Watford fans are celebrating the appointment of Gianfranco Zola as manager and Gianluca Nani technical director following the sacking of previous boss Sean Dyche by new club owners the Pozzo family. It is the well-liked Italian’s first appointment since himself being ruthlessly dismissed after 20 months in charge of the Hammers. When I say “well-liked” I’m afraid that doesn’t include me. His second season in charge of West Ham was probably the most miserable I’ve seen even including the two most recent relegations in 2003 and 2011. As much as football support is based on the primacy of schadenfreude I can’t but feel sorry for the Hornets.
Appointed in September 2008 as a “unanimous choice” following the resignation of Alan Curbishley, Zola was the surprise package of a shortlist that included current Parma head coach Roberto Donadoni, Croatian boss Slaven Bilic and present Swansea manager Michael Laudrup. Thought to be the favourite pick of Sporting Director Gianluca Nani (in turn brought to the club by Curbishley to oversee foreign transfers) Zola’s only experience of management was with the Italian under-21 side and he didn’t even possess a full UEFA coaching licence.
Zola’s role was seen as central to “The Project”, a piece of PR fluff that originated from CEO Scott Duxbury, was said to be a method for sustainable growth but in reality was a cover for asset-stripping the club of their most valuable talent. The idea was young players both via the academy and brought in from other clubs were to be developed and sold at a profit while maintaining a Premier League first team. Nani was in charge of this process but appeared to act less like a scout and more an on-the-books agent. Of all the players bought during his reign none were sold at a profit.
Some sympathy most be extended to Zola and assistant manager Steve Clarke even if they were on some of the highest wages in the country despite the clubs losing tens of millions. Duxbury and Nani were engaging in a degradation of the squad with first teamers Bobby Zamora, Matthew Etherington, George McCartney, Anton Ferdinand and Hayden Mullins all sold. Diego Tristan, Radoslav Kovac, Fabio Daprela, Manuel Da Costa and Herita Ilunga were brought in but all proved to be poor substitutes. However, Zola’s decision to reconvene his professional tie with Nani at Vicarage Rd would suggest he was at the very least comfortable with the relationship.
Worst of all, Craig Bellamy, a Premier League striker of real quality (albeit injured for much of his time at West Ham) was replaced by the 19-year-old Savio Nsereko, a largely unknown striker from Germany of Ugandan parentage in a deal laughably said to be £9million but probably closer to £500,000. The poor lad made just one start for the club, never scored, suffered mocking for a lack of ability on the training ground and was last seen on loan at a minor Romanian club suffering from “personal problems”.
Duxbury has been linked with an administrative role at Vicarage Rd. A solicitor brought to the club by former Chairman Terry Brown he was the man who lied to the Premier League over the Carlos Tevez affair. He also forced Curbishley to resign by selling players from under him before being admonished by a judge for taking falsified transfer requests at Curbishley’s subsequent tribunal – a case the manager won. Although not entirely down to him losses incurred by the club for the two incidents total over £30m. Following the collapse of the Iceland banking system and subsequent disappearance of owner Björgólfur Guðmundsson, the club fell into the hands of Duxbury whom I’m led to believe by staff I’ve spoken with treated the place as a personal fiefdom. Perks included a Docklands flat as he rode around town in a club-leased Aston Martin.
Zola’s initial impact at the club was poor. Changing from Curbishley’s favoured 4-4-2 formation with two wingers to a Christmas tree affair with little width and two playmakers behind a target-man proved troublesome for the players, not least the midfield three. Too often other sides sat deep, smothered the link between midfield and front three as they exploited space down the flanks with counter-attacks. Zola’s system was pretty to watch but lacked goal threat by relying too much on the lone striker. Had Dean Ashton been fit and firing it could have worked well but with Carlton Cole – not a natural goalscorer – in place games were often tight. Ironically one of Zola’s few successes was getting Cole, a player with enormous talent but fragile self-confidence, to play somewhere close to his potential. His goal in a 1-0 away win at Wigan in the middle of an eight-game unbeaten run promised much for the future and helped propel the side to a ninth-place finish.
Unfortunately that was as good as things got. At the start of season 09-10 the club sold defender James Collins to buy attacker Diamanti leaving just promising youngster James Tomkins and hothead Da Costa to partner Matthew Upson in the centre of defence. Worse still, captain and right-back Lucas Neill had left the club with no real replacement leading to winger Julien Faubert playing right-back. Ilunga at left-back forgot all his first season form and the side always looked likely to leak goals. The Project just wasn’t providing the quality and quantity of players required. Youngsters Junior Stanislas and Zavon Hines showed promise but the rigours of regular top flight football were ultimately too much for them. It’s a tribute to Tomkins he seems to have recovered confidence after a gruelling baptism even if Jack Collison’s initial good form has been subsequently hampered by injury.
Although Burnley, Hull and Portsmouth were three of the worst teams seen in the Premier League the side struggled for results. Close games invariably seemed to drift away from us with Zola lacking the ability to wrest wins from tight encounters. Changes of formation from Christmas Tree to diamond then 4-4-2 and back again seemed to make no difference. By Christmas the side were only a place off the bottom with rumours of dressing-room rifts between the Italian-speakers (Valon Behrami, Luis Jimenez, Da Costa and Diamanti were seen as favourites) and the rest.
Honest players such as Scott Parker, Mark Noble and new captain Upson were having to deal with Diamanti and Jimenez for whom defending was optional at best yet seemed to treat the position of the club as something of a joke. That directly reflected the attitude of the a manager who considered himself a coach, had little input in transfer policy and during his 20 months at the club never once watched another side. For Zola, impressing the youngsters in training appeared to be as important as winning games.
In January 2010 everything changed. Porn barons David Sullivan and Gold bought into the club, took a couple of weeks to have a look around, gave Duxbury the choice of resignation or a hefty court case and set about maintaining the club’s status in the top flight. Clarke insisted the player to keep the club up was Blackburn’s out of form and overweight striker Benni McCarthy. On the 23rd of March a 3-1 home defeat against Wolves was quite simply one of the worst games I’ve seen from a West Ham side. There seemed to be no direction, no leadership on or off the field and no confidence to carry out allotted tasks.
Tensions rose between the owners and management team as they demanded Zola act like a “proper” manager. In turn he snapped and for the first time went to the press complaining of management interference. Hardly surprising as he’d been allowed to do what he liked under the terms of The Project with little sanction. Subsequent wins against Sunderland and Wigan after finally dropping Diamanti staved off relegation but the board had seen enough. 35 points from a 38 game season was the lowest ever from a side staying up. Zola had won 23 games from his 80 in charge; a success rate of 29 per cent, the worst of any Hammers boss. Two days after the close of the season Brady sacked the Italian during a 10-minute meeting. Frankly, I’m surprised she took that long.