Boa Morte and Jack Collison.
“And Scott Parker and Carlton Cole were also missing at key times.
“So suddenly it all became a struggle – it was like having an ice cold shower. A real shock to the system.
“Please don’t think I’m saying this to try and deflect away from my part in all of this. I admit I made mistakes and I take full responsibility for them.
“I made too many compromises instead of pushing on with what I really wanted.”
The arrival of new owners David Gold and David Sullivan hardly helped as Zola’s low-key way of doing things seem to conflict with their high-profile status.
He said: “Last year was very challenging for me, very dramatic for me not just as a manager but as a person. I had so many different situations that I had to deal with.
“I went from being a footballer who concentrates almost exclusively on himself to the manager who had to deal with many different, non-footballing situations every day, to deal with 20 to 30 players every day.
“And that’s even though we agreed on a European-style approach where my job was only to focus on football and working with the players. But it didn’t turn out to be that simple.
“There were no big, big things but so many different problems that when they were added all together made one big problem.
“But when I look back I can say with confidence…
“Yes, I learned a lot. A helluva lot.”