Having been told by West Ham he was ‘too soft’ the Italian is thriving in his second spell as a manager

Evening Standard

There was a revealing moment after Watford’s FA Cup defeat at Manchester City on ­Saturday. The home fans booed Mario Balotelli when he came on as a substitute while Watford supporters shouted “fight, fight” as they taunted him over his ­training ground wrestling match with manager Roberto Mancini.

However, Gianfranco Zola broke ranks and embraced the maverick striker. The Watford manager’s ­gesture showed he felt his fellow Italian deserved understanding not condemnation.

“Those who have a personality like Balotelli do things that other people maybe wouldn’t,” says Zola. “Balotelli sometimes does things that look strange and unbelievable. But maybe for him it’s just a way to feel normal. He doesn’t want to cause problems or upset people.

“It would be a good challenge for me as a manager to handle a player like him. He’s got an unbelievable quality and that has to be the starting point. The challenge would be to work on him and try to make him a bit more reliable.”

However affectionately Zola speaks about Balotelli he knows there is no chance of persuading the Italy international to exchange the Etihad for Vicarage Road but he did work with him when he was assistant manager of the national Under-21 side. That was Zola’s first job in coaching and, as he explains, a life-changing one.

“When I stopped playing [in 2005] I stayed out of the game for a year. Then the opportunity came to work for the Under-21s. It was a surprise to me that I enjoyed managing. Not as much as I enjoyed playing but very close to it. So that is what made me change my mind about becoming a manager.”

But, having enjoyed the highs as a player, Zola worried whether he could make the transition to management.

He says: “That is something that kept me away from the job. One thing is to know how to do things and another is to make it simple and accessible to others. This is the challenge for the big players when they go into management. To do that, you have to learn and study very hard. I have read football management books, analysed myself and the way other people learn and understand things.

“Being a good player doesn’t necessarily make a good manager, that’s for sure. Pele didn’t. Maradona is still working on that. The reason why great players do not [succeed as managers] is you need to work in a very different way than as a player.”

But that does not mean Zola is worried about showing his players how to do things. Glenn Hoddle, one of the most gifted men to have represented England, often frightened rather than inspired his players when he demonstrated his own ball skills.

But, says Zola: “I don’t think it can be a problem. For a manager, it is an asset. You can speak 100 words and not get a result. If you show them something on the pitch, the message gets passed on quickly.”

And, should his players fail to get the message, Zola is not worried about being sharp with them. “I let them know when I’m upset. If it necessary I shout at them. Yes, why not? I don’t go crazy because it wouldn’t be any help for them. But I don’t hide my emotions.”

He also does not hide the fact that he is far from the finished managerial product. “No, I’ve got the credentials but this is a job which takes time to get total control of. So I still consider myself as somebody who is willing to learn more about the job.”

He laughs as he says this. Laughter punctuates our interview and it suggests the 46-year-old has come to terms with the way his stint as manager at West Ham ended in 2010.

The Hammers avoided relegation that season by just five points and during a turbulent run-in co-owner David ­Sullivan branded the team’s performance in a 3-1 loss against Wolves as “pathetic”.

On the day of his dismissal, Zola issued a statement hitting out at “adverse comments from within the club over recent weeks”. Now, though, he feels so little pain from those two years at Upton Park he even refuses to say the Hammers treated him badly.

When I remind him that Sullivan branded him as “too nice” and “too soft”, he says: “It was an opinion. In football you have many opinions and you have just to notice those that make sense to you.”

He took two years out of the game after being sacked but explains: “I didn’t want to go back into management because it had been tiring and hard and there were things I needed to address. I just said to myself, ‘Don’t rush into a job. In the meantime, study and just wait for the right one’.”

That came last July when Giampaolo Pozzo and his family took over Watford. The Pozzos worked their magic at ­Udinese, transforming the club into an established Serie A side with regular appearances in Europe. Now they wanted Zola’s help to make an impact in England.

However, Zola insists the Italian connection had nothing to do with his decision to return to the game. “I did not come to Watford because it was Italian owned. Watford were perfect for me because I could start again from scratch and work on my ideas and the people who employed me liked my ideas. That was the main thing. I liked the project.”

Zola says the project is to take the team to the Premier League and adds: “The owners are very good at scouting players who then become superstars. They want me to work with their young players, develop them and possibly play a style of football that is very much what I like, the right way.”

For a player with such wonderful skills and who says the manager he looks up to is Pep Guardiola, it is not hard to imagine Zola’s way is right.

“What I’m trying to do is to play and organise football with flair and creativity.”

This may not be easy in the Championship but Zola is encouraged by what he seen. He says: “There is a strong culture of a certain type of football in England. But they’re learning to play also in a different way. You see more and more teams that play in this way and the fans are getting used to it, it’s changing.”

Zola has not been fazed by the changes the Pozzo family have introduced at Watford which, to outsiders, appear odd: 10 players on loan from Udinese, 15 nationalities in a squad that were 42-strong at the start of the season.

The size of the squad forced Zola to have three teams during training. Now, says Zola, with a laugh: “We have two-and-a-half teams because a few players went on loan and we are down to 28. Ideally, I want to get down to 24 or 25 players.”

Ideally, the club would also like to play in the Premier League next season and Watford are in the final play-off position. “Whether promotion will happen this year or not, we don’t know. We’re working very hard but the competition is quite tight.”

And he blanks out any thought of whether the Pozzos, like all modern owners, may get impatient should he not achieve immediate success.

“I try not to think too much about it. I keep on my work and do as best as I can. This impatience wasn’t there in the past. The reason is that there is more and more money involved and they [the owners] don’t understand that in football things don’t come very easily. So that’s why more and more managers are losing their job after a few months.”

This inevitably brings us to the demise of his great friend Roberto di Matteo at Chelsea, who was sacked in November just six months after leading the club to their first ever Champions League trophy.

“It’s been a pity,” says Zola. “Roberto has done a good job for Chelsea, he’s a good ­manager. I was there in Munich for the final, it was fantastic. We are good friends, we speak often and he is disappointed.”

His own love for Chelsea where he remains an icon — in 2003 fans voted him the club’s greatest-ever player — remains undimmed.

“When I took over the West Ham job, the Chelsea fans understood. They gave me a fantastic reception. What I said was, ‘What I’ve done for Chelsea as a player remains unique and untouchable. Now I’m starting a new career and again I’m going to give myself everything that I’ve got for West Ham’. In the end, both supporters respected that.”

But, one day, would he like to manage at Stamford Bridge?

For the first time in our conversation, the smile disappears and Zola says: “I want to be successful for this club first and then we’ll see what the future holds. For me it’s essential to do well for this club. I want to do it with all my heart.”


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