When Gianfranco Zola was in his pomp as a Chelsea player, he became the subject of a joke from rival fans. It went: “What’s the difference between Gianfranco Zola and a Mini?” Answer: “A Mini can only carry three passengers.”
It was a compliment to a player who helped Chelsea to a couple of FA Cups and into the Champions League.
Zola is still a class act, but these days he couldn’t carry his team even if he wanted to. As manager of West Ham United, Zola has cut a frustrated figure. Without a win since the season’s opening day, Zola’s club faces a relegation battle.
They have been plagued by financial problems since Björgólfur Gudmundsson, the former owner, was forced into bankruptcy by the collapse of Iceland’s Landsbanki.
Zola has had to balance his books on player recruitment. Youngsters like Junior Stanislas, Jack Collison and James Tomkins did a fine job for him in his first season at the club, ending ninth. This season, however, youthful enthusiasm has been unable to ensure results. True to form, Zola has embarked on a charm offensive aimed at winning over critics.
In an exclusive interview with ESPN, he insists he has not been distracted by the financial turmoil. Zola also says performances this season have been better than results would suggest. Despite being second bottom, West Ham’s goal difference is just -4. Yes, the Hammers have yet to win at home, but they have hosted teams like Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham.
The return of Valon Behrami, Collison and Matthew Upson has given them a solid feel, while Alessandro Diamanti proved to be an inspirational substitute as he led the fight against Arsenal. Yet at 2-0 down on Sunday, they had looked dead. Forty-five minutes later, a corner had been turned. Thanks to Diamanti, and an unbelievable save by Robert Green, Upton Park had come to life. A show of collective resolve had many experts puzzled.
Catch John Dykes on ESPN’s Football Focus every Tuesday and First Edition on Friday.