With financial liabilities of £100m, and a loss last year of 37m, you could forgive Gianfranco Zola for being a bit glum about the prospects of success at West Ham this season. Having to sell some of your best players just to keep the club afloat would dampen the enthusiasm of any manager whose job it is to realise the lofty expectations of supporters at Upton Park. Zola is the ideal man to have in such a situation however. He is an eternal optimist. Even the smallest chink of light will be capitalised upon to reinvigorate his team who lay in the bottom three before the victory against Aston Villa on Wednesday night. Zola stated:
The team is playing better and this may well be the turning point. We demonstrated desire and belief and that’s what we wanted. Everything else is there. It was a fantastic game to win…. We got the reward we wanted in the end. I believed and so did the players.
This belief in his players has always shone through in Zola’s style of management. It again became apparent against Villa in the 2-1 win a couple of nights ago when after early blows of losing Carlton Cole and Herita Ilunga and conceding early in the second half, the young West Ham team still came back fighting back with a late winner from young talented striker Zavon Hines. Zola is just making the best out of a bad situation; the club has had to sell a range of high profile players in the last two years such as Craig Bellamy, Bobby Zamora, Anton Ferdinand, George McCartney and Matthew Etherington just to keep the club from going into administration.
Since the collapse of Chairman Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson’s Landsbanki, West Ham has been owned by a number of Icelandic banks who backed Gudmundsson’s takeover of the club with loans. Straumur, which effectively owns over 50% of West Ham, is in bankruptcy proceedings back in Iceland and any small loss by West Ham this year could send the club into administration. This has already nearly happened once in January 2008 when the club broke their debt covenants, meaning that the loans that the club had taken out could have demanded immediate repayment. Only the goodwill of these banks prevented West Ham from becoming the first Premier League club from going into receivership, but the warming signs are there. Reducing the wage bill has been the priority, cutting it from 80% of revenue was essential for the survival of the club and removing injury prone, high earners was a necessity. The selling of big name players may still not be enough though and they cannot afford another £37m loss like last year.
None of this is of course Zola’s fault, all the damage had been done before he had come to the club. Both Gudmundsson and Curbishley had spent money unwisely, Gudmundsson spending money he didn’t have and Curbishley on players that weren’t fit for purpose such as Freddie Ljungberg, Kieron Dyer and Craig Bellamy. Finishing 10th in the Premier League after spending £30m and increasing the wage bill by £20m cannot therefore be seen as an achievement. Zola’s side finishing 9th last year, while haemorrhaging money and players, was a nigh on miracle. Selling £11m worth of players, cutting the wage bill significantly and relying on youngsters, Zola’s managerial abilities should not be in question. He has had to work under the most difficult of circumstances.
The bad start to this season is hardly a surprise, Dean Ashton still out, the captain Lucas Neill abandoning ship for Everton but Zola is still confident of surviving this year. After the “turning point” against Aston Villa, I would not put it past him, but the consequences for him not are too horrifying to contemplate for West Ham fans. The financial crisis has had one fantastic consequence however, the rise of the Hammers youngsters. Zavon Hines, Jack Collison, James Tomkins, Junior Stanislas and Mark Noble all excelling in the absence of big name talent under the stewardship of a confidence builder such as Zola. Combined with savvy free transfers such as Herita Ilunga, Alessandro Diamanti and Guillermo Franco, Zola might just achieve beyond expectations once again this season.