Few players in the modern era have managed to win the admiration of so many fans of other clubs both as a footballer and as an individual as Chelsea legend Gianfranco Zola.
So when he was appointed as West Ham’s first overseas manager, despite having no previous club management experience, many fans welcomed the move. Sadly, his managerial talents were not up to the standard of his playing ability.
Although the emergence of homegrown talents like James Tomkins and Jack Collison were good things to happen on Zola’s watch, when it came to the transfer market, Zola’s judgement was decidedly questionable.
Striker Benni McCarthy was such a failure the club later offered him a £1m pay-off to leave, and the signing of Savio for a club record fee of £10m as Craig Bellamy’s replacement remains one of the great mysteries of modern football.
Zola’s first season in charge ended with a solid ninth place finish, but with just 42 goals scored, it was more about defensive solidity than the sort of free-flowing football fans might have expected from such a flamboyant player.
But in summer 2009 the club’s Icelandic owners fell victim to their nation’s financial crisis, setting up the circumstances which saw David Sullivan and David Gold take over the club in January 2010 — by which point Zola was already under huge pressure as the team picked up just one victory in the first three months of the season.
Having finished ninth the previous season, Zola’s second campaign saw the team avoid the drop by one place, after a six-game losing streak shortly after the Gold and Sullivan takeover pushed the team towards the relegation zone.
An awful redcurrant shirt with hardly any claret on it seemed to symbolise a lot of what was wrong with a team of too many forgettable players — Mido, McCarthy and Fabio Daprela to name just three — but just one away win all season, on the opening day at Wolves, showed that whilst on the pitch, Zola may have been a wizard, on the touchline, he wasn’t.
Zola can claim he was unlucky. Off-thefield financial issues way beyond his control meant he managed the club under three different owners, striker Dean Ashton’s career finally being ended by injury in the match before he took over the job was a colossal setback, and captain Lucas Neill’s decision to reject a new deal and leave was another major blow to team stability.
But ultimately, being Mr Nice Guy and a legendarily talented player, two of the factors which made Zola the board’s unanimous choice when he got the job, were not reasons enough to help him keep it, so it was no surprise when after a hugely disappointing season, in May 2010, he was sacked.