THE Gianfranco Zola saga is not quite as it appears. Few managerial departures ever are. When he left Upton Park on Saturday night after a sixth successive defeat at the hands of Stoke, the little Italian believed he would never be back.
As a panic-stricken West Ham made approaches to (amongst others, apparently) Glenn Hoddle, Steve McClaren, Graeme Sounness, Slaven Bilic and Mark Hughes, Zola flew home to Sardinia admitting: “If the problem is me, why not leave? I will have to think about it a lot overnight. The players are trying very hard and the bottom line is to see whether I can help them or not.”
Then, after a couple of days at home in Sardinia, he emerged yesterday to insist: “I am determined to carry on. Losing on Saturday was emotional for everyone but I know we can turn it around and we have the ability to achieve our objectives My only thought for now is to keep this club in the Premier League and that remains my goal."
Zola, of course, is barely a year into a three-year contract worth almost £6m. After seeing millions squandered on semi-fit players like Dean Ashton, Keiron Dyer, Freddie Ljungberg and, more recently, Mido and Benni McCarthy, the club can hardly afford another huge pay-out.
Looks to me like Zola was going to walk away with David Gold mouthing platitudes likie “we are 100 percent behind him”. They were happy to see Zola, a man of means, resign and leave the field clear for a grittier replacement like McClaren or Hughes.
And in the Daily Mail, we had the award-winning columnist Martin Samuel telling us new owner David Sullivan is angry with himself for not following his instincts and sacking Zola when he first took over with David Gold in January.
As always in these situations there are those you believe and those you don’t in the tabloids. Samuel, habitual winner of the various Sports Writer of the Year awards, is one who knows. He says: “In every utterance it is plain Sullivan thinks not only that he has the wrong man for the job but that he knew as much from the start.
“He resents sticking by Zola primarily to keep the fans happy. He is an angry man because he did not do what he wanted to do. And now it may be too late.”
Too late to sack Zola? It didn’t look that way on Saturday night, when the Hammers showed the improvement Sullivan had demanded but still slithered to a defeat which left them ahead of Hull and the relegation zone on goal difference alone.
But Samuel is right. It was too late. Nobody wants the poisoned chalice of overseeing the Hammers while the sink into the Championship, overtaken by a side as poor as Hull, revived by Iain Dowie.
On Sunday, after Hull have endured their own relegation shoot-out at Stoke, the Hammers must attempt to improve on that record of just three wins in 18 games against in-form Everton.
Zola is expected back at their Chadwell Heath training ground today, after giving everybody three days off following that sixth successive defeat, the Hammers’ worst-ever run in the Premier League.
And we’ve got Zola saying: “I have had time to think and reflect and we will have to work harder than we have before. I know we can get the results we need and it is just a question of making it happen."
Time to think and reflect? I think not. He fled to Sardinia expecting the sack. But when Hoddle said he wanted more money and McClaren said he was not leaving FC Twente until they had clinched the Dutch Ere Divisie title at the end of the season, Zola was forced to return and lead his poorly assembled bunch of misfits into the Valley of Doom.
Zola’s final words before he returns to training today: "The performance was better on Saturday but it is still not the level we should be at. We can, and will, do better as a team. We have a responsibility to turn things around and that is what we will do. I am here and ready to do what I need to do to get the results.
"We said before Stoke that one game would not define the season but we also know that each of the games we have left are cup finals."
Is that a knock-out cup or a poisoned chalice, Gianfranco?