Pablo Zabaleta may not have pulled any punches when it came to pace but he will always be remembered and respected as a stalwart of the game who put everything he had into his performances in claret and blue.
I’m sure it was a tough decision for the Argentinian to make to not extend his Hammers contract until the end of the season, leaving the club with immediate effect. Zaba signed for us on a free transfer in May 2017, shortly after ending his last season with Manchester City.
Zabaleta left on the greatest of terms with his old club – and the respect that his former teammates and playing staff had for him was quickly mirrored by his new teammates and colleagues at West Ham United. He swiftly set to work establishing leadership in defence and a positive relationship with fans.
Zaba has reflected on how pleased he was to be joining West Ham when he did, saying: ‘I was so happy because that is what I wanted: to go somewhere, keep enjoying my football and stay in the Premier League and England.’ Fortunately, we managed to deliver the second-last requirement, even if it was largely by the skin of our teeth over the past few years.
We didn’t sign the youngest player in Zabaleta, but we signed experience, intelligence, and leadership. He was never the quickest down the pitch – Manchester City rightly got the best of those years – but what he lacked in pace he made up for in confidence and smart decision making.
At times, West Ham can feel like a retirement home for ageing players – but with Pablo, this was a punt worth taking. Sure, he just seemed so much older than even Pellegrini – and would he even have been allowed in the ground if over-70s were banned due to COVID-19 risks?
We do not know, but the young at heart player made 80 appearances for West Ham over three years – and even managed to score one goal, against Gillingham early in 2020. He delivered a number of strong performances, but time is on the side of no man – and especially not the footballing man.
This season, Zaba had begun to struggle to keep pace with some of the younger, pacier players – particularly Newcastle’s Saint-Maxime. But it wasn’t pace or the lack thereof which ended his career. He has written a lovely farewell to the Irons, stating he would not be extending his contract to the end of the season as he had picked up an injury and was too far away from being match fit to be able to help the Hammers.
It was a disappointing way for the Argentinian to finish not just the season but potentially his career – and Zaba knows this, saying ‘as a player, it’s not the way I wanted to finish my time in England….I wanted to finish by playing in front of fans and with my family here’.
Whether it’s clean sheets, the example he set for younger defenders, or the leadership he provided in our defence, Pablo Zabaleta contributed a lot to West Ham in his three years in east London. In his time here, he clearly became as fond of the fans as they were of him – although we know West Ham could never fill the Manchester City-shaped place in his heart.
In Zaba’s parting statement, he pays tribute to them, saying: ‘All I can say to the West Ham fans is just thank you for the great support over the last three years. They have always been great to me, and they are proper fans.’ Pablo, the feeling is mutual – and thank you so much for the great remaining years that you gave to us.