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Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Zola, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Goodbye

Those at the bottom of the Premier League table decided to take over the ‘you first, no you first, no you…’ exchanges from the top dogs and prove that they really are all as bad as each other this weekend. For the second year running (and possibly more), those that survive a season in the top flight will know that it’s not necessarily because they were good, but rather because others were just that little bit more rubbish.

In the thick of this race to remain stranded on less than 30 points for the season are West Ham. If the other clubs in the relegation mire are in freefall, West Ham are approaching terminal velocity.

One argument is the oft-repeated mantra that Zola is ‘too nice’, but that’s not quite it. You don’t really tend to cut it as a professional footballer for 20 years at the very top if you’re ‘too nice’. Zola’s problem, in fact, is that he is simply too inexperienced and this has brought with it the majority of his managerial difficulties.

West Ham tried to rectify this by bringing in Steve Clarke from Chelsea and were widely applauded for it. However, I can fully imagine a wealth of scenarios in which Zola bows and has bowed to Clarke’s knowledge and experience ahead of his own – though Clarke’s CV itself is quite brief, being in charge of Chelsea youth teams before building a reputation with the teams of Mourinho and Grant.

Spot the difference – Mourinho isn’t short of belief and courage in his own convictions and Grant, previously a Champions League finalist, is now being widely lauded for the job he is doing at stricken Portsmouth. They are men who require an assistant to assist, not to mentor.

Contrast that with the belief that can be seen draining from Zola with every goal conceded. Consolidating a first relatively successful season at the Boleyn Ground has proved difficult. Contrast it further with his playing career. We all knew how good he was, but crucially so did he. That’s why he isn’t ‘too nice’. You have to be a bit arrogant to be one of the best footballers in the Premier League. Being a manager though, inexperienced and up there to be shot at each Saturday brings with it a whole different set of demands. Clarke’s advice may be being asked for with increasing desperation, an influence that may also inform its content.

I don’t think you can watch Jeff and the boys on Soccer Saturday or Match of the Day without someone (normally Mark Lawrenson) saying what a ‘lovely fella’ Zola is. I revered him so much as a player that I don’t really want to believe he won’t succeed as West Ham manager. But his apparent loss of belief and this infectious uncertainty that has come across in the press has transmitted itself into his players. By publicly questioning his own future in the midst of a scenario where the successful generally stay silent and stoic, I can’t help but think that while he will always be a darling of English football for his playing achievements, his managerial career might be short-lived.

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