He’s one of Italy’s finest-ever players. A Chelsea legend. So what the hell is the little wizard doing at Watford of all places?
The world of football is littered with the tarnished reputations of those superstars who tried to translate their genius as a player into that of a manager. Diego Maradona, possibly the greatest footballer of all time, oversaw an Argentinian team that forgot the concept of defence, while Bryan Robson, once England’s Captain Marvel, brought a touch of mediocrity wherever he plied his managerial trade. And more recently, Nicolas Anelka has been failing consistently in his new role as player-boss at China’s super-rich Shanghai Shenhua.
At the time of writing, the jury is still out on whether Gianfranco Zola’s managerial career will be laden with honours or just a stop on the line to a TV punditry gig. The Italian wizard, once voted Chelsea’s best player of all time and one of the most likeable men in the game, has had mixed fortunes wearing the gaffer’s trousers.
He did well with the Italian Under-21s, leading them to the 2008 Olympic quarter-finals alongside fellow former Chelsea forward Pierluigi Casiraghi, but not so well in the maelstrom of board interference that is West Ham under the ownership of Davids Gold and Sullivan. Now he’s treading water in the lower reaches of the Championship with his new club Watford. But why even bother? Why not just count the cash and spend his days basking in the glory of his glittering reputation? We went along to Vicarage Road to find out. “I didn’t realise I wanted to be a manager before I was asked to do it,” Zola explains as we sit in the dugout watching assistant coach Dodo Sormani put the players through their paces under a bright winter sun. “Before that I didn’t think I’d be able to do it. Then a year after retiring I was approached by a friend who asked if I wanted to be part of the Italian Under-21s. I really liked the idea and jumped at the chance.”
Success followed at the Beijing Olympics but things went a little off track at West Ham – to the point where the whole team were put up for sale behind his back and he was eventually sacked. He’s reluctant to talk about his time at Upton Park, only speaking in generalities about a manager needing support from the powers that be at a club. “Of course you need the backing of the chairman, it is vital. You can’t go anywhere unless you have the complete support and backing of the board,” he says. “Especially nowadays as owners like to get involved in more and more decisions. It is essential that they like your project, the way you play, because without them there’s huge pressure.”
And though his project at Watford, backed by the wealthy Pozzo family (who also own Serie A’s Udinese and Spanish club Granada) has hit a run of bad results, Zola remains relaxed. He says that the “project will take time” but admits that the owners only have so much patience. “At Watford there was no pressure at first but it has started to pick up. With big money involved, people obviously want results and they want them quickly. But this isn’t right in football. You need the time.”
“I came into a club that has played in a certain way for many years. What I am asking is for the players to change their mentality and the way they approach the game,” he says. “That doesn’t come on day one. By day 20, maybe we might be playing football, but not on day one. Then, when they face their first difficulty, their first challenge – say they go a goal behind – what will the players do? They will go back to what they are used to. They’ve achieved results in the past in a certain way. In the beginning it’s new and its fancy and so they’ll go and do it for you, but soon as they hit an obstacle, that is the moment that you really have to impose yourself as a manager. When they get used to what they are doing, they are going to be much better players than they were before.”
In recent months, Watford has seen a massive influx of players on loan from the Pozzo family’s other clubs in Italy and Spain, prompting supporters to mutter suspicions that their club is being used as a glorified footballing shop window. Zola agrees that there has been a “problem of numbers”, admitting “We have too many of them and it gets difficult to handle them. But we are getting to grips with it. They are professionals and if they are good enough then they will stay.”
the english way
It’s a truism of football journalism that whenever England fail at a major championship, there’ll be a rash of opinion pieces claiming that English players just aren’t as technically proficient as their opponents and won’t win anything till they are. I ask Zola, lauded as one of the most technically gifted players of his generation, whether he agrees with this assessment. He doesn’t. Vehemently. “Look, I know journalists’ jobs is to find stories. To make a judgment. But to say English players aren’t technically good as their opponents is wrong. Trust me on this and I’m very serious. The problem is English players tend to play one way. That is the main problem I see in English teams. They play one system and they don’t want to change it. In football there are so many ways to win a game, and by knowing these ways, the more unpredictable they become, and the more rich you become as a team.”
Though he does admit that he did have a bit of a leg-up in the technical department. “When I first played football with Napoli in Serie A, Diego Maradona and Careca were in the team. I was a talented player but by watching what they could do with a football made me a far, far better one. There were other players just as talented as me but who didn’t have the options I had.”
Considering this is Watford in the Championship rather than Napoli in the glory years of Maradona, you suspect Zola must get frustrated with the players he has to work with. After all, he spent most of his career in the world’s top leagues and the Championship is not exactly one of those. But he insists not. “I try to get into the player’s mind and ask how can I help him,” he says. “That’s what I always ask myself, ‘What is his problem, how can I help him, what can I do to make him a better player?’” He laughs ruefully. “I’m still waiting for the answer!”
In fact, the gap in quality between the Premier League and the Championship actually helps in the job, Zola reckons. “The quality of the player (in the Premier League) is much higher than the Championship. But it’s improved a lot. To be honest I didn’t expect the league to be so strong. As a manager you do manage less quality so it is more difficult on the pitch, but there are not so many egos or personalities as in the Premier League so it balances out.”
“But seriously the main thing is support,” he adds. “The player is a human being. Not everyone is like Messi, who goes on the pitch and knows exactly what to do. The majority of them need security and reassurance. They have to be confident so that they can express more on the pitch. Once they know that you’re there to help them, they become more relaxed. But the mistake we tend to make as managers is to give them too much information. It is important that they learn step by step.”
In the end, it doesn’t matter how much preparation you do as a manager. By its nature, football is unpredictable, making a manager’s job a sometimes impossible task. “You do the work beforehand. You do it during the week, you train the players, you give them the information when the game is going on, but football is so situational, changing from moment to moment and it is so difficult to change it. Of course it does happen, and as managers we like to say ‘we changed it’, but it is very difficult.”
By way of example, he says, “When we were playing Bristol City, I brought a player on but should have brought another one on. By then the dynamics of the game had changed and the decision that I thought was right at the moment was completely wrong. It changed the whole game (Watford drew 2-2 after conceding again).”
Was he angry? “With myself, yes. But not with the players. Losing or drawing a game is part of the learning process but when you feel you’re not giving them anything that is good for them, that is the worst bit.” So there wasn’t a Sir Alex Ferguson-style hairdryer session waiting for them in the dressing room? “Of course not,” he replies. “I’ve played under some disciplinarians in my career, guys who’d throw teacups around but that’s not my style. I try to make the players listen in a different way. They know I’m not an angry person so they don’t believe it when I show my temper. They’re right of course – I don’t believe it myself!”
I ask him if he is worried about the sack, which in football is almost as inevitable as a disputed refereeing decision. Especially at clubs like Watford, where an influx of cash brings inflated expectations. He shrugs his shoulders and laughs. “In this job, you are never right. You make mistakes, then you get better, then you make another mistake and you learn again. It is so difficult to get it right and you have to improvise and it never comes easy. There is always a mistake waiting to be made. Always.”
Gianfranco Zola was talking at the Gaffer Academy, a management crash course organised by Football Manager, available now.
Visit footballmanager.com for more information.