Andrew Tuft’s Monday Column – Zola staring down the barrel

Gianfranco Zola looks set to become the latest in a long line of wonderfully talented players to endure disappointing management careers. The Italian’s remaining time at West Ham looks terminally short with the axe about to fall – either by Zola’s own doing or that of his employers, Davids Gold and Sullivan. If it does not happen before the end of the season, it is difficult to envisage Zola leading the Hammers out in early August.

Not that the former Chelsea forward’s managerial career should be considered over should he leave West Ham – far from it. Zola has shown a great deal of potential as a manager and was constructing a fine Hammers side before the club imploded in the wake of the worldwide financial crisis. Had the economic downturn ravaged a country other than Iceland – the homeland of West Ham’s previous owners – both Zola and his team would surely be in a much more prosperous position. As it is, that sinking feeling has enveloped Upton Park at the worst possible time – with just weeks to go until the end of the season, West Ham appear to have the buoyancy of a brick while Hull City – perhaps boosted by Iain Dowie’s appointment as the ludicrously-titled Football Management Consultant – have found an upward swing. A fresh voice with fresh ideas could save the Tigers but a similar move might not bring the same results in East London.

It is too early to tell if Dowie will save Hull – his first two fixtures were against the Premier League’s bottom side, Portsmouth, which Hull somehow contrived to lose, and a Fulham team that has all but given up on domestic action this season. A point or more from their next fixture – a difficult away trip to Stoke City – and Hull are well and truly in with a chance of safety, much to the disappointment of West Ham who next travel to an Everton side unbeaten at Goodison Park in seven games – their best run in a generation. For either side to harbour hopes of top-flight football next season defeat is not an option but in their current respective states, only the most West Ham-centric of critics would argue the Hammers are better placed than the Tigers to avoid the drop – a stark conclusion to draw given West Ham’s squad is – on paper – superior to Hull’s, but as so often is the case, performances on the field have not come close to expectations.

A team that finished ninth last season – as West Ham did – should spend the summer plotting how exactly to crack the top six, not watching as important players leave and replacements fail to arrive. It seems inappropriate to talk of Aston Villa having an impressive defensive record just days after their trouncing at Stamford Bridge, but prior to Saturday the Villains were the proud owners of just that, with a great deal of credit belonging to former Hammer James Collins. The Welshman left Upton Park for an officially undisclosed fee, believed to be around £5m, and was not replaced. James Tomkins, the youngster regularly tasked with partnering Matthew Upson since Collins’ departure, may one day point to this troubled season as the making of him as a player. For now though he is not ready for the rigours of Premier League football, while Daniel Gabbidon’s injuries have prevented him making a significant contribution this term.

Tomkins and Upson are fortunate to have Robert Green behind them, minding the Hammers’ goal. England’s No.1 is – together with Scott Parker – the only West Ham player to have their reputation enhanced or even upheld throughout this nightmarish run. Parker has dominated midfields as he did in his Charlton Athletic pomp while Green has not been at fault for any of the Hammers’ recent defeats – when the team in of him disintegrates so easily, the goalkeeper is helpless – and has even solidified his place as Fabio Capello’s first-choice option between the sticks. Something of a nomad after leaving the Valley in 2004, Parker finally seems settled at the Boleyn Ground and talk of an England recall is not far-fetched – with Carlton Cole’s dip in form, Parker could join Green and Upson as the Hammers’ Three Lions representatives come June, although Upson’s own performances have been worryingly shaky for England’s third-choice centre-back.

In December, this writer praised Zola for his football principles, stating: “ West Ham are often one of the more pleasing to watch sides in the Premier League,” adding: “But such style requires not only a solid spine but also an experienced manager to guide his players through difficult spells and keep confidence levels high, because without confidence it is much harder to play the kind of football Zola wants.” Confidence levels at Upton Park are currently subterranean during the most difficult spell of Zola’s short managerial career and he appears helpless to turn things around – even admitting as much himself. The Hammers continue to try to play football the right way but a damaging hesitancy has crept into their game, eroding the freedom with which West Ham played during the latter half of 2008/09. At Hull, Dowie is wedded to no such footballing mantra and has no qualms about doing the dirty work to grind out a result – which could be the Tigers’ salvation.

Every conversation regarding Zola’s future usually includes a note on how nice a person the 43-year-old is, but a relegation dogfight is no place for niceties. In his playing days, Zola’s greatest trick might have been the famous back-heel goal against Norwich – keeping West Ham up would be even greater. If Zola, a magical player in his day, cannot relight the fire in his players’ souls he should walk away. That would be the act of a true gentleman, and a decision as stunningly decent as some of the extraordinary goals he scored.

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