London – Gianfranco Zola left the manager’s job at Birmingham City last week, the local paper said “with dignity”. His decision acknowledged the implications of supervising only two victories in 24 matches and he was praised for turning up to explain himself rather than slinking out of the back entrance. The manner of his going was consistent with the class he had shown during a 20-year playing career that took him from an amateur team in his native Sardinia to glory with Napoli, Parma and Chelsea, and to 35 senior international appearances for Italy.
In his playing days everybody loved Zola for moments like that unforgettably impudent backheeled volley against Norwich in an FA Cup tie in 2002, and for gestures such as his return to Sardinia for two valedictory seasons with Cagliari, leading them back into Serie A before signing off in his very last match with a pair of goals against Juventus.
His artistry was a delicious cross between the skills of Lionel Messi and David Silva, his close control and impish imagination giving him a command of restricted spaces that could make even the most accomplished defenders look ponderous and slow-witted. His gifts made you smile, whether you supported his team or not, and he answered the cheers with a smile of his own – radiant but with a modesty that suggested an innate sense of proportion. Gianfranco Zola made every football stadium he played in seem a happy place to be.
Last week, however, he left St. Andrew’s for the last time with the echoes of “Zola must go” ringing in his ears. His team had gone down at home to Burton Albion, a modest club engaged in a fight against relegation. His resignation – “I sacked myself,” he said – followed an increasingly unhappy four months in which he had taken them from seventh in the Championship to 20th, a perilous three points above the relegation zone.
His appointment in December followed the sacking of the popular Gary Rowett, a change clearly motivated by the desire of the club’s new-ish owner, Paul Suen Cho Hung, to see a bit more glamour in the dugout. Rowett was a journeyman defender who had made a decent start to his managerial career with Burton. After joining Birmingham in October 2015, he took them from 21st to 10th place by the end of that first season. A few months later, having improved their position further, he was gone.
Zola, by contrast, came in with a record of consistent failure since beginning his career as a club manager in 2008. First came his appointment at West Ham, where a four-year contract awarded after a decent first season was terminated 12 months later with the team lying 17th in the Premier League and listing badly. Then there was Watford, where he reached a play-off final but was sacked after five consecutive defeats at the start of the following season. A sentimental return to Cagliari lasted only two and a half months and 10 matches before the axe fell. At the end of a season with Al-Arabi in Qatar he was invited to leave after finishing eighth in a 14-team league.
The fond esteem in which Zola is held by the football public will be unaffected by those tracksuit misadventures, but the story of his last decade provides yet another illustration of the difficulty experienced by so many of the most talented and creative players who believe that they can translate their gifts to the manager’s role.
Think of Zico’s personal odyssey from Kashima Antlers in 1999 to FC Goa in 2016, involving largely undistinguished stays with eight clubs and two national teams (Japan and Iraq), of Bobby Charlton’s relegation with Preston North End in 1974, of Ruud Gullit’s poor record, after a promising start with Chelsea, at Newcastle, Feyenoord, LA Galaxy and even Terek Grozny, of Diego Maradona’s sojourns with Mandiyú de Corrientes, Racing Club and Al-Wasl (10 wins from 55 matches in all), of Michel Platini’s group-phase elimination with France at the 1992 European Championship.
Zola’s departure coincides with the arrival of Quiet Genius, Ian Herbert’s absorbing new biography of Bob Paisley, thrice winner of the European Cup and six times a league champion with Liverpool. To call him “British football’s greatest manager”, as the book’s subtitle does, is pushing it a bit – unlike Chapman, Ferguson or Clough, each of whom succeeded at more than one club, Paisley had a strong foundation to build on when he took over from Bill Shankly in 1974 – but among the memorable passages is this description of the impression he made as a wing-half when making 253 league appearances for Liverpool between 1939 and 1954. “There was no ostentation in the way he played football. It was unspectacular, uncomplicated, uncompromising, utilitarian, consistent, mindful and hard: very hard. There were no tricks or fuss. Actions spoke louder than words.”
Shankly, too, had been a wing-half, as were Bill Nicholson and Joe Mercer. Alf Ramsey was a full-back. Malcolm Allison was a center-half. If we look at the Premier League’s current top 10 we see that five of the managers were once midfielders of the defensive, holding or busy ball-winning type (Antonio Conte, Pep Guardiola, José Mourinho, Claude Puel and Walter Mazzarri), three were defenders (Mauricio Pochettino, Ronald Koeman and Tony Pulis), one was a striker who became a defender (Jürgen Klopp) and one was a midfielder turned defender (Arsène Wenger). Not until we reach 11th place, and Stoke’s Mark Hughes, do we find a former forward – but one who, like Alex Ferguson and Brian Clough, was a bustling goalscorer rather than a creative influence.
History provides exceptions, although not many. Matt Busby was one – a wing-half but with a playmaker’s eye – as were Terry Venables and, all too briefly, Glenn Hoddle. Zinedine Zidane might yet be another, judging by last week’s battle between his Real Madrid and Carlo Ancelotti’s Bayern Munich, one of the most enthralling Champions League matches of recent memory, despite the refereeing errors.
The reason seems straightforward enough. What the geniuses saw when they were on the pitch, their vision of the game as players, was based on a set of instincts and intuitions that are impossible to teach – often leading, as in Hoddle’s case, to frustration with the less gifted. And so, in a way, Zola’s unhappy experiences as a manager make him not a lesser figure, but an even greater one, because they confirm that what he had as a footballer cannot be transferred.
The Guardian Sport