It came as a it of a shock to me when I had a look at the Premier League table before and noticed West Ham sitting pretty in 8th position. I’m not saying that they have been playing badly or anything, I just hadn’t realised quite how dramatic their turnaround had been. After a dour first few months under Gianfranco Zola, it looks as if the little magician has worked his magic from the dugout, as the Hammers are playing some attacking, attractive football.
Since taking a point away from Stamford Bridge in mid-December, Zola’s men have barely looked back during a run of 9 games with just one defeat – that came only after a desperately lucky own goal against Aston Villa robbed them of a deserved point. Aside from having an innate liking for the Hammers as a club because of their good youth production and great fans (I remember being at Goodison when Everton beat them 7-0 and yet the Hammers fans had the time of their lives pretending that they were on a comeback. They kept bursting into frenzies of cheers and singing “7-1! We’re gonna win 8-7!”, until after eight cheers they picked up a deserved imaginary three points) I am also delighted to witness the turn around in their fortunes as it demonstrates the value of a little patience in football.
Around November and early December West Ham were looking to be in quite a bit of trouble as they flirted in and around the relegation zone, and couldn’t seem to kill games off. They weren’t actually playing badly per se, but they lacked a certain cutting edge. This was epitomised when I watched them play Everton, going one up from a Collison goal just after the hour, they looked worthy of at least a draw until Everton hit three in the last ten minutes to snatch an unlikely win.
I remember listening to Five Live and reading comments on various websites around that period and distinctly remember portions of West Ham’s fans becoming rather disgruntled – and perhaps rightly so. No one wants to be in such a position entering the busy festive fixture pile up and with the dreaded ‘bottom at christmas’ curse always a threat, many thought that the time for change had come.
I disagreed, as Zola had been in the job only a very short time, and had had no really chance to stamp his authority on the team’s play. I must say too that there were as many West Ham fans in support of Zola as were against him too, and I commend them for having loyalty and patience with their man, and assume that they are deservedly enjoying the fruits of this faith now that they’re on the up.
Because it would have been very easy for West Ham’s board to sack Zola. We have seen revivals at Tottenham and Newcastle and later, Sunderland and Bolton where a change of manager has sparked a sudden resurgence. The board at West Ham must surely have been having second thoughts about Zola’s appointment and I don’t think many would have been surprised had the axe been wielded. Disappointed certainly, but not surprised.
However, Zola’s turnaround of the club is emblematic of exactly why a coach needs to be given time to settle in and make a difference. Zola came into a squad that weren’t exactly high on confidence and probably not used to his management style either. What’s more, I’ve no doubt that he will have brought in some very major changes in the way he wanted the squad to play, and all of this needs adapting to.
West Ham have struggled for real quality for a few seasons now, with only Carlos Tevez really shining for them in his brief stay there. That has meant that the style of football has been sacrificed at times, as players have to do what they can to get results, including ‘playing ugly’ at times. That is something that Zola won’t be too keen to stand for though, and anyone who can remember watching the little man play at his enthralling best in his Chelsea days will understand why.
Zola will have set out to his players a way of playing. He’s a very intelligent footballer and will have told them that if they can play to his style, and be rigid and organised within the system, the results would come. They would have had to be given time to adapt to playing a more fluid, pleasing-on-the-eye style, and we certainly saw evidence of that on the pitch. As I say, they weren’t playing badly, but they just weren’t fluent enough to function effectively as a unit, and that’s where points were lost.
But Zola was given time, and gradually, they have improved. He has also been able to identify the players that best suit his style of play too, and youngsters like Jack Collison and Freddy Sears have come in and made an impact for him. They are young, dynamic and ready to learn and adapt to fit in with the team and so it is no surprise that their performances have been one of the highlights of the season for Hammers fans so far.
It also comes as little surprise to see that Craig Bellamy began to flourish under Zola either. Though hampered by injury of late, he has never really looked like regaining the sort of form that made him one of the best poachers in England a few years back. Under Zola though he looked rejuvenated, and there is no doubt that the sleeker, faster and more attacking style suited him down to the ground – and a few words of wisdom from perhaps the greatest forward the Premier League has witnessed wouldn’t have gone amiss either.
It is further testament to Zola that he has managed to achieve all this amid something of a crisis at the club. While the Carlos Tevez affair rumbles on in the courts, and their sponsorship deal collapses and their owner edges nearer to bankruptcy, Zola has managed to keep his players’ minds all of of these off field distractions and kept their focus on the pitch. Now he faces the challenge of reaplacing Bellamy who was sold to alleviate the aforementioned financial instabilities, but I don’t fear too much for him.
He has established a good, cohesive mentality amongst the players, and if anything the initial struggle and hardship will have only brought them closer. Now that they are turning the ship around, they will be full of confidence and delighted that they are working together towards an good achievement. This squad spirit will ensure that Bellamy’s departure will not affect them to much, they will band together to fill his absence and welcome new players who may arrive as part of their unit, so long as they prove themselves worthy and committed enough.
All in all, I think Gianfranco Zola should be commended for his achievements in turning West Ham’s season around. He has not made a fuss about anything, despite some seriously awful luck at times and has conducted himself with the sort of dignity that was another reason why all English fans, not just Chelsea’s, held him in such high regard as a player. Truly, more managers could do with taking a leaf out of his book, and learning to concentrate their efforts not on spouting off to the press about their opponents and rivals, but working tirelessly to make a difference to that which they can control.
Likewise, more club boards and officials should take note of the faith that West Ham showed in Zola at a tricky time. Yes, often it does seem easier to simply try and start again, and this season has, somewhat annoyingly, suggested that change can be very effective. But I still maintain that managers have to put in a lot of work and be given some time before we truly see their efforts reflected on the pitch and so I think that a little patience goes a long way with regard to the old managerial axe.
I hope that West Ham can continue their resurgence too, as it should help reinforce the lessons that we can take from their recent success. They are a club that fully belong in the top flight of English football, and their relegation a few years ago was a great loss to the league. In West Ham, and Gianfranco Zola, we have two entities that truly bring a lot to this league of ours and I hope that the two of them together can climb back to nearer the top of the English ladder and start to push for the real success that their brilliant fans deserve.